I was recently reviewing the work of one of my students and she brought my attention to a body of  literature on research into bereavement counselling. The general drift of the findings suggested that bereavement counselling is ineffective and can even be counter-productive. There is also some less thorough material  suggestive that consulting a medium might be more helpful. This set me thinking.

1. If it is correct, it suggests that there is something wrong with the way that grief counselling is done and this might have implications that extend to other forms of counselling and psychotherapy as well.

2. It is, of course, possible to question the research itself. What, for instance, counts as "effective" in this field. I can imagine that if a bereaved person were to come to me and it became apparent that they were still weeping every day over a loss from five years ago, I might consider it a success if, after a few sessions they were weeping less or not at all. On the other hand, if the client were a person whose mother had died five years ago and the client had never shed a tear nor felt anything about the matter, I might consider it a success if, after a few sessions, they broke down weeping. This being so, assessing effectiveness by supposedly objective criteria might be tricky.

3. Nonetheless, the research may be telling us something important and I would like to comment. My  speculations are based upon my understanding from Buddhist psychology. Western trained counsellors tend to see their task as being to focus upon the client's feelings, but a person who is grieving is already overwhelmed with feelings, so does not want them further amplified, and, in any case, these feelings are not pathological, so there is no therapy to be done upon them. They will take their natural course.

4. In Buddhist psychology a fundamental principle is that phenomena depend upon conditions and a most important instance of this is that the mind is conditioned by its object. This means, inter alia, that feelings and other mind states arise in dependence upon what is holding the attention. In the case of a person who is grieving, one of the main things holding their attention is the lost loved one. That significant other is the object of mind that governs their current process. Now, when we think of what a  counsellor is likely to do, when the client talks about the lost one, the counsellor it likely to be primarily attentive to the client's feelings, whereas when we think of what a medium might do, we see that the medium is likely to be primarily focussed upon the dead person. In this respect there is a better fit or parallelism between the inclination of the medium and that of the client. This might go some way toward explaining why clients sometimes find mediums more satisfying to visit then counsellors.

5. There has been some shift in thinking over the years from the idea that the task of grieving is to say goodbye and achieve separation toward the idea that the task is to come to terms with the loss yet celebrate a continuing connection with the deceased. Both approaches can find some support in Buddhism. Buddhism places much emphasis upon impermanence and the acceptance of change, yet it also has an honourable place for ancestor remembrance and the inclusion of the deceased in the affairs of the living. Probably, a counsellor who is going to accompany a person through the travail of grief needs some respect for both dimensions and should not be too strongly wedded to a single theoretical model.

6. The theory of grief counselling in principle sees the therapeutic element as being the correction of grief that has become in some way aberrant from the norm. Here, for instance, the comments that I made earlier about weeping or not weeping become relevant. There is a time to weep and a time to cease from weeping. This means having at least a broad sense of what the normal course of grief is. However, we live in an age where there has grown an increasing tendency to see any manifestation of strong emotion as pathological such that many people experiencing perfectly normal grief are advised to accept medication as though they were sick. This is not only misguided and counter-productive, often leading to a delaying of the emergence of necessary catharsis, but is also an encouragement toward inauthenticity and, as such, a seeding of actual psychopathology for the future.

These then are a few comments. No doubt there are many other things one could say or find out. There are many things that we do not fully understand. I have not here commented upon the actual work of mediums or the question of whether real communication with the deceased is possible. I have not extensively examined what distinguishes a good grief counsellor from a bad one. We would do well to know more about the motivations that bring counsellors and mediums to the work that they do as well as about what really can be considered a "good" outcome. Our ignorance is extensive. Nonetheless, the comments above may stimulate some useful lines of thought.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks Dharmavidya. It made me think of my own grief around various losses, past and more recent and helped me shift some denial. I can feel grief around the loss of personal possessions or just missing out on something that might have given me some pleasure. I lost a ten pound note yesterday and felt devastated! I know that my grieving process is more healthy without chemicals but my sister recently lost her husband and, having the family tendency to addiction, turned to the bottle. She was hospitalized with liver failure and subsequently medicated, which I have to admit seems a better arrangement for everyone. In her case there doesn't seem to be any capacity or desire for understanding of her condition and she seems stuck in this destructive cycle! It makes me feel very helpless but also grateful that I was able to appreciate the gravity of my own predicament and take the necessary action. Namo Amida Bu( ,

Yes, I'm very glad you did too. Namo Amida Bu.


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