Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Holy Longing is Yours: Caveat emptor

(massman: noun,  an average, typical, or ordinary man :  a prototype of the mass society especially when regarded as lacking individuality or social responsibility, as drawing his stereotyped ideas from the mass media, and as easily manipulated by economic, social, or cultural elites)

Every week, I have the privilege to hold a discussion about grief with colleague Dr. Geoff Warburton.

We have both have experienced grief from the inside during the course of our lives and have now devoted ourselves to the practice of grief counseling.

We share a sentiment about grief in Western culture. That is, in general, grief is widely misunderstood, castigated, affronted, and bypassed in practice, theory, the media, and even in some spirituality.  Most recently, we discussed the spiritual bypass, and a more thorough triadic diatribe about this topic is forthcoming. I digress (as usual)...

Fast forward to today.

Another dear friend, a medical doctor and researcher in Canada working in refugee health (note: plenty of grief and trauma in this population), recently attended a conference in the U.S.  One of the days in this conference was devoted to "bereavement care".

She was so upset by what she'd heard that she abruptly exited two workshops that were intended to help grieving parents.

She sent me some of the materials to review and I shared her deep concerns. Actually, I was mystified and astonished.

Two clinicians who presented as "experts" posited "therapies" which were not only (less than) pseudo-science but more than that: They are potentially harmful to the bereaved.  Their suggested "interventions" may even further disenfranchise, stigmatize, and pathologize normal, albeit painful, traumatic grief.   Their strategies promoted the "unfeeling" and "unseeing"and even medicating of grief... precisely the opposite of what research in traumatic grief suggests as most efficacious, and it was some of the most 'unmindful' and experientially avoidant propaganda I have ever seen.

Experiential avoidance (that is the chronic turning away from or distracting of painful emotions/memories unconsciously), in fact, in the SCIENTIFIC literature is closely linked with substance abuse, physical illness, and other maladaptive behaviors and affect.

Look, I get it.

Clinicians are not often researchers so they may or may not be able to discern the rigor of a study's outcomes. Many of them don't even have time to read the research and may not understand methodology.

So, herein lies the dilemma: Bad therapy happens. And bad therapy isn't just bad therapy- it's not like a bad haircut. These are people's lives. And not just any people. The most vulnerable population on earth.  Very, very dangerous, indeed.

So here is a rare offering of advice - maybe an invitation - for bereaved persons: caveat emptor.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

Be careful with whom you share your grief.

And be wary of advice wielding, arrogant "clinicians" who think they know it all.

The clinicians who know best are the ones who admit they know nothing. The best therapists are the ones who admit their impotence in the face of such trauma and suffering. They are the ones who say, "There aren't words... I have no cure... And I will join you in the abyss..." The best therapists are those who understand humility and deference.

They are some duplicitous charlatans who are out to exploit. But there are also many well-intended who can harm you and me and us all. They often don't read or understand the research, they believe what others in positions of authority tell them without question, they may not be prone to dialectical thinking, and they often pretend to know the unknowable. Even if unwittingly, they end up preying on those who are desperate for any help, presenting themselves as the experts.

They are on the internet, on Facebook, at conferences, in clinical interactions, in schools, churches, post offices, and grocery stores.  Be mindful of your input: Don't believe everything you hear from others, even self-purported experts. Don't believe everything you read in books or out there on the web. The internet, particularly, is filled with writings that are wonderful and useful. Other writings, when not plagiarizations of those who are wise about grief (please cite your sources people), can be incredulously harmful and misinforming.

Western culture, by its nature, promotes the use of nearly any strategy to bypass grief. Drugs, sex, alcohol, shopping, food, gambling, exercise, work, hedonism, any distraction you can name. Even therapy.  But the sages knew what we seem to have forgotten in contemporary society: No 'intervention' and no interventionist can 'cure' your grief.  There is no panacea. You are not broken, you are broken hearted. And as Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said 'there is no more whole heart than a broken heart.'

You are not in need of repair. No alphabet soup intervention (ABC therapy, XYZ medication) and, certainly, no drug can assuage your grief.  The only way is through, and the only way through is with loving, nonjudgmental support, good self care and self compassion, and some other things demonstrated in the literature to be helpful in coping with, not eradicating, grief. And frankly, the source of many concerns about the prolongation of grief resides within our own social groups- others pressuring mourners to 'get over it,' 'move on', 'feel better.' Others who do not remember with us. Others who ostracize us and treat us as lepers. This kind of social reaction is not helpful, and actually is quite isolating and harmful for grievers. So let's focus on an intervention for a sick and intolerant culture that coerces us into believing we are entitled to happiness and comfort and immortality at all times and at all costs.

So if you need some extra support because you are feeling lonely, withdrawn, and confused, that help can come from those who are innate helpers from within your circle of friends/family/faith community and/or from those trained to help you to integrate your grief (like one of these individuals here), not push it away, decry, avoid, repress, or otherwise deflect it.  Surround yourself with others who have a "PhD" or "MD" or advance degree in common-sense and loving kindness.

Hell, I've seen animals give better 'therapy' than plenty of 'therapists.'

Again my unsolicited advice: Do not believe everything a so-called professional tells you. If it offends your soul, follow Whitman's advice and "dismiss" it.  Rather, trust the wisdom of your own grief. Get help if and when you need it from others who will embrace and uphold you and who understand what SCIENCE says about trauma, grief, and love. Yes, love.

Little in this conference's literature I read as it related to grief was based in science. And, nothing in any of the literature I read from this "conference" felt like love. And this saddens me beyond words.

Because in the end, grief is not a medical issue. Grief is not an issue to be solved or cured. Grief is an issue of the heart.

Heed Goethe's harbinger: Beware the massman, the troubled guest on the dark earth.


Sources, Part II

by Adrienne Rich

I refuse to become a seeker for cures. 
Everything that has ever 
helped me has come through what already 
lay stored in me. Old things, diffuse, unnamed, lie strong 
across my heart. 
This is from where 
my strength comes, even when I miss my strength, 
even when it turns on me 
like a violent master.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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