How Does a Grief Counselor Grieve?

Imperfectly. Very imperfectly. I find myself thinking, “I should be better at this. After all, I’ve been through it many times. I’ve read many books on the subject. I’ve taken classes. I’ve even taught classes on grief counseling. I’m an expert.” It’s as though I expect all the head knowledge I’ve accumulated to grow hands and arms: to give me a hug that makes it all better, to be able to gently stroke all the pain and ache in my heart away completely and let the light shine through. It’s not happening.

I do not like the way this year started. At 5 minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve I found myself sitting alone at the bedside of my brother in his hospice room. The rest of the family had left a few minutes earlier. His wife had just fallen asleep in the pull-out couch in the adjoining area; I had agreed to sit with him for the night so she could get some rest. My brother was out of it – asleep, medicated, preparing for the next world…I don’t know – but he certainly was not conscious. At 12:02, he stirred slightly and I gently said to him, “Happy New Year. It’s 2014; you made it. You can go any time.” He did, three days later when he was ready – with his wife, most of his kids, and 2 of his siblings at his side.

As I said, I’ve been through this a few times. I wrote in my book, If You Want the Rain, Welcome the Rainbow: A Memoir of Grief and Recovery, “I have buried my parents, my husband, my in-laws, young cousins, middle-aged friends and many elderly relatives.” This was the first sibling I’ve had to bury. He was the last I thought would leave this world, having been the only one of the five of us to not live many years with a major addiction – either alcohol or food. (OK, maybe the last few years of his life he was in the food camp, but he certainly had the mildest addiction in the clan.)

He was also the sibling I to which I was the closest. For the last ten years plus, I had spent time with he and his family at least once a year; many years there were several visits. In between there were phone calls that could last for an hour or more, often his latest rant on the political front, but it still connected us deeply. We shared those views. This season he had even been calling me during Michigan State football games, something he knows means far more to me than is probably healthy. Any healing that had to happen between us did a few years ago when he off-handedly said, “I would never let my kids treat each other the way we treated you.” It was the closest I was going to get to an apology – and all I needed. Any hurt that had existed between us instantly melted away.

So here I am grieving the loss of my brother, Dennis, in the midst of a brutal, cold Berkshires winter. I got to speak a little of what he meant to me at his service. I am getting to express a little more here – but I am nowhere near the point where the loss is not painful, where it feels the healing is complete. I am being reminded of how absolutely critical it is to be gentle with myself and to practice massive self-care. In the week I’ve been home, I have done a few groundings, gotten a massage, an adjustment, and some exercise. I have been reminded that it is OK – necessary even – to put the walls up when my heart is too tender, whether it’s directly related to sadness over my brother’s death or some other shit life is dealing me at a time when I’m just not ready for it. I have also reminded myself to be around people that “get it” – that don’t make it about them, that don’t try to fix it, that don’t brush it away with the statement, “He’s in a better place.” I believe that – but it’s not helpful.

This morning I came across the tips I had included in my book for getting through grief. Go figure, I had totally forgotten that any part of my book was a “how to.” It had not been my original intention but seemed to be important as I neared the end of my writing. Now that I am personally benefiting from it, I’m glad I wrote it. I think I’m glad I wrote this as well. It’s all part of the process.