From time to time I’ll get questions from GOWs, WOWs, and widowers asking if their widower or their kids would be able to get through their grief and accept change better if they saw a grief counselor or other professional that could help move on them start the new chapter in their life.
This is a tough question for me to honestly answer because of my own biases and experiences with this subject. So let me give you a little background on where I’m coming from before I answer the question.
I’m not a big proponent of grief counseling. I think the Kubler-Ross model (a.k.a Five Stages of Grief) is flawed science because loss is too personal and complex to fit into tidy little buckets. Grief counseling tends to prolong, not shorten one’s grief and most people would be better off without it. I also think the cultural trend of rushing crisis counselors to schools or workplaces after a tragedy does more harm than good and that more productive route is to talk and cry with friends and family—if one feels inclined to do that. I believe most people are resilient enough to get through tragic life events either by themselves or the help with friends and family. They don’t need a professional to guide them through it. (There’s a great article from “The New Yorker” on this subject that I encourage everyone to read. It’s long but it does a good job of putting whole grief/crisis counseling and how people grieve into perspective.)
(Update: There's a good interview with Ruth Davis Konigsberg, the author of The Truth About Grief which highlights the flaws in the science of the Kubler-Ross. You can read an interview here or watch a YouTube video of her discussing her book here.)
That being said, I don’t think that all grief counseling is worthless. I think with the right counselor there are those who could benefit from their services. Those who would benefit the most are generally the ones that have a hard time moving on months and years after the loss have occurred. These people are the exception to the way most people grieve—not the rule.
So if you feel that you or someone you love might be helped, the first thing to keep in mind is that not all professionals are created equal. Let me explain:
Until we moved last year, Marathon Girl and me lived next door and were good friends with a licensed marriage and family therapist who had a PhD ran his own practice. One day we were discussing a news story about a psychologist who had just got arrested for allegedly sexually abusing his patients. I jokingly asked how people like that were allowed to even get licenses to practice. My friend (who may have taken some professional offense at my comment) said that just like plumbers, doctors, CEOs, contractors, and any other professionals, you’re going to come across ones that are worth their weight in gold and others that are worthless. Everyone, even grief counselors, have their own follies and weaknesses. Some are able to help their patients while others hold them back with worthless advice. You need to do your homework to ensure that you’re getting one that’s actually going to help instead of hinder the person.
Recently on the Dating a Widower board one woman mentioned that the professional her widower was seeing was encouraging the widower and his kids to celebrate the date of death even though she had been dead for over five years and he and his children hadn’t done anything to commemorate her death in the past. I personally don’t think that’s helpful. All that advice is going to make people sad, focus on their loss and hinder them from starting a new chapter in their life. If I was the widower in that situation, I’d stop seeing her immediately.
On the other side, my mom saw someone after my late wife killed herself. (I can’t remember if he was a grief counselor or other professional.) I know that she found the sessions helpful and based on her feedback he helped her answer many of the questions she had about my late wife’s mental state at the time she put a gun to her head. The sessions lasted a month or two and then they ended. I’d say my mom found someone that helped her move forward. However, if she had seen someone else, it could have ended up hurting instead of helping her.
A second thing to keep in mind is that men grieve differently than women. Most of them don’t want to talk about what their feelings with others. Most of them throw themselves into work or other projects and work through their grief that way. (My therapy was regular morning running and blogging.) If they want to talk, it’s usually with other men they trust like close friends, brothers, or fathers. And when they do talk about it, they don’t talk about it for hours. It’s usually a short, to the point conversation which generally occurs when they engage in guy activities like watch sports, drinking beer, or hunting. Sometimes just hanging out with other guys and doing guy things is therapy enough. The point is that don’t think there’s something wrong with them if they don’t want to grieve like men in the movies or how you and your friends would do it.
Finally, a lot of the success depends on the person who getting help. Some people relish the attention they get from their loss. Others prefer being sad all the time. Some people simply don’t want to get better. There’s not a lot you can do for those who don’t want to help themselves. In those cases you’re better off getting out of their lives before they suck you down their big, dark, depressing existence.
So my suggestion is think long and hard before you get help or suggest it for someone else. If you decide counseling might be beneficial, don’t just pick the first person that comes up in a Google search or someone who accepts whatever insurance plan you’re on. Do your homework on the person you want to see and make sure they’re going to be a good fit. Finally, if you’re looking to get help for someone else, make sure that person is actually open to help.
So will grief counseling or other professional help your widower move on? Well, it depends. Everyone’s circumstances are different so it’s hard to say who might benefit from it and who might be worse off after it. My suggestion is to think long and hard about it before making that decision. Not everyone needs it and most people will be just fine without it.