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Self-Healing Expressions
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Posted by admin on January 14, 2013

A Conversation with Marty Tousley, Grief Counselor

Interview by Anila S. Venkat

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is not an easy task, and one that people often spend little time thinking about and preparing for. At the same time, everyone will experience the loss of a loved one at some point in their lives.

In order to explore the process of dealing with loss, Elder Branch connected with Marty Tousley, an expert on the topics of grief and bereavement.

Q What is the range of emotions that you see most commonly expressed during the grieving process?

A Emotions can run the gamut, and might include shock, confusion, difficulty concentrating, disbelief and denial, disorientation, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, and sorrow, just to name a few. But grief is much more than just an emotional response. Grief can affect us on every dimension of our being: emotional, physical, social, economical, and spiritual. It's hard to say what I see most commonly expressed, as it all depends on so many different factors (age, gender, personality, past experience with loss, available support, on what was lost and how, and on how attached the person is to whomever (or whatever) was lost. [I'm thinking now of the people in the northeast who've lost so much in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy]. Grief is the normal reaction to significant loss, and it is not limited to loss from a death.

Q How do men and women grieve differently? Does this ever serve as a point of conflict, because they do not necessarily relate to how the other grieves?

A While there may be differences in the sexes regarding grief response, current thinking in the field of thanatology (death, dying and bereavement) is that whatever differences we see in grief patterns have more to do with personality than with gender. Some folks are more emotional in how they experience and express their grief (focused more on feelings and emotions) while others are more rational, logical and physical (focused more on thinking and doing). Still others might be conflicted, in that they may have very strong reactions but they feel a compelling need to keep their grief under wraps. Most of us are a blend of all these patterns, but we do tend to be more one way than another. Problems arise when we expect another person (partner, spouse, relative, friend, child, etc.) to react the same way we would react under similar circumstances. We need to recognize when our own personality, cultural and gender biases might be influencing how we are "reading" someone else's grief and mourning.

Q Do you recommend that everyone seeks out help when it comes to grieving, or are some people able to deal with it effectively on their own? In what circumstances do you recommend people seek help?

A Studies show that most people (about 80% of us) are quite resilient in the face of loss, and quite capable of finding our way through grief without professional help. This is not to say that grief support or counseling is not helpful – on the contrary, the support of a skilled grief counselor or a mutual support group made up of people who've suffered similar losses can be quite powerful in promoting healing and personal growth. Humans are social "animals" and we're not meant to grieve alone. The more support, comfort and understanding we have around us when we're struggling, the better the outcome. And even if we're mourning in a normal, healthy way, it's wise to use all the resources available to help recover our balance and put our life back together again.

As for the other 20%, some form of professional intervention is indicated when a person:
  • Feels uncomfortable in one's own skin, unable to function normally
  • Is unable to get relief or feels out of control
  • Wonders if his/her reactions are normal or if they've gone on too long
  • Has thoughts or feelings s/he feels guilty about or feels reluctant to share with anyone else.
A person should seek professional help immediately if s/he
  • Feels no grief reaction at all after a major loss
  • Has a history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse
  • Has few sources of support
  • Sees life as hopeless and feels suicidal.
The First Year of Grief

Q Given your experience as a hospice bereavement counselor, when is the right time for people to seek out counseling in instances where they are aware that a loved one is terminally ill?

A The wonderful thing about hospice is that as soon as the patient is admitted to our service, the entire family has access to the support of any and all of the hospice team members – and that includes social workers, chaplains and grief counselors. As for the "right time to seek counseling," it all depends on the person and the circumstances. I don't think there is a "wrong" time – and the "right" time is whenever the person feels a need or feels ready, willing and able to seek it.

Nowadays, in addition to counseling, there is a wealth of information, comfort and support available on the Internet, covering whatever we need to know from the very moment we learn a diagnosis. As just one example, right now I'm reading a wonderful new book by Bonnie Draeger entitled When Cancer Strikes a Friend: What to Say, What to Do, and How to Help. In years past, we just didn't have such helpful information at our fingertips. I'm a believer in the adage that knowledge is power, so I would encourage people to investigate, to read and to learn, and I'd do my best to help them find appropriate resources that are valid and reliable.

Q How do you help people cope and grieve in cases where he/she feels someone is to blame for the loss (e.g. one child supports the parent's wish to remain at home and independent against the wishes of his/her sibling, and the parent's death was in some way related to the fact that he/she was not able to take care of himself/herself properly)?

A I think in a case like that, it's important for the person to find someone to talk to – someone who is trustworthy and a very good listener – so those feelings can be explored, expressed and worked through, and so the person can come to terms with whatever happened and find some resolution and peace. This is a good example of where a few sessions with a grief counselor can be of tremendous help.

Q Does the grieving process have an end? When is one "done grieving"?

A Ah, that is the question, isn't it? It's like asking how high is up. Grief has no time frame and no time limit. I would never tell a mourner that grief never ends, because it can be quite devastating to hear that. What I do say is that grief changes, that the pain of grief will diminish over time, and that eventually we do learn to live with our losses. It's like this: When a leg is amputated, would we ever stop missing that limb? No, but we do learn to live with the absence of it, and with proper care and support we do learn how to walk again – even though that limb is forever gone and we know we'll never get it back.

Q What do people tend to find the most surprising aspect of grieving to be?

A We find that grief is very, very hard work – more difficult than we'd ever imagined – and depending on the magnitude of the loss, it may be the hardest thing we'll ever have to do.

About Marty Tousley

Marty Tousley is a nationally certified grief counselor. She has authored numerous grief ebooks and online grief courses including, The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey available exclusively at