23 Aug

Grief and Suicide Loss

If your desire is to support a fellow human in grief, you must create a “safe place” for people to embrace their feelings of profound loss… It is the open heart that allows you to be truly present to another human being’s intimate pain.

-Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers

Because of my work with Survivors of Suicide here in Kalamazoo, I was recently asked to contribute to a report on teen suicide. I was surprised and grateful for the opportunity – we tend to hear a lot about suicide awareness and prevention in the media, but the aspect of grief and loss following a suicide death is often overlooked. How can we – as friends, family, and community members – offer support to people who are grieving this type of loss?

The support that most survivors need is not really so different from what any grieving person needs – in short: non-judgmental listening and respect for their individual experience of grief. What sets suicide death apart is the stigma that we often attach to it.

Boulder Grief by Jared Hansen

Boulder Grief by Jared Hansen

My work as a grief counselor is necessary because we live in a grief avoidant society. We will all encounter death in our lives – our friends will die, our family members will die, and we, ourselves, will die. Notice how that statement sits with you. If you’re like most people, you want to get as far away from it as possible. Likewise, when one of our loved ones is suffering in grief, we want them to get as far away from it as possible. We don’t want them to hurt, and so we say things like, “he’s in a better place now”, “time heals all wounds”, “it’s time to move on”. Or worse, we avoid the topic altogether, working to distract our loved one from their pain.

With suicide loss, this avoidance is amplified. While we are slowly making progress in awareness and understanding of mental health issues, unfortunately, our society still places a stigma on mental illness and suicide. Our collective shame around this topic keeps us from talking about it – when talking about it is often what is most helpful.

The kindest gift we can give survivors is to listen without judgment. Don’t give advice. Don’t interject with your own history of loss. Don’t distract with platitudes. Listen. Let the mourner teach you about what grief is like for her. Allow her to cry, get angry, express feelings of guilt – don’t take those away from her. Bear witness. Hold space.

In order to heal and integrate loss, we must turn toward our grief.

Feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, shame, and relief are all normal reactions to losing a loved one to suicide. We hurt because we love – and sometimes we hurt for a long time. Again, trust the mourner’s innate ways of moving through grief. We each have our own timelines. Experiencing grief is part of our life’s journey. Tears and rage are part of that process of reconciling the loss of someone we hold dear.

Beyond listening and holding non-judgmental space for the mourner’s experience, we can also support healthy coping behaviors and encourage remembrance of the person who has died. Bereavement affects us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Helping to provide healthy meals and encouraging extra rest are ways that we can nourish those who are hurting. Remembering the deceased is also important, especially at this time. Say their name. Express your own sorrow for the loss. “I really miss John, too. I remember the camping trips we used to take when we were kids,” or, “Mary was such a good storyteller. Do you remember when she had us laughing so hard about…?” Sharing memories and talking about the person who has died are the ways that we establish our relationships with them in death – no longer a physical relationship, but one of memory.

If you, yourself, are grieving a loss, turn toward the people in your life who can support your mourning process – and allow yourself some space from those who can’t. While people are generally well-meaning, encouraging you to move on or minimizing your feelings of grief are ways that they are coping, not ways of helping you. Find friends or family who can hold space, or seek out a counselor or support group where your process is honored.


If you are a Survivor of Suicide and are seeking support, there are resources available. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a wealth of information online. In the Kalamazoo area, Gryphon Place hosts both open drop-in and closed session support groups. You may also consider contacting a grief counselor for individual support.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741. In Kalamazoo, Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien and Cass counties, you can also call 269-381-HELP (381-4357) to reach a local volunteer.

01 Aug

Mourning: The Expression of Grief

This post is part of a series on grief and loss, following my work as a grief counselor at Hospice of the Valley.

The words grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two. Grief refers to the internal experience of loss – the thoughts and feelings that one has after someone has died, for example. Mourning, on the other hand, is external – it is the expression of those thoughts and feelings. Grief happens only on the inside, in your head or in your heart. Mourning is the way that we process and “let it out”.

Sadness, by Natalia Rivera

Sadness, by Natalia Rivera

Why does this distinction matter? The words themselves are not as important as recognizing these two aspects of human nature in the wake of a loss: both internal and external processes must be acknowledged and experienced in order to move forward. Most people will experience grief following loss, but many will struggle with mourning. Mourners need to feel safe and supported in their outward expressions of grief; family, social, and cultural expectations have a significant impact on this sense of safety.

Does this mean we need to push someone into mourning if we sense that they are hurting?

It’s not uncommon for me to work with clients who express concern for someone in their family who doesn’t seem to be expressing their feelings. “I keep telling my dad he should come in for counseling, but he just doesn’t want to.” “I’m worried about my son. I ask him how he’s feeling, but he pushes me away.” “I wish my husband would open up to me; I know he’s hurting.” Sometimes I sense that my clients are looking to me for backup on actions that they’re already taking at home (“See? Even my counselor says you should talk more!”). What these well-meaning concerns fail to recognize is that the process of grief and mourning is individual to the mourner – your working through doesn’t necessarily look the same as someone else’s.

You may have noticed that all of the quotes above are directed at men, and that’s pretty consistent with the way these concerns show up in my office. Even so, this isn’t so much a gender divide as it is a difference of grief and mourning patterns. In their study of gender differences as they relate to grief and mourning, psychologists Martin & Doka identified three patterns of grief: intuitive, instrumental, and dissonant. While their research began by comparing men’s and women’s responses to loss, what they found is that these different styles reach across a broader continuum.

In brief, the intuitive pattern is one in which grief is experienced primarily as feelings, and expressions of mourning are emotion-based: crying, shouting, etc. People with an intuitive pattern of grief are best supported with activities that help to vent these emotions. On the other hand, the instrumental pattern is one in which grief shows up in more active and thought-based ways. People with an instrumental pattern of grief are best supported by activities that connect with thoughts and actions: reading self-help books, working with one’s hands, or exercising, for example. Finally, the dissonant pattern shows up when mourners identify with one style, but are pushed (by family expectations or social constraints) to express in the opposite style.

These patterns lie on a continuum: an individual mourner may identify fully with the intuitive pattern or the instrumental pattern – or they may lie somewhere in between. This continuum may align with gender roles, as well – or it may not. In Western culture, women tend toward the intuitive end of the spectrum, whereas men tend toward the instrumental end – but again, this varies according to the individual.

In terms of supporting people who are experiencing grief, then, one of the most important things we can do is to allow for their individual responses to the loss. The healing that comes from mourning shows up in many forms: talking, crying, shouting, dancing, reading, writing, running, building, singing, laughing, painting, drumming, hugging, … the list goes on and on. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the work of mourning, and in our fix-it American culture, that can be frustrating. Allowing space for – and even inviting – talking and crying over one’s loss is great. We must remember, though, to also allow space to decline that invitation, and adapt to the individual mourner’s needs.

22 Jul

What Should I Say?

This post is part of a series on grief and loss, following my work as a grief counselor at Hospice of the Valley.

Sympathy Card by EverydaySummit

Sympathy Card by EverydaySummit

I had in mind an order to the topics I wanted to cover in this series – a sort of logical layout of a curriculum, if you will. There was a structure to it, something that made sense. But grief doesn’t always make sense. It’s messy.

The sudden and tragic death of a coworker’s family member earlier this week brought into focus the piece that probably needs talking about most. When someone we know and care about is grieving, how can we help?

When someone they love has died, what should I say?

One of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is to allow people to express their feelings of grief – to invite it, even. We live in a grief avoidant society. Funerals are quick to be arranged, and mourners are often back at work after a three-day bereavement leave. We ask, “how are you?”, but there is an expectation for the “right” response. So often, I’ve heard from mourners who have resigned themselves to saying, “I’m fine,” knowing that’s what people want to hear. They’re not fine. But after a few days, they sense that’s all that’s allowed with most of their friends and acquaintances.

Many of us are uncomfortable with painful emotions. Naturally, we want our loved ones to feel good, so we do what we can to cheer them up. But feeling pain is part of what is supposed to happen when someone we love has died. Expressing that pain is necessary for the healing work of mourning. When we admire a mourner for her “strength” or encourage her to “keep your chin up”, we send the message that sadness and despair are not okay. We take away the means for healing.

The paradox of entering into the pain lies in the truth that as you affirm someone’s feelings of suffering, you are also affirming his eventual capacity to move beyond those feelings.

-Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers

So how can we help when people are grieving? Ask them how they are doing – and listen to their response. Don’t try to minimize or take away their pain. Don’t “help” them look on the bright side. Listen to their sadness. Let them cry. Allow them to talk about their loved one. Tell them you’re sorry for their loss. Say the name of the person who died. Tell them how special you thought that person was. Send them a card, letting them know you’re thinking of them.

Do this right after the death. And do this again in the weeks and months that follow. Know that there may be lots of support right away – and that, after a month or so, a lot of that support falls away. Grief is not something that we “get over” – it is a lived process of change, and its effects last far longer than many people expect. Clients often tell me when they feel they’ve reached their “time limit” with friends and family. After a certain number of weeks or months, they notice that the calls and questions and offers of help have gone away, and they wonder, is there something wrong with me? Should I be over this? Know that months and years after the death, the person who has died still lives on in their loved one’s memory. Again, ask them how they are doing – and listen to their response.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some common, well intentioned statements that usually do more harm than good. Try to avoid saying:

  • I know just how you feel.*
  • She’s in a better place now.
  • It was God’s will.
  • You should… or, You shouldn’t…
  • It’s time to move on.
  • You have to get on with your life.

However well meaning these statements are, assumptions and advice are not what mourners need to feel supported. Remember, you can’t take away their pain, and they don’t expect you to. Your loving presence and open acceptance of where they are in their grief right now is the best gift you can give.

*When I talk with clients about what they wish people would stop saying, this is almost always the number one response. We have been conditioned to use phrases that express empathy, but the fact is – you don’t know how they feel. Grief is, in large part, an individual experience, unique to the mourner and their relationship with the person who has died. You may have had experiences of loss that help you to connect with their pain – use those experiences to remember those feelings, and then open your heart to what the mourner needs in this moment.



20 Jul

On Grief and Loss

In the end, as we as human beings mourn, we must discover meaning to go on living our tomorrows without the physical presence of someone we have loved. Death and grief are spiritual journeys of the heart and soul.

– Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers

My work at Hospice of the Valley is coming to an end. For almost a year now, I have sat with clients who are moving through some of the most painful times of their lives. I have listened to stories of love, laughter, pain, illness, joy, trauma, hope… life. Throughout our time together, I have done my best to provide comfort for my clients, and to hold hope for the times that are yet to come in their lives. This has been a powerful experience for me, and I am so grateful for my clients’ willingness to share their journeys with me.

My position as an MFT Trainee ends with my graduation, so I am making space for new trainees to begin their work – and saying goodbye to clients. This is part of my own transition, and I have been a bit surprised by the depth of emotions that accompany this change. I am excited about the work that lies before me, the move that is in my near future, the end of my schooling at the university. And at the same time, I am sad to leave these people with whom I have developed deep relationships. I know that many of my clients are ready to move forward, and I am happy to launch them “out of the nest”. And for those clients who are still in deep grief, I know I am leaving them in capable, supportive hands. Still, it is tough to let go. A couple of weeks ago, a client said to me – with a lightness that let me know he would be just fine – “I think I may need a counselor, to support me through losing my counselor”. It broke my heart in the best way.

My clients’ individual stories belong to them – they are not mine to share. Here at the end of my time in this position, though, I do feel a need to catalog and share some of what I have learned about grief and loss. From the beginning, my supervisor has instilled in me the belief that our work as grief counselors is not only in helping the individuals that sit in our therapy rooms, but also in educating the community, moving our culture toward more acceptance of the experience of grief. We are a grief avoidant society, despite the fact that every one of us will experience loss in our lifetimes – and that avoidance keeps us woefully unprepared for the work of grief.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be using this space to share lessons I’ve learned about the journey of grief. My hope is that these words will provide comfort to those experiencing loss, as well as resources for the caregivers (friends, family, coworkers, community members) surrounding them.

Topics in this series (I am adding to this list as articles are posted):