A Buddhist Approach to Grief Counseling

Grief theorists, in keeping with Western culture’s emphasis on autonomy and individuation as signposts of psychological health, have long held that disengaging from the deceased is necessary for the successful resolution of grief (Marwit & Klass, 1995).   For example, according to the psychoanalytic view of Freud (1917), grief work entails decathecting, or detaching libidinal energy from the deceased.  Furthermore, the attachment theory of Bowlby (1969) posits that the bereaved individual attempts to maintain a bond to the deceased until he or she realizes the impossibility of doing so, and eventually “lets go” of his or her relationship to the deceased.

The predominant beliefs in the importance of disengaging and letting go in resolving grief have been gradually giving way to the concept that continued attachment to the deceased loved one is a healthy and necessary task of the grief process (Silverman & Klass, 1996).  The work of Worden (1981, 1992, 2002) can be seen as a bridge between the majority view of theorists beginning with Freud and the more contemporary view of the importance of continuing bonds. Worden originally described one of the major tasks of mourning as “withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in another relationship” (1981, p. 13), in keeping with the goal of decathexis described by Freud.  Significantly, in subsequent editions of his work (1992, 2002), Worden acknowledged that the bereaved do not in actuality decathect from the deceased.  Accordingly, Worden now describes this task as “emotionally relocating the deceased and moving on with life” and suggests that finding a place for the deceased in the life of the bereaved “will enable the mourner to be connected with the deceased but in a way that will not preclude him or her from going on with life” (2002, p. 35).

My approach to grief counseling is strength-based and solution focused.  Narrative therapy, a relatively new model of cognitive therapy (Carr, 1998), is in accord with this focus.  Narrative therapy has been found to be useful for helping clients access continued attachment and spiritual beliefs about death as a means of making meaning and finding the strength to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.

Grief as a Holistic and Spiritual Process

Worden (2002) has identified four tasks of grief: (1) to accept the reality of the loss; (2) to work through the pain of grief; (3) to adjust to an environment without the deceased; and (4) to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.   Worden’s formulation recognizes that grief impacts the bereaved in the physical, behavioral, cognitive, emotional and spiritual domains (Worden, 2002; Attig 1996).  Similarly, Marrone (1995) has identified the following phases in the grief process:  (1) cognitive restructuring, in which the bereaved reorganizes and restructures his or her thoughts and concepts to assimilate a loss; (2) emotional expression of the experience of the loss; (3) psychological reintegration of new coping behaviors and cognitive strategies for adjusting to life without the deceased; and (4) psychospiritual transformation, “which involves a profound, growth-oriented spiritual/existential transformation that fundamentally changes our central assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about life, death, love, compassion or God” (p. 498).

The fourth phase or task identified by both Worden (2002) and Marrone (1995) as described above provides the ground for working to transform and maintain the bereaved’s relationship with the deceased loved one.  As observed by Silverman and Klass (1996), “we need to consider bereavement as a cognitive as well as emotional process that takes place in a social context of which the deceased is a part….People are changed by the experience; they do not get over it, and part of the change is a transformed but continuing relationship with the deceased” (p. 19).  Cognitive interventions are useful for accessing and working with this transformative process, and as discussed below, narrative therapy provides a powerful cognitive container for the transformative work of grief.

Spiritual belief in continued attachment as a source of strength.

Whereas Freud and his followers may have seen continued attachment to the deceased as a form of pathological grief, the experience of continued bonds to the deceased is now viewed as a strength, resource and form of resiliency in the normal grief process (Benore & Park, 2004; Angell, Dennis & Dumain,1998).    Coping with loss has been called “a spiritual process that includes locating our {loved ones] in time and place, and transporting our recreated ‘experiences’ to the here-and-now” (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1998, p. 618).  Benore and Park (2004) have found that religious and spiritual beliefs in an afterlife and continued attachment to the deceased enable one to adapt more easily to the death of a loved one:

“The bereaved who strongly believe in [continued attachment] do not need to reconcile a loss of the person, but rather a change in the relationship.  Beliefs that the deceased person and the resulting relationship continue may eliminate the        most distressing aspects of death, whereas those who do not believe in [continued  attachment] must deal with the difficult issues of permanent loss, the void in their life and relationship network, and the sense of isolation (p. 12).

Grief and Spiritual Transformation

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition, life and death, as well as creating an ongoing relationship with the deceased (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000). “Because religious beliefs are central to many people’s global meaning systems, and because death is a central arena for the enactment of religious beliefs, these beliefs are likely to be a central part of the process of coping and adjustment following bereavement for many people” including beliefs in continued attachment to the deceased (Benore & Park, 2004, p.4).

The strength-based approach I use with my grieving clients, through the use of techniques of narrative and solution-focused therapy, is informed by my Buddhist practice.  In particular, I come to each session with my clients with the ground that each human being possesses inherent wisdom, or Buddha Nature, and that this wisdom can be called upon to access the individual’s strengths and resilience in times of suffering.  As Levine (1982) notes, grief fully experienced allows us to “plumb the depths” of our souls and to “touch something essential in [our] being….[W]hat is often called tragedy holds the seeds of grace” (pp. 85-86). Those “seeds of grace” are the basic goodness or Buddha Nature possessed by all, and it is my job as collaborator or partner in the journey of grief to support my clients in getting in touch with the strengths that they possess but which may be obscured by the intensity of their feelings of helplessness and loss.  Through narrative therapy, including the use of literary and other creative forms of expression, clients are able to create some space around that intensity, which in turn gives them some perspective and hope for change and transformation.

The broader perspective that can be reached through narrative therapy techniques can put the client in touch with both the uniqueness and universality of grief and suffering.  Paradoxically, contemplating the universal truth of suffering can open us to acceptance and peace.  As His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1998) observes, “if we can transform our attitude towards suffering, adopt an attitude that allows us greater tolerance of it, then this can do much to help counteract feelings of mental unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and discontent” (p. 140).  The Dalai Lama (1998) suggests that the most effective practice to help one tolerate suffering is to contemplate and understand that “suffering is the underlying nature” of existence as human beings:  “If your basic outlook accepts that suffering is a natural part of your existence, this will undoubtedly make you more tolerant towards the adversities of life” (pp. 141-142). Through allowing ourselves to experience and express our suffering, we can see that there is a way out of that suffering, through working with it as a fact of life, and finding a meaningful way to grow, transforming hopelessness into hope and possibility.  Narrative and solution-focused therapy can foster the realization that grief is not necessarily pathological, but an integral component of the human condition.  Through experiencing our own unique grief, we can tap into its universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and the human condition.  This is the transpersonal and transformative work of healing grief.

References

Angell, G.B., Dennis, B.G. & Dumain, L.E. (1998). Spirituality, resilience and narrative:  Coping with parental death.  Families in Society:  The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 615-629.

Attig, T.  (1996).  How we grieve: Relearning the world. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Benore, E.R. and Park, C. L. (2004).  Death specific religious beliefs and bereavement:  Belief in an afterlife and continued attachment.  The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 14(1), 1-22.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Attachment (vol. 1). New York:  Basic Books.

Calhoun, L.G. & Tedeschi, R.G. (2000). Posttraumatic growth: The positive lessons of loss. In Neimeyer, R.A. (Ed.), Meaning reconstruction and the experience of loss (pp. 157-172). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Carr, A. (1998). Michael White’s narrative therapy.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 20(4), 485-503.

Dalai Lama, H.H. & Cutler, H. (1998). The art of happiness:  A handbook for living.

New York:  Riverhead Books.

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and melancholia. Standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud (vol. 14). London:  Hogarth Press.

Golsworthy, R. & Coyle, A. (1999). Spiritual beliefs and the search for meaning among older adults following partner loss.  Mortality, 4(1), 21-39.]

Klass, D. (1993). The inner representation of the dead child and the worldviews of bereaved parents. Omega, 26(4), 255-272.

Levine, S.  (1982). Who dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying. Garden City, NY:  Anchor Press.

Marrone, R. (1999). Dying, mourning, and spirituality: A psychological perspective. Death Studies, 23, 495-519.

Marwit, S. & Klass, D. (1995).  Grief and the role of the inner representation of the deceased. Omega, 30(4), 283-296.

Silverman, P.R. & Klass, D. (1996).  What’s the problem? In Klass, D., Silverman, P.R. & Nickman, S.L. (Eds.), Continuing bonds:  New understandings of grief (pp. 3-27). Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Worden, J.W. (2002, 1992, 1981). Grief counseling and grief therapy:  A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York:  Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Pet Loss: Grief, Meditation and Healing

I recently lost my beloved cat Lily. After experiencing Lily’s death, I had a fleeting urge to go unconscious – sleep, eat, drink wine, whatever.  As a grief counselor, I of course knew that wasn’t the way to go, and the urge passed.  Instead, I took a walk, using the opportunity to ground myself.  Breathing in, I felt my feet touch the earth, breathing out, I felt peace and spaciousness mixed with my grief.  Then I recalled the story of the Buddha and the grieving mother, who learned that everyone is touched by death and grief.  I looked up into the blue sky and saw a flock of birds flying in formation.  I was opened into a sense of wonder and heartfelt compassion.   Again, I touched my grief and allowed myself to cry deeply, feeling my heart breaking.  I was reminded by Stephen Levine’s phrase: “Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

Experiencing my emotions on the level of felt bodily sense energy is vital for me, and my mindfulness meditation practice is a great way for me to work with my emotions.  I have always been very intellectual and analytical about my feelings, and have learned through my meditation practice that theoretical or analytical understanding is really the booby prize in therapy and in life.

Later in the day after Lily’s death, I sat down to meditate.  Immediately as I sat down, all the pain came back.  Instead of pushing it away or analyzing it, I allowed myself to feel it – a throbbing burning pain in my chest, pounding in my heart and head, hands tingling.  I touched the painful sensations on each inhale, and let them go on each exhale.

After practicing this way for a while, the pain was transformed into the nakedly alive feeling of sadness and compassion for myself and all others who are grieving.  I welcomed my emotions without self-judgment as my friend, knowing that they are an expression of my life force.  What was left was an open hearted and tender love for my Lily.