Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Companioning through Grief...

Although it is a bright and vibrant fall morning here in Vancouver, my thoughts are focused on grief. A dear friend's mother died of mouth cancer two nights ago, I have been asked to speak to a group of family caregivers who have lost a loved one to ALS and I am rereading the transcript of a seminal keynote address given by Dr Alan D Wolfelt to the Association of Death Education and Counselling conference in Chicago in 1997 entitled, Companioning vs Treating: Beyond the Medical Model of Bereavement Caregiving.

These three occurrences have combined to return my thoughts to the early days of my own bereavement following the death of my husband and, 3 months later and quite unexpectedly, that of my mother.

During those days I was completely depleted, shell-shocked and bereft. Friends and family surrounded me with love and support but, as is often the case in our North American culture, that support gradually dwindled as time went on. Some, who didn't understand the the notion that grief takes as long as it takes, became impatient and frustrated with their inability to "fix" me. Others, who had walked the path of grief before me, waited patiently for the the cloud of sorrow to lift and stood again and again with hearts and arms wide open as, after periods of "improvement", that cloud of grief descended once more in the face of anniversaries, holidays or family celebrations.

Five things helped me through those months and years of sorrow:

1. The incidental comment of an acquaintance whose husband had died years before mine - "It will take 5 years before you know who you are without him". With this comment she gave me permission to take as long as I needed to grieve. The number of years wasn't important. It was the implicit expectation that my grief would take as long as it took. (For some, a long goodbye has already been said and soon after the death there is a sense of relief and an early readiness to engage with life again. For others, the road is longer.)

2. Moorings, the beautiful writings of Rabbi Vicki Hollander. Vicki had been my grief counsellor for a brief period during my husband's illness and, when she moved away to Arkansas and then to Texas, she left me with these poetic and practical reflections on what I might expect at different times during the first year and a half of my bereavement.

3. The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw by British actress, Sheila Hancock. This autobiography / biography has been, rather surprisingly, a great source of comfort over the years. Interspersed between stories of her life with actor, John Thaw, (Morse, Kavanaugh QC, Mister Tom) are italicized selections from her journal telling the story of his cancer diagnosis, death and her early bereavement. Reading these segments was the most empathic experience of my bereavement and I will be forever grateful for the intuitive love and generosity of my husband's cousins who left a copy on the bookshelf in my sitting room during a visit to England in the Spring following Derrick's death.

4. The support of my spiritual director / grief counsellor whom I saw on a weekly then bi-weekly basis.

5. The support of family and friends who stayed in for the long haul, waiting until the sun shone again in my life.

What was the experience that linked these five supports? The experience of companioning. As Alan Wolfelt said in his keynote, companioning is different from "treating" or "fixing":

More specifically, for me ...

* Companioning is about honouring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.

* Companioning is about curiosity; it is not about expertise.

* Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.

* Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading.

* Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.

* Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling every painful moment with words.

* Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.

* Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about directing those struggles.

* Companioning is about being present to another person's pain; it is not about taking away the pain.

* Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.

* Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.

If you would like to learn more about companioning and other aspects of grief recovery you can read more at Alan Wolfelt's Griefwords.