Creating meaning through grief and loss: How to find yourself and become someone else

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is a field where you truly never stop learning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a Masters Series workshop at my alma mater, Texas Wesleyan University. Dr. John Winslade is a prominent narrative therapist in the field, and he presented about ways in which we can assist clients who are experiencing grief. Spending a Saturday exploring loss may not sound thrilling to the average person, but as a therapist it is crucial that you become comfortable working with it because it will come up time and time again in practice.

As I was going through this training, I started to think about the ways in which loss has assisted me in becoming the professional that I am today. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be at the point that I’m at without experiencing some of the difficult feelings that accompanied losing close relationships in the past. I wouldn’t be me. I have become who I am because of the meaning I have been able to uncover and hold onto. I’ll speak more on this in a bit.

So, Dr. Winslade started off the presentation by discussing stoicism. It might seem a bit odd to associate a school of philosophy with counseling theory, but many of the principles align quite well with narrative practices. The stoic focus on creating a life and living wisely, well, and ethically. It is the philosophy of becoming rather than being. Under these assumptions people are actually freer than they think they are. In the narrative perspective this can be seen as empowering clients to re-author their dominant stories in ways that allow them to regain a sense of control over their own trajectory through life.

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In particular, we honed in on the stoic conceptualization of time. They hold the idea that there are actually two types of time, chronos and aion, that govern our experiences of the world. We need both and have the ability to switch back and forth between them.

Chronos is the favored approach in our culture, as it is comprised of the past, present, and future. They are very discrete, separate categories, and in relation to loss this view tends to emphasize staying in the “here and now”. We are urged to accept loss as quickly as possible because the dead are gone now and now is what is important. Take a few days off work, grieve the way the steps tell you to, and then keep moving forward. It sounds a bit harsh, but much of grief psychology is grounded in the idea that we need to stay present-centered. This is not totally wrong, but may only be part of the framework necessary to allow people to grieve effectively.

Aion, on the other hand, is more about a sense of how things endure through time. The past, present, and future are seen as fluid, meaning that they flow into each other. The past continues into the present, and the future too influences and creates the current moment. They are not seen as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as infinitely subdivisible based on perspective and awareness. So, in this type of time death does not have to mean the end of a relationship. We can hold people from the past in our present and future by incorporating them into who we are becoming. Death ends a life, but not a relationship. This is a counter to the current perspective, which encourages people to “let them go”. From this lens, they’re still there because we can remember them and they live on through us.

I don’t know about you, but I found this idea to be incredibly comforting. It frees us from some of the constraints imposed upon us by societal standards and allows for a richer experience of connection and life. Again, being very much about balance I think there is a use for both types of time, but it seems that a lot of the current views our culture has about death are heavily based in chronos. Keeping aion in mind during conversations gives the therapist an opportunity to help clients explore loss in a more holistic way. If you are a clinician and really interested in this topic, check out the narrative practice of re-membering and also read Michael White’s article entitled, “Saying Hullo Again” for more information about clinical application.

With this background in mind, one significant loss in my own life came to mind that I want to share to help illustrate the depth that can emerge from using this approach.

I have always been a dog lover. I worked in the veterinary field for 14 years before becoming a therapist. I have truly seen the good, the bad, and the unthinkable. While going through grad school, I worked as a vet tech and as I was getting closer and closer to moving on to another career I remember feeling quite sad that I would be leaving all of my knowledge and skill behind.

At the same time, my old Rottweiler, Suzie, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her front left leg. Because I worked at the clinic I was able to diagnose it early, keep her as comfortable as possible with medication and acupuncture, and monitor the progression of the tumor over time. When she was first diagnosed she was given about 6 months to live, but stubborn old Suz ended up sticking around for 1.5 years.

She was my first dog that was just mine. I got her when I was 19 and she was just 10 weeks old. She stuck by my side through failed relationships, moving across the country and back, and my journey to becoming a counselor. I’ve never had a dog who was so in tune with what I was experiencing on the inside, even if I wasn’t showing it on the outside. It was like she could see right through me. If I was sad, she would literally come lay on top of me. If I was happy, she would greet me with her big toothy smile and be full of life.

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I loved the level of trust between us. I could let her off leash anywhere, turn my back, and never have to worry about what she was doing. If we were hiking, she would run up ahead but never too far. She would stop, turn around, and wait for me to catch up. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight. I really believe that she took care of me just as much as I took care of her.

Watching her slow down after her diagnosis was tough. Every day I would assess her comfort level and try to make the most of the time she had left. Then came the study abroad trip to London. I committed to this trip with the thought that I would likely have lost her long before we were set to depart. She had other plans though. I struggled with leaving her for two weeks and feared that she might take a turn for the worse while I was gone. Luckily, I had my parents to care for her and my veterinary colleagues were on board to help out if necessary. So, I gave her a million hugs and kisses and set out for the airport. I knew that this trip was going to be a once in a lifetime experience, but I never could have imagined just how much it was going to influence who I would become.

I could go on and on about this trip (which I may do in a future post), but for now I will just say that London was where I discovered my love for narrative therapy. We spent a week immersed in learning theory and practices from two of the finest clinicians across the pond, Mark Hayward and Amanda Redstone. Mark broke the concepts down into a way that profoundly shaped my view of the therapeutic process. His presentations appealed to the theory nerd in me, and I really appreciated his authenticity.

Amanda, well she struck a chord that I had been trying to protect, and at one point I left the room in tears. This sounds awful, but it was actually quite healing. Her presentation about using narrative therapy to address grief and loss was my first exposure to the unique way the narrative perspective uses re-membering to keep relationships alive even after someone has passed. We did an experiential exercise where we worked through these conversations about lost loved ones to uncover what they gave us and what we gave them during life, as well as ways in which they still impact our present/future. The most powerful questions to me were, “What do you think they would say about where you are in your life today?” and “How do they influence who you are in this moment?”.

So, in the evenings after each one of these training days, there were a lot of thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head. I was fortunate enough to have some really awesome colleagues to debrief with while we went sightseeing and experienced the city. One night I was talking about how much I missed Suz and how I felt sad to eventually leave my job working with animals, when my friend said, “Why would you have to totally leave working with animals? You should look into animal assisted therapy.” That got my attention. I always assumed animal assisted therapy was akin to bringing dogs to nursing homes/hospitals or having a comfort dog. Not that I was opposed to those things, but it had never occurred to me that I could actually use a dog in a therapy session with a client. I was ecstatic.

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The Suz made it through my absence just fine and greeted me with her wagging nub when I returned home. As I researched more and more on animal assisted therapy, I began to think about what an amazing therapy dog she could have been. She certainly helped me through my fair share of struggles. She gave me confidence, taught me patience, and showed me unconditional love. When the day came a few months later to say goodbye, I held her in my arms, kissed her head, and vowed that I would keep her memory alive through my work. And so, the idea to incorporate animal assisted therapy into my future practice was born.

It took me two years to feel ready to get another rottie. I wanted to be at a place in my career where I could devote the time to preparing and training my dog to be a reliable work companion. In May of this year, I brought Gretta home. She is almost 8 months old now and full of energy. Even as a small puppy I could tell that she had the right disposition to help people. She loves people and is always curious rather than fearful of new situations. She reminds me of Suz more and more every day, and I like to think that Suz had a paw in bringing her into my life. If it weren’t for her I would have never gone down this path and I will be eternally grateful.

More news to come on Gretta. She can’t take her certification test until she’s at least 1 year old, so for now we’re working on her training outside of the office. In the future, the hope is that she will become a fixture in my practice and an ambassador for her breed. I think Suzie would be proud. Until then you can follow her on Instagram if you’d like: gretta_makesyoufeel_betta.

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It is through loss that I have learned about living life. My best hope is to help clients find their own meaning through some of life’s most difficult moments. With the use of these ideas, as well as a trusty canine companion I am optimistic about what is to come. Memories endure over time, and time doesn’t have to end unless we allow it to.

 

 

 

Walking with the dinosaurs

Two things you should know about me: I love to hike and nothing excites me more than a good metaphor. These things will be important later…

Flashback to when I’m fresh out of grad school, and I’ve landed a job as a real deal, bonafide therapist. No more spinning plates working a part-time job, attending night classes, and seeing clients at two different off-site locations. I suddenly find I have time to read and do research about issues my clients face. I can get more creative in planning activities for sessions and groups. I am even shockingly able to do that enigmatic thing called self-care that I kept hearing about in textbooks course after course, but ironically never had time for during my training.

So what do I do? I go to Dinosaur Valley State Park on my day off to unplug and hang out with this guy:

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Which way is the trail? I have waded across the river and according to the map it should be right here, but it’s nowhere to be found. I keep going, trudging through taller and taller brush along the riverbank. There are sticker burrs the size of my head stuck all over my shoelaces, and my arms are getting scratched up by all the sharp branches.

I probably make it a good half mile or so before I come upon some rocks that I am not about to scramble over. I’m hot, sweaty, and frustrated. Ok, take a breath and think. I look at the map again, follow the bends in the river, and decide that I need to swallow my pride and turn around.

As I make my way back, I can see now how rough the terrain I just crossed really was. On the way in I was so bound and determined, driven by excitement, that I hardly noticed the struggle. Now I’m cursing myself for not realizing sooner that I was clearly not headed in the right direction.

I get back to the spot in the river where I originally crossed, look about 100 yards to my left, and there through some trees is the trailhead. Onward I go. Ahhh this path is much better. This path makes sense. I’m actually gaining elevation with every step, but I feel content. Then it hits me. My mind, which as a narrative therapist has been trained to look for metaphors, starts replaying what I have just been through while I continue to hike.

I am on the other end of the struggle. In life, I have not always felt so sure about myself and what I wanted to do. Many times I went down paths that in retrospect would not have brought me to where I am today. Paths that were at times dark, lonely, and full of thorns. At other times bright and fun, but chaotic and confusing. I realize that just as I stubbornly followed the wrong path down the riverbank on this hike, I have always been smart enough to know when to turn around, even in my own life.

I keep hiking up, up, up. There are amazing live oak trees at every turn and wildflowers dotting the trail. The sky is blue and the only sounds are a few birds having a lively conversation with each other.

The reward of this hike is a fantastic view of the river and valley below. There is a welcome breeze and plenty of Texas sunshine to soak up as you admire the beauty. I look down to that treacherous spot where I started my journey. It is in this moment that I know I am right where I am supposed to be, struggles and all.

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And so it begins…

As a therapist, you truly never stop learning. I don’t mean in a traditional, textbook type of sense (although you keep doing that too). You learn just by noticing. By allowing yourself to fully connect with your senses, your environment, and other people. It’s a total perspective shift that I’m not sure even the best graduate school could bottle up and sell. You just have to live it.

Choosing to go on this journey was by far the hardest and best thing I have ever done. Along the way I have had the privilege of training with some of therapy’s finest practitioners. I found my theory of choice halfway across the world (oh narrative, how I love you), and gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about myself in the process.

That being said, my intention for this blog is to share my story with the hopes that 1) if you’re a client, you can get to know me better, 2) if you’re a fellow therapist, we can connect in some way, and 3) if you’re considering going into this field, you can get an honest idea of what it’s like.

I may be a fish out of water when it comes to blogging (see picture…get it?), but I’ll give it my best shot.