An article on grief counselling that I wrote recently for the Pilgrims Hospices website…
Despite being very keen to encourage my late husband to take up Pilgrims’ offer of counselling, and being, in theory, very open to the idea of going to it myself, in reality I was a bit slow to take it up; I remember saying “Oh I’m fine… I’m managing… I don’t think I need it.”
I’d wager that a heck of a lot of people, caregivers and patients, have resisted having counselling, or at least procrastinated about it, using reasons like that. The implication is that counselling is only for the ‘non-copers’, those who are ‘struggling’ or ‘not managing’. If you’re doing a half-decent job of keeping your chin up, cracking on and ‘coping just fine thank you’, then what good can talking to a counsellor do? “I’m FINE!” we cry.
But on my first visit to see the Pilgrims counsellor, I realised I wasn’t ‘just fine’. Though I was coping very well indeed, not all was well. How could it be? My husband was dying and I was stretching myself in a million directions to deal with the changes to our lives. So there I sat crying my eyes out (something I never did at home – not because I was repressing tears, just that they never came when I was there), thinking “wow, where did this come from?!” And the same pattern occurred every time a session was due – I’d think “I’m fine, I shouldn’t waste her time really”, then I’d go and to my surprise, out would come fears and anxieties that I’d pushed away and tried to ignore. I would walk away a little exhausted perhaps, but always with a strong sense of having understood myself a little better, and having removed some of the ‘baggage’ (ie unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts and feelings) that I was carrying around with me.
So how does counselling at Pilgrims work? There’s no fixed timetable, it can work around you, although she did make suggestions about what might be a good time frame and frequency for sessions. The sessions last about 50 minutes and take place in a comfy room with no windows so no one can see you if you start having to reach for the tissues!
I had sessions in the months leading up to my husband’s death, then a few more about a month afterwards, and then a few more about six months afterwards. I may yet have more. My mind boggles at what a wonderful service this is!
But how does talking to a counsellor differ from talking to friends or family? I’m lucky to have fabulous friends and family who I rely on when I need to talk. However, a counsellor offered a number of things that they couldn’t…
- You don’t need to protect a counsellor – They can’t be hurt or upset by what you say, so there’s no need to hold back
- They will let you speak – Friends or family often want to cheer you up and may be busy telling you why you shouldn’t feel depressed, or guilty, or angry, rather than letting you talk about how you feel. A counsellor on the other hand, will encourage you talk through these thoughts and feelings.
- They are skilful listeners – They don’t just passively listen while you do all the work, they listen hard to what you’re saying. They listen ‘between the lines’ and ask the right questions. Together you can get to the heart of thoughts and feelings that may be hard to admit, explain, understand or come to terms with.
- They are experienced in counselling patients with terminal illness and their carers/family – Because they have talked to so many people in your situation, they can understand what you are going through so much better than many family or friends can. They are also in a position to share other people’s experiences with you (confidentially of course), thereby giving you precious reassurance that you are not alone or abnormal
- It’s focussed – Unlike the ebb and flow of normal conversations that go off on tangents or where the subject often changes, the conversation is focussed and so can really get to the root of troubles rather than just skipping around on the surface
- It’s confidential – You don’t need to worry that what you say will be repeated to other family members, or discussed in the pub by your mates
- There are no distractions – No phones, no children, no eavesdroppers, no mess to be tidied…
To sum up, if you are a patient or a family member, and are hesitating about using the counselling service at Pilgrims, let me urge you to give it a try. Going to counselling doesn’t mean you’re weak, or mentally unstable – it means you’re sensible enough to make use of a very useful service that’s offered to you at a time when you are under incredible pressure. Use it! I did, and it has helped me no end.