Many years ago, probably 9 or 10 or 11 years ago, back when I was in the throws of seeing my grief counselor, Caitlin, every single Monday; she said something to me that I never forgot; and that stays with me especially now, all these years later, as I finish out my first two months as a certified grief counselor.
She told me that when she first got into grief counseling as a profession, she thought that she needed to have all the book smarts and the studying of terminology and the knowledge of what to DO and what to say and how exactly to walk people through their life-altering losses. But what she found instead, was that the task of the grief counselor was more about listening – really listening – and holding space for the clients pain and hurt and deep grief. Her job was to listen, let the person going through the loss lead the way, and then follow. She shared with me that when described like that, it sounds so simple – and yet – this is something that is extremely difficult for many people to actually do. Many people are simply not capable of sitting beside someone inside of their pain, witnessing it, listening to it, and not trying to fix it. Just letting them talk and cry and laugh and not talk and slowly figure it all out, and offering some perspective along the way.
So far, I have a handful of people who meet me for grief counseling sessions. Each time I close that door in the office for us to start talking, I open with the same line: “So, on a scale of 1 to ‘this shit really fucking sucks!’, how are you doing today?” From there, I know they feel totally comfortable with me, and totally comfortable to say whatever is in their hearts and on their minds, and that makes ME feel really comfortable and really natural sitting in that room with them as they grieve outwardly and hash out all the complex emotions of loss and death.
I think back to when I was on the other side of that room, talking to Caitlin, and often repeating myself week after week to her, and asking: “Why is this so hard? When is this going to get better? How long is this going to take before I don’t much feel like living every single day?” I was a broken record, and her response to each of those questions was always some version of: “I have no idea. / It’s different for everyone. / It takes as long as it takes.” Sometimes I used to hate when she would say that to me, but now; not only do I say it to others, I know how true it actually is. Everything about grief is so very simple, and yet so complex. There are no concrete answers, yet certain things can help a person to process through their grief in a healthy way. One of those things happens to be realizing and acknowledging that the only thing predictable about grief is that it’s always unpredictable. And also, most of us can’t get through it alone. We are humans, and humans need love, support, and nurturing from other humans.
It’s a rough road to walk, or crawl, or sit perfectly still for however long you need to. Back when I was in Caitlin’s office sitting on her couch and sharing my pain with her each week about the death of Don Shepherd, I felt so honored and lucky to have someone like her who was willing to listen and be there and make me feel heard and safe and not entirely crazy. I had no clue what I was going to do with my life or how in the hell I would get through this horrific mess, but I felt confident that Caitlin actually cared about me and that she had my back. There were many weeks where I felt like giving up, but knowing that I would see her on Monday and be able to share all of it with her – it got me through until the next day.
And today, when each of those precious and fragile and hurting hearts walks into my office and sits on that couch or in that comfy chair, I feel honored to be the one they are choosing to witness their grief, and to help them navigate their way into a life that brings them joy, and honors both them and those they have lost to death. Honestly, I can’t think of a more important or more meaningful way to spend my time.
What an honor.