Beneath the Surface: Grief and Therapy
I recognized before the session began, Piper spent time sitting with me; I could hear her murmur words. I knew she was praying. She routinely does this before her sessions. She asked for guidance and strength. She praised God for giving her the blessing of sitting in this room with the clients. I heard her voice quiver as she said, “Thank you for allowing me to do this.” Then, she ended her prayer and exclaimed as she slapped my arms, “We’ve got this!”
In the quiet confines of her therapy room, Piper sat across from her client, Emma, who was weathered by the weight of grief. She had lost her husband, too young, and left with her children to traverse life alone. Emma was also diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks before her husband’s death. Emma was the embodiment of pain and suffering. Although a new therapist, Piper felt equipped with years of experience guiding people through their emotional turmoil.
But today was different - Emma's sorrow swept through the air, causing ripples that even Piper struggled to resist.
Emma's voice trembled as the session began, carrying the weight of her sorrow and longing. Her words were a torrential downpour of emotions, cascading from her lips and saturating the room. Each syllable seemed to cling to the air, leaving traces of pain lingering between them.
I think Piper is a pillar of strength for her clients. She had grown accustomed to holding the delicate balance of empathy and professionalism. Yet, as Emma poured her heart out, Piper felt as if her entire body shifted; she almost became heavier, her own composure slowly starting to crumble. How do I know this? She rubbed her finger around and around the stitching on my arm. Then, it slowed as if she was working to count every single stitch individually. I felt her breathe deeply as if bidding her client to do the same; it was as if the walls she had constructed to shield herself from the sorrow of others were being gradually dismantled.
Emma's raw vulnerability struck a chord within Piper, awakening ancient memories and engaging fears of what could be in her own life. Images of loss and grief from her own past stirred in the depths of her mind, threatening to overflow. Virginia Woolf once said, "The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river." At that moment, the smooth surface of Piper’s present began to ripple.
Beneath her composed facade, tears welled up in Piper’s eyes, silently mirroring the pain etched on Emma's face. I felt the melodic tremble in her; I knew what she was doing then, too, “Take every thought captive, take every thought captive, take every thought captive, take every thought captive…” She said silently to herself. I hear her do this when we are alone in her office. Piper sometimes marches on her office floor; I worry she will cause the carpet to fray with her shuffling back and forth. I’ve learned, though, that this is how she processes and learns. I’ve heard her tell her clients the same thing, “Find a mantra,” she says, “Focus on the words, use movement; some of us require movement to learn; it’s called kinesthetic learning.” It was a struggle, fighting the urge to reach across the table and wrap my arms around Emma to envelop her in my cozy lap. But Piper and I knew this was Emma's journey to navigate, and we had to remain steadfast in our roles as a guide and chair.
Piper’s gaze softened as she listened attentively, her heart aching in unison with Emma's troubles. She witnessed Emma wrestle with her grief, digging deep into the depths of her sorrows with unwavering resolve. And in that moment, I felt an electricity flow through Piper; she admired her client's strength and willingness to confront the pain head-on.
As the session drew to a close, a profound respect flourished within Piper. She marveled at Emma's resilience and capacity to forge ahead despite the tempest of grief surrounding her. Piper knew that she would carry a part of Emma's sorrow within her, just as her clients had parts of her own journey within them.
As they stood to leave, Emma seemed planted on the floor. Her shoulders drooped, her body exhausted. With a composed voice, Piper said, “Could you use a hug?” with that, she embraced her and then bid farewell to Emma, concealing her own emotions. She was acutely aware of the immense privilege of bearing witness to such raw vulnerability and playing a part in Emma's healing. Though shaken by the emotional storm within the room, Piper knew that her experience had only deepened her commitment to helping others find solace amidst their grief.
As Piper prepared for the following 5 clients of the day, she laughed with them, challenged them, and encouraged them. Then, it was time to leave for the day. She tidied up the office, smoothed her hand across my arms, and whispered, “What a day.” She left her therapy room and stepped out into the world; she carried the echoes of Emma's sorrow and resilience with her. She took the stories of the others with her. The therapist's struggle to maintain composure in the face of such intense vulnerability sparked a silent transformation within Piper. For now, she would cautiously navigate the delicate equilibrium between empathy and self-care, knowing that even therapists need care when carrying such heavy burdens of sorrow.
This was tough to write. As I recall individual client stories, I can't help the tears that fill my eyes.
As therapists, we are often taught that showing emotion is “wrong” during the session. However, as I’ve explored my approach to counseling, I believe that, at times, it can bring a therapist and client even closer when they can see how their story affects me. I will never forget a time with my therapist when I cried to her about a physical injury I was battling while also managing the pain of my inward struggle. At that moment, I said, “How am I supposed to heal emotionally when my body is broken?” Then, my counselor cried with me. It was the most poignant moment I have shared with a counselor in my life. What her tears did for me that day was to let me know that I wasn’t silly for feeling the way I did and that she supported me and felt the depth of my pain.
Why would I not do that with my clients knowing what a gift it was to me? You may have read a few things you didn’t know in the story. First, many of us are taught something called grounding. If you are a client of mine, we discuss this too and how to utilize this tool during difficult times. As therapists, we can find ourselves in such emotionally charged sessions that we, too, need to ground. For me, I will rub my inner wrists where I have two separate tattoos; it allows me to remember the words and focus on the client's story, not the emotion that I feel coursing through me. Other times, rubbing the stitching on Brownie, the chair, or even the hemline of my pants allows me the focus I need. Another tool I shared with you through the story is using mantras and movement. One way to consider this is a rift on thought stopping, a CBT technique that allows individuals to quiet their minds on thoughts that cause pain. Some may envision a stop sign and repeatedly say, “Stop.” I have a mantra, “take every thought captive,” from scripture in 2 Corinthians chapter 10, verse 5. Additionally, through my exploration, I have learned what kind of learner I am. I need movement to finalize a thought or to process it fully. Often, my husband will find me lifting barbells early in the morning with tears streaming down my face. That is because I’ve processed and found relief through thought and movement. If you would like to learn more about your approach to learning, I suggest Dr. Caroline Leaf’s book Think, Learn, Succeed.
Finally, grief. Grief is a complex psychological response to loss, encompassing a range of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as individuals navigate the painful process of adapting to their new reality without what or who they have lost. All of us will face grief. Some of us face tremendous grief. One of my focuses in my therapy practice is on the processing of something called Complicated Grief therapy. This is a process where individuals may come to me due to a prolonged grief reaction that causes considerable pain and uproots their ability for daily living. During this process, we use something called exposure. The use of exposure is to allow the brain to remember the grief/loss while not re-traumatizing the individual repeatedly. The process is difficult, but I have had the immense honor and privilege of witnessing people overcome their grief to live healthy lives. They don’t forget their loss; they learn to grow with it.
The names and details have been changed to protect the identity of any individual seeking counseling with Piper Harris.