Counseling with Jill
From your perspective, what is therapy?
The word “therapy” comes from the Latin word therapia, which means HEALING. So that’s my approach. When a client experiences the death of a loved one, a whole lot of healing needs to happen in order for the client to move “forward” in his/her/their life. A death is a loss -- one that “breaks” the survivor’s life as he/she/they knew it.
When you hurt a bone or muscle, you go to physical therapy to learn ways to help yourself heal physically. I just focus on healing...from the most difficult life event that can ever occur - living with the loss of a loved one, and finding and adjusting to the “new normal.”
Therapy, or in this case, counseling, means healing not from being sick, but rather, healing from a challenge that is difficult and new and... the truth is... nobody has ever taught us how to grieve, and yet, every one of us will grieve at least once in a lifetime.
Please share 2-3 anonymized examples of how the work can play out and/or look in the room
So, a client will come in for counseling after the death of a loved one (or in some cases, in anticipation of the death of a loved one who has a terminal disease). We start by acknowledging that this is a really complex experience, filled with all kinds of feelings -- sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, confusion, guilt, lack of faith, abandonment, disbelief, wonderment, shock, numbness, anxiety, and a whole host more. I encourage when we work together, that we are in a safe space, perhaps the only place -- where one can freely cry, weep, curse, question, or whatever -- alone with me and without judgment or fear of embarrassment or upsetting others.
One of the main aspects of grief, particularly with young adults, is that the person going through it feels alone. Most people don’t experience a death in the family or friend group until mid or later in life. So they feel removed from their peers and “different.”
We talk about all kinds of feelings, including feelings that are natural but may seem “wrong” to acknowledge i.e. guilt, relief, freedom. We talk about these things and how the grief changed aspects of living -- from relationships, to work/career life, and everything in between. Everything shifts after a death in your world.
We talk about situations that arise as a result of your loss that may make you feel “stuck” as to how to handle them. We strategize together how to handle traditions, special occasions, holidays, and milestones. We discuss options for honoring the memory of the loved one, but allowing oneself to “take a break” from the hardest parts of life while grieving. We discuss together situations that may arrive during the grief period.
For example, I was counseling a client in her 20s or 30s whose mother had recently died. Her husband’s cousin died a few months later at a young age. She was fearful, and rightly so, that her emotions at the funeral would be disproportionate to her true feelings about the deceased, because the funeral would bring up feelings associated with her own very recent loss. We discussed ways to handle the situation, creating some options that were realistic and gave her some comfort that she would not necessarily have to be “stuck” in a situations she couldn’t control.
Another young adult, came to me in anticipation of the death of his feather, who had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. The young man was concerned with… among other things... whether or not to marry his longtime girlfriend sooner rather than later, in order to secure that his Dad would know that his legacy would carry on. This is a critical action and, also, contrary to the “Don’t make any big life decision for a year” theory. When we unpacked all the various parts of this decision-making process, he came to realize that in his instance, it was neither practical nor necessary to expedite the marriage, and we arrived at other ways to continue his committed relationship, while anticipating his Dad’s death.
We discuss in detail how to respond to the things that are upsetting the grieving person... others focusing on trivial things, partners not being responsive, new roles and responsibilities that the bereaved feels that he/she/they have to assume. We go from the deepest topics to the ones that seem the smallest but really ARE big... Should I tell new friends about the death? Is it really true that a bereaved person should not make big decisions for a year? These and more are part of what we talk about and strategize and try to integrate.
Whatever is on a client’s mind is what we do.
Are there any philosophies or values that inform your work that I should know about?
I am not sure if it is a philosophy or not, but I am a real proponent of the fact that going to see a counselor is not a weakness; it doesn’t mean you have a “problem,” or that you are “mentally sick”... Not at all. It means that there are experiences going on in your life for which you have had no preparation and need guidance to work through. I always repeat that --- even though we all grieve the loss of a loved one at one time or another, nobody teaches us in school how to process it. So, just as you may hire a fitness trainer to help your fitness regimen, or a tennis teacher to improve your game, or a career coach to jumpstart a change, you seek a grief counselor to help you process your grief. Grief counselors have the special skills and coping tools that can support you.
As far as values, I value honesty and authenticity and hope that, in counseling, that is taking place on both sides -- with client and counselor. We can’t work together if we don’t have a good rapport and I believe I am (or so I’ve been told) nurturing, caring, and committed to each client. I want to bear witness to their feelings and help ease the pain a bit and help start a healing process.
How much do you share about yourself during our time together and why?
I do share with my clients. It goes without saying that I am not the focus of the session, but I have always found that counselors/therapists who feel able to share when it’s appropriate create much more trusting relationships with their clients and bring something to the sessions that may otherwise separate the two.
My father died suddenly when I was 35 years old. I was the first of my friends to experience the death of a loved one. I was all alone in trying to figure out how to grieve, how to juggle the changing dynamics of my family members, how to forge ahead in what should be a great time in my life with much to come --- without my Dad, with whom I was close. My friends all had parents and even grandparents, so they couldn’t relate to this. I was “envious” too that I was the one without a Dad, so I felt like I had a “condition” that separated me from others.
I think that by having had this experience as a young adult, I can really keep it real. I know firsthand. That said, every individual is an individual; no two the same. I don’t in any way present my manner of having grieved as the model (hardly), but I have insights into grief that I can share or notice in a client, which might otherwise not be as detectable to someone who has not gone through such a loss. If a client asks how I handled a situation, I will respond, but suggest that my way may not work for them and let’s consider some other ways together.
I am not the subject of the session and I only present my own experiences when it serves the purpose of showing the client that they are not alone and that there is nothing odd about their reactions to things. I try to normalize the client’s grief response and bear witness to their feelings.
How participatory are you during sessions?
Because it is bereavement counseling, which is specific, I do participate. Because the subject of our work together is specific and because I work with many grieving people, I can often foresee what may come up for a client before they are aware of it. That’s a case in which I would bring up a topic to explore. I share examples, share coping tools, and share theories pertaining to grief whenever appropriate.
Do you assign homework, activities, or readings for me to do between sessions? Why or why not?
I am not a teacher, so I don’t assign. However, in a sense, I am teaching the subject of grief, because there is a lot to comprehend around the topic. So, I generally provide resources, handouts, articles, tips for coping, or a reading. It’s not mandatory reading at all, and we don’t make a point of discussing each item that I have provided. It’s just a resource, lots of good perspectives on grief from experts. However, I have noticed that my clients LOVE them and often come in quoting from some of the articles, or mentioning in passing an idea that they liked from the articles. And they ask for more! So, yes there are handouts... But very optional.
If I have never been to therapy before, what should I expect? How do I know if I should go, and how do I start?
So, I would challenge all the myths you’ve heard about therapy. It’s not for crazy people. It’s not like talking to a blank wall. It’s not an experience in which a therapist says, “What do you think about that” or “How does that make you feel?” (Well, maybe a little). But truthfully, it is a way of receiving EXPERT support in a situation in which you’ve never been and feel very rocky and unsettled and emotional and confused about. It’s a shared conversation with a caring professional. It’s a safe place to say the things you would NEVER want to admit to others. It’s a time of day or evening which is entirely yours to face your grief and work through it, with a counselor who can bear witness to this grief, validate and normalize it. Also, if your grief gets complicated, a counselor can spot that, if further assistance is needed.
How do you know if you should go? Well, if you’re even thinking about it, it means that somewhere within you, you are seeking some help in coping and dealing and staying afloat. You may fear that you are admitting weakness by asking for help. Well, you are really admitting bravery, because you are acting smartly and responsibly by seeking outside expert support. Also, when it comes to grief, it has been shown that those who don’t process their grief and feel their feelings at the time, end up with many challenges later in life in all areas -- dating, relationships, parenting, faith, intimacy, etc.
Also, nobody has to know that you are in grief counseling. It’s yours to share or keep private. And if you tell people you are doing grief counseling, how can they fault you? You didn’t cause the death. It’s one of those validating reasons for therapy. They likely wouldn’t be good at the “grief thing” either. And it doesn’t mean you’re “screwed up” or complicated, it just means that someone you love died, and you want to learn how to live in your “new normal,” which wasn’t a choice.
How will you start? You start by looking for a counselor, then talking to them initially to see if the fit seems good and give it a try. It’s not a commitment to a counselor for a lifetime. Not everybody connects with everyone, so you can try to find your best match. You’re the client, after all.
How will our relationship be different than relationships I have with friends/loved ones?
First of all, we are new to each other and can’t be expected to know each other’s thoughts, behaviors, styles, comfort levels, or much else in the beginning. Counselors and clients are often “friendly” with each other, never adversaries. We’re both humans, respecting each other. There are boundaries, though.
In my practice, I do try to be available when something comes up -- maybe not a midnight phone call, but I always say “call or email me in the meantime if something comes up that needs to be addressed promptly or if you need support.” That’s because I care and I am committed to helping clients.
I also encourage clients to challenge me if they don’t understand something or think it’s not in sync with their thinking. Our relationship will be different than the ones you have with friends or loved ones, because we are not loved ones, and though friendly and may even share common interests to talk about, we are not likely to be socializing while we are working together in counseling. Since I’m not a family member, I don’t judge or assume that I have the right to be hurtful to you or tell you what to do.
I only guide with my knowledge and presence and support, ideas, and tools. My job is to gently guide you in your processing of grief, and to redirect you if you start to detour, or if you are stuck in “magical thinking” about the loved one or the death or related thoughts.
Is there ever a time when you would encourage me to leave or graduate? Or how do I know when it’s time to end or move on, or time to stay and explore more?
My general guideline is that the client knows intuitively when he/she/they don’t need my support any longer. This does not mean that they’re no longer grieving, because nobody gets “over it” (that’s a myth). It means that they have been given the proper coping tools and ways of thinking and processing their grief and behaving, so that they can integrate grief into their life more smoothly. If a client says they are ready to end and I am not certain of it, we would talk about why they feel finished and I might suggest what may still be needed. But ultimately, it’s the client’s choice. Also, when our work becomes general therapy (with little to no relation to grief), I suggest that they switch to a general therapist who is trained in those areas. I am a grief counselor.
Where did you work before going into private practice?
I worked at the Heartbridge Center for Loss and Transition, counseling grieving children, adults, and also, for a brief time, 9-11 survivors.
Then, I started and continued to work at United Hospice of Rockland, leading groups for children starting at age 3, as well as adults (including survivors of suicide), and child loss groups for adults as well.
In between, I spent about 25 weekends at Comfort Zone Camp, the country’s largest children’s bereavement camp, as a counselor for grieving children in a 1:1 situation as well as group activity.
Have you received any particular training beyond your post-Bachelor’s training?
I was trained at the Heartbridge Center for Loss and Transition (following the model of the renowned Dougey Center in Portland, Oregon). I also became certified (CT: Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement) under the auspices of ADEC (the Association of Death Education and Counseling) in 2004, and have been recertified every 3 years.
What led you to become a mental healthcare practitioner?
When I was thrown into the situation of grieving a parent at age 35, I was also a classic case of someone who wouldn’t have likely chosen to go to therapy under any other circumstance. So, in taking what I have learned from the best and understanding how hard it may be for many people to begin therapy, I wanted to become a grief counselor.
My informal motto is: Grief Is Hard. Nobody should have to do it alone. I can help. And also, my goal is to help clients adjust and live with their “New Normal.”
What is the best part of the work for you?
When a client comes in telling me they feel like a “hot mess” or something to that effect, and they leave a little bit lighter after each session, with a few tears less, a little more of a smile, and some sense of realization that they are not alone in their suffering and their grief is “normalized” through our work.
When a client comes to understand that their life as it once was, is over, but their life is not over. When a client tells me that an idea we talked about helped them make it through a conversation or a day or an event. When the client practices the coping tools successfully. When a client becomes intrinsically aware of what they are doing, how they are grieving and/or behaving... and seeks to change it. When a client begins to adjust to the new normal and re-enter the real world with more ease than previously felt. When they tell me that they have incorporated ways of honoring their deceased loved one into their life, and begin to use meaning-centered grief therapy.
What is unique about the work you do, or how have you found your work to be different than your colleagues’?
My work is unique because it is subject-specific. You will learn about grief very comprehensively, as that’s our primary focus. The journey in the counseling process will be goal-oriented to help process the death of a loved one and learn to live with that loss. We don’t explore your life story (unless applicable in some cases of course. Some things are important to know). We do a lot of work with your emotions... your tears, your anger, your guilt, your blame, your loneliness, your fear. We seem to hit a whole bunch of them in our work, since grief tends to brings them all out.
If a client likes games, I can always pull out some of the activities I do with children - i.e. Holiday Grief Bingo, making dream catchers, collages or Mandalas (masks).
How do you approach diversity in the room or working with clients who may come from a different background than you?
I have worked with some diversity, for sure, but if it is a new situation for me, I will study it a bit. In my training, we have been taught how different cultures approach death, the emotions or lack of emotions associated with death, and various rituals.
I do take a client’s background into consideration, since you can’t judge someone for not behaving in what may be an appropriate way for you, but not for their culture.
How can you tell if I am benefiting from working with you?
I can tell if you are benefitting by the way you present yourself and your feelings each session and by what kinds of things you are discussing and if any of the things we have discussed together have been tried or taken seriously, or just ignored. I can tell whether the work is useful by your motivation to work on issues.
How can you tell if I am feeling stuck, unseen, or unheard?
If you’re stuck, we’ll be discussing the same challenges over and over again, which will let me know that something’s not working or you’re not working on it, or something different has to be tried. If you’re feeling unheard, you will probably challenge me more, or say, “That’s not what I mean,” or, “That’s not going to work,” to let me know that I’m missing something in the ways I am trying to support you. Or, you’ll say things just because you think that’s what I want to hear. Usually, I can perceive some of these things so that you are NOT feeling unseen or unheard. As far as STUCK, everyone gets stuck sometimes. And it’s neither the fault of the counselor nor the client. When you’re stuck, it’s my job to find the opening.
How long should I commit to being in counseling, at least in the beginning?
Well, it is a fact that the grieving cycle lasts a year, because of the “year of firsts” in which every holiday, special occasion, season, milestone, etc. is marked without the loved one for the very first time.
Grief does not end at the end of the first year. In fact, it often becomes more problematic, as things settle down and you are left with your “new normal.”
I would say that for a client to get the benefit of understanding and processing grief, at least 4 months is the minimum. I once had a client who after a short time, came in looking calmer and more controlled than the previous times, and when we talked about how “sort of okay she was feeling” she realized when becoming honest with herself, that it might have just been a one-off. It was a time in which she had chosen to not acknowledge the death and try to put it away for a while instead of facing it. She realized very quickly that she wanted and needed to continue her grief work. She knew that there would be a good phase in her grief journey and then, wow -- she’d get “hit” again with grief and wanted help to handle it.
How should I prepare for my first session with you?
I have a short intake form which just gives me some of the basic information about you and your loss. Then you just come as yourself, ready to see what comes up naturally, or ready to tell me what kind of support you’d like.
Be ready to allow yourself to show emotion if that’s what you do, without fear. Be ready to say things in the confidence of our work, that you may be surprised that you said out loud, and that you may think are bad or inappropriate. It’s okay. It’s your grief journey. I’m just going to help you on your way.