Coping: Grief counselors can help navigate painWritten by Staff Reports | | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Danielle Stanton
TOLEDO FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
Grief affects people from all walks of life. Emotionally, it can be like the Magnum XL-200 roller coaster at Cedar Point. Tack on physical, behavioral and spiritual symptoms and you have a recipe for pain, area counselors say. To understand grief and work through their pain, many people hire professional counselors, who can sympathize and support them on their road to recovery.
Mark Anderson has been working with the grieving and the dying for 30 years in Toledo. As a counselor for Hospice of Northwest Ohio, he helps people navigate grief by educating them, listening to them and offering his own advice.
“If you lose somebody, it’s tied up into pretty much everything,” Anderson said. “Grief is just a reaction people have to any kind of loss. There’s nothing more difficult and traumatic than a loss.”
Anderson said he’s received many calls from people in the community who have suffered a loss by a traumatic event, including those involving children. He does counsel children and said they tend to have feelings of abandonment and confusion when someone close to them dies. They regress and act out in school, he said.
Sometimes people don’t always know healthy ways to deal with death and grief. For example, Anderson said, after one mother died, her young children were told she simply had “went to sleep,” making the kids afraid to fall asleep.
“That’s not a good way to describe death,” Anderson said. “With kids, it is lots of love and support, support, support.”
Experts say people experiencing grief can pass through a range of emotions, putting them on what many term an emotional roller coaster. A well-known study by researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer on near-death and dying, said people in grief progress through five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The roller coaster can also include shock and disbelief, fear, anxiety and sadness, counselors said.
People don’t experience these emotions in any particular order, said Jeff Alvanos, a clinical social worker with Harbor, a nonprofit mental health center in Toledo. In fact, the normal path is to “skip around” and cycle through them, he said.
Alvanos has a master’s degree in social work and has been practicing for 37 years, 27 of those at Harbor. He said he sees clients who report feeling disorganized and tired with trouble concentrating. Other common symptoms include sleeping poorly and feeling emotionally thin-skinned. Many report vivid dreams and changes in appetite. They feel emotionally vulnerable and ruminate about the loss, Alvanos said.
Besides its more commonly known emotional components, grief has physical symptoms as well, such as fatigue, insomnia, sickness and weight loss or gain. Some people want to withdraw and isolate themselves, Alvanos said.
The best medicine is to listen to a grieving person’s feelings and offer support, he said.
“Some people aren’t consciously aware how grief is affecting them, especially feelings of guilt,” he said.
Grief doesn’t just happen when someone dies. It can happen when there is a loss of just about anything we hold dear, such as a job, a relationship, a home or a pet.
Private therapist Cheryl Kinnersley said she actually doesn’t see many people who are grieving the death of a loved one, but sees many people who are grieving the death of a marriage, a relationship or a dream.
Often, the person is in one stage in life, while believing they should be further along. Many are struggling with suddenly having to become the decision-makers when dealing with their aging parents. In those cases, Kinnersley helps them understand their new role as caretaker, including what to expect and how to approach their parents in new ways.
She also works with seniors who are dealing with the death of a spouse, many of whom have sold their home and moved to a new location and are overwhelmed by the many changes.
“It’s a huge amount of grief, but they don’t necessarily recognize it,” Kinnersley said. “People think someone has to have died. Not the case. It’s the realization that, ‘I’m not able to do things I used to do, I can’t make decisions.’”
Kinnersley said the most important element of helping someone in grief is to listen to his or her story and help them find meaning in their loss. If it’s the loss of a loved one, she said she looks at pictures, attends funerals and views memorial videos to get a sense of the person so she can better relate to the survivor’s pain.
“I’ve had an individual bring a poster board,” she said. “I want to understand their story to better help them with empathy and compassion. Sometimes the very best thing you can do is listen. Words sometimes are very hollow.”
The biggest challenge in grief counseling is finding out how best to relate to the client because everyone is different and everyone deals with grief differently, Kinnersley said.
For Anderson, the biggest challenge is helping clients cut through denial. It takes time for the individual to come to a level of understanding and acceptance, he said.
“There’s a lot of denial that goes along with [grief],” Anderson said. “Denial is funny. … It isn’t denial that someone is gone. The denial is more of something that happens in stages: ‘I can’t believe they’re gone,’ and over a period of time it breaks down until you realize this person is not part of your life anymore and they aren’t coming back.”
Grief also has a spiritual component, which can include asking the “big questions.”
“You get all these existential questions,” Anderson said. “People who have lost a spouse, a parent or a child start to ask, ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What am I doing here on planet Earth?’ They can become quite angry at God or fear their own mortality.”
Experts agree grief is a time to take good care of yourself. They recommend people stay connected to family and friends, go out to dinner or to a movie or join a support network to talk about what they are going through. Art, music and massage therapy are also good options.
“When we’re in grief, we feel so abandoned and vulnerable,” Alvanos said. “It’s a great time to surround yourself with understanding loved ones.”
It’s also important to eat a proper diet, exercise and stay involved in life, he said.
“Talk to people, share what’s going on,” Anderson said. “Don’t abuse alcohol. There’s no way to avoid grief. It’s going to pop out one way or the other.”