Grief and the Strengths Perspective

As I draw nearer to retirement from state service, the memories about the colleagues whose association I have valued and the patients who have crossed my path during the past 27 years have increased in frequency. I have also begun to reflect on the damage that well-meaning human service professionals can do to clients who are in the early stages of trauma simply through the interventions that they use.

Since my daughter Jeannine’s death on 3/1/03 at the age of 18, I have become more sensitive to the interventions used with grieving clients that may unintentionally undermine as oppose to validate their pain. Before I became a parent who experienced the death of a child, I know that I conducted many of these same interventions. I recall in particular, using a stages of grief handout to try to help patients identify where they were or should be in their grief journey.

Needless to say, the circular nature of my own grief journey after Jeannine’s death invalidated stage theory as a way to explain my experience or help others conceptualize their own. So I don’t use it anymore to work with grieving clients. My approaches now are more intuitive and dictated by the needs of the client.

One of the discoveries that I have made in working with chemically dependent clients, especially in the last 9+ years of my career, is that they have experienced numerous losses that are both death and non-death related. From my perception, it would be damaging in the early stages of the client/counselor relationship to suggest to a grieving client (chemically dependent or not) that their previous experience with loss will by itself, make it easier to deal with their present loss.

Every loss has its own unique set of challenges that are created by the cause of death, the stigma associated with cause of death (i.e. suicide), and the status of the relationship that the client had with their loved one, prior to their death. Plus the client’s pain may also be intensified because of the connections that he/she discovers between the person whose loss he/she is currently grieving and the individuals who predeceased that person. Finally to state that previous experience with loss will make their current struggle with loss easier, assumes that the client has had a prior history of successfully negotiating grief. What if that wasn’t the case?

From my perspective, it would be better to be present for the client as they are describing the pain and challenges of their present loss and asking them to identify the strengths they developed from their previous experiences, that will serve them well in the present.

Framing the intervention in this manner validates the client’s present pain while allowing them to identify strengths from their past experiences. So if you are a human service professional working with grieving clients, do not assume strength, ask them to discover what those strengths are. Once a client owns their power, they will be empowered.

David Roberts 2012

David Roberts

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David J. Roberts, LMSW ,became a parent who experienced the death of a child, after his daughter Jeannine died of cancer on 3/1/03 at the age of 18. He is a retired addiction professional and is also an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Utica College, Utica, New York. Dave has presented workshops at national conferences of The Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents of The USA beginning in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Dave was also the keynote speaker at both the 2011 and 2015 national gatherings of the Bereaved Parents of the USA. He is also a featured speaker,workshop presenter and coach for Aspire Place(www.aspireplace.com) Dave has also written articles for several other grief and self-improvement publications. He has co-authored two books with Linda Findlay of Mourning Discoveries. One is on navigating grief during the holidays and the other is on pet loss. One of Dave's articles” My Daughter is Never Far Away" can also be found in Open to Hope: Inspirational Stories of Healing and Loss. Excerpts from Dave's article for The Open to Hope Foundation, called The Broken Places, were featured in the 2012 Paraclete Press DVD video, Grieving the Sudden Death of a Loved One. Dave has also appeared on Healing the Grieving Heart radio show as well as on the Open to Hope television show. Dave’s website: www.bootsyandangel.com is devoted to providing support and resources for individuals experiencing loss.

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  • Deb Kosmer says:

    Excellent well written article Dave. I will share. Deb

  • Dave Roberts says:

    Thanks Deb as always for your support and validation.

  • Amanda Karla says:

    Thanks Dave for sharing this. I now know that I will be able to use my own recent experiences in the work that I do. I know that is what Mark would want me to do with it – help others who have had similar experiences – because that is what he did. And I will do what I can as well as I can. Thank you for assisting me in my own journey. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

  • Dave Roberts says:

    Hi Amanda. The ability to use our own experiences to help others is a very powerful therapeutic tool. I look forward to seeing you again soon as well.

  • Dave, thank you for saying this. I think we owe it to the public to do all we can to keep debunking the myth that grief occurs in stages ~ Well done! ♥

  • Dave Roberts says:

    Hi Marty: I agree wholeheartedly with your observations relative to stage theory. Thank you for validating this for me.