We often approach grief from a logical perspective. We listen, analyze, validate obvious emotions, and try to arrive at helpful conclusions.

However, grief is much more complicated than simply identifying a loss, categorizing the pain, and discovering fresh themes on moving forward. Pain and suffering contain multifaceted undercurrents that transcend conscious awareness. Research (e.g., Allan Schore, Daniel Siegel) suggests that we live daily from two sides of our brain, each equipped with its own method of storing and utilizing information.

Taken into discussions on grief, the concept implies that we grieve from two sides of the brain as well, the logical and the unconscious. From practical dialogues surrounding loss, however, the latter receives less attention.

Here’s a quick and general breakdown on how the two sides of the brain function. The left side of the brain filters information—logic, grammar, etc.—from the immediate senses, which then produces a reasonable response with the help of the frontal cortex. Using these avenues, the helper and the helpee depend strongly on language and other sensory data in order to make sense of loss.

The right side of the brain, however, seems to express itself in the following ways: (1) Nonverbal activity such as body language/posture/motioning, tone of voice, eye movements, etc.; (2) Intuition or gut experiences that bypass conscious processing; (3) Implicit/unaware memory and emotions derived from early preverbal/symbolic childhood settings that the grieving individual’s mind somehow associates with the current loss; and (4) Transference (i.e. relating to the present through lenses of the past) dynamics. These factors dominate over conscious awareness and play a significant role in individual grief processing.

The following is a fictionalized scenario that demonstrates how the above elements transpire during grief work.

John is a 55-year-old husband and father who lost his once nurturing mother to cancer just a few months back. As an only child who now holds claim to the loss of both parents, the middle-aged man must reinvent answers to previously visited existential questions.

So John goes to therapy, assuming it is simply about shedding tears and putting things in perspective. This will just take two or three sessions, he ponders. However, after a few meetings the female therapist finds John’s body language inconsistent with the recent loss. Equally important, the helper notices his expectations toward her converting into emotional demands and his unresolved needs from the early mother-child dyad blurring the therapeutic relationship.

John has no clue that the death of his mother has such a tie to his long forgotten narrative. Fortunately, the counselor’s training eye to nonverbals and her intuitive ear to unaware emotional attachment issues helped John put the dots together. Several months later, the 55-year-old had a deeper understanding on how his mother’s death impacted him.

Grief has to make sense in order for it to be helpful. However, further attunement is necessary. For healing to have lasting value we must recognize how the right side of the brain digests and transmits relevant material often invisible to conscious awareness.

Kevin Quiles 2012


Kevin Quiles

Kevin Quiles, M.Div., M.A, has provided spiritual and bereavement counseling to elderly and dying individuals and their families since 1998. He earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1987 and attained a Masters of Divinity Degree with Emphasis in Counseling in 1995, before completing over two years of clinical-pastoral education under professional supervision. Quiles earned a Master of Arts Degree in Community Counseling at a CACREP accredited university and is now practicing supervised psychotherapy in the greater Atlanta area of Georgia, specializing in couple therapy, trauma, and grief. The author is also a member of the American Academy of Psychotherapists. His experience with thousands of patients in hospitals, assisted living facilities, and in their own homes gives him the insight and humility to write on the subject of spiritual care. The author has also penned six articles, including "Embracing the Elderly Patients' Wish to Die," and "Power Patterns within Professional Relationships." Dipped in a narrative format, Spiritual Care teaches the sacred art of end-of-life counseling to family members, students, volunteers, faith community lay and professional ministers, and therapists.

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