Tag Archives: Counselors Audience

Counselors Audience

A script for socialization to the cognitive model

By Brandon S. Ballantyne May 14, 2019

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment approach that has statistically been shown to be effective in addressing a variety of mood disorders and psychological problems. It is my belief that a key component to successful cognitive behavioral treatment is counselor-to-client socialization of theory and concept.

It is essential that clients become socialized to the cognitive model — understanding the rationale behind CBT’s effectiveness — to gain maximum benefit. For that reason, I have developed a script that counselors can use with the clients they serve. This script aims to provide a blueprint for live, in-session socialization to the cognitive model and provides a platform to transition into routine practice of cognitive behavioral technique in future sessions.

 

Script introduction

If I were to ask you to think of a palm tree, what do you think of? You probably just imagined a palm tree. If I were to ask you to think of your very first car, what do you think of? You probably just imagined yourself either in or next to that memorable first automobile. If I were to ask you to think of your favorite food, what do you think of? You probably just imagined your meal of choice.

Now, if I were to ask you to feel anxious, what do you have to do? Most people say they need to imagine a stressful scenario to feel the emotion of anxiety. The point is that we can instantaneously produce any thought. However, when it comes to producing an emotional state, we first need to think of something in order to feel something.

The formation of emotions is a biological process, meaning that it is impossible to shut off or terminate from human experience unless we suffer serious medical injury that leads to such complications. With that being said, there is a specific sequence of internal and external events that not only create, but contribute to, the emotional experiences of you, me and everyone else with whom we share this wonderful planet.

 

Situation

For an emotion to be formed, one must first encounter a situation. A situation is anything that an individual becomes aware of. It can be an external event such as a person, place, thing or activity. It can also be an internal event such as a particular thought or emotion.

Let’s say that tomorrow, I wake up, get in my car and start my drive into work. I encounter a traffic jam, which I anticipate might make me late to my destination. As I approach, I become aware of the traffic jam itself. Both the awareness of the traffic jam and the traffic jam itself become the situation at hand.

 

Thought

Our brain is like a thought warehouse. It has a job of producing thoughts throughout the day — every second, every minute, every hour.

What is a thought? A thought is a sentence that our brain produces about the situation at hand. Thoughts have sentence structure. Each thought has punctuation. It can also take the form of an image or movie that we experience in our mind.

On some occasions, we verbalize our thoughts out loud. Sometimes they stay silent. Regardless, they affect how we feel. If I am driving to work and become aware of the traffic jam, my brain might produce the thought of, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”

The first thoughts that our brain produces about a situation at hand are automatic. We don’t really have control over them. But as I mentioned earlier, these thoughts affect how we feel, so they are important to accept and to understand.

 

Emotion

Once our brain produces a thought about a situation at hand, there is the onset of some kind of emotional experience. How is an emotion different from a thought? Emotions can be categorized into mad, sad, glad and fearful. Any emotion that we have at any given time will likely fit into one of these categories of primary emotions.

There is also a subtle category that some identify as “neutral emotions.” However, we are rarely taught about what neutral emotions are. Throughout our life experiences, we are given the message that there must be a way to feel and that emotions need to be either pleasant or unpleasant. Therefore, if we aren’t particularly happy, sad, fearful or mad, we tend to say that we are feeling “nothing.”

Emotions are a biological process. And because our thoughts are automatic, we never really have an absence of emotions. So, when we are feeling “nothing,” we are actually feeling “neutral.” Descriptors such as “content” and “OK” best describe a neutral emotional state.

Now, let’s refer back to the traffic jam scenario. While sitting in the traffic jam, I am having the thought, “Oh no! I am going to be late. I am going to be behind all day, and I will get reprimanded by my boss. This happens all of the time!”

Because of this thought, I am most likely to be feeling anxious. Anxiety is most closely related to the primary emotion of fear. Some emotions occur parallel to physical symptoms as well. For example, if I am sitting in my car feeling anxious from the thought about being late to work, I may also notice that my hands have started to sweat. Physical symptoms help us to identify and label emotions.

So, it is important to pay attention to your patterns in your physical symptoms as you experience emotional states. In general, emotions give us information about the situation at hand. However, it is then our job to examine that information accordingly.

 

Behavior

Our behaviors are influenced by the emotions we experience. Behaviors can usually be observed by others. Based on the specific characteristics of the behaviors — and the specific characteristics of the reactions that the behaviors provoke in others — these behaviors can help us to get closer to our goals, push us further from our goals, or neutralize the pursuit of our goals.

What does it mean to neutralize the pursuit of our goals? Well, some behaviors neither get us closer to nor push us further from our goals. These behaviors can be referred to as “neutralizing behaviors.”

In the example of sitting in the traffic jam and feeling anxious, I may react to the intense anxiety by engaging in behaviors such as beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers.

 

Result

Results can be defined as a set of benefits or consequences that are produced by one particular behavior or set of behaviors. Results can be desirable, undesirable or neutral.

Desirable results are outcomes that take us closer to our goals. Undesirable results are outcomes that push us further from our goals. Neutral results neither take us closer to our goals nor push us further away.

In the traffic jam example, the behavior indicated was beeping the horn and yelling at other drivers. We can anticipate potential results that those behaviors may produce. As a reminder, the goal in that scenario is to get to work on time, or at least not too late, and safely.

One possible result of beeping my horn and yelling at other drivers is that other drivers may begin beeping their horns and yelling at me. This additional conflict may cause my anxiety to intensify further. At the same time, everyone beeping their horns and yelling at each other will not change the fact that I am sitting in the traffic jam itself. Therefore, this outcome can be categorized as an undesirable result.

 

Wrapping it up

The goal of this type of cognitive behavioral style work is to identify where in the process above an individual may have personal control or personal choice of changing the problematic patterns or tendencies. By examining the above scenario in that way, individuals will be able to conceptualize aspects of personal choice and change that can help them reduce intense emotional distress, engage in healthier behaviors, and achieve more desirable results — first in the above scenario and then with the real-life stressors that have brought them into treatment.

Use the following reflection questions to get started with application of this skill:

1) If you were stuck in a traffic jam similar to the one described above, what would be going through your mind? What are some of the automatic thoughts you would be having?

2) What kinds of emotions would your automatic thoughts produce? Would you be noticing any symptoms of those emotions in your body?

3) What type of automatic behaviors might you engage in based on the influence of those emotions or physical symptoms?

4) What type of outcomes or results would those behaviors likely produce? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on your goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely?

5) Is there anything else you might be able to say to yourself in the scenario about the traffic jam that would produce less intense distress? If so, what are those thoughts? Remember, thoughts come in the form of sentences or images.

6) If you were able to insert those new thoughts the next time you experience a traffic jam, what types of emotions would those thoughts likely produce? If they do not produce less intense distress or new emotions comprehensively, try identifying new thoughts (sentences) until you find one or two that either reduce the distress or produce new desirable emotions.

7) With less intense distress or new desirable emotions, what are the new behaviors that likely would be produced as a result?

8) Given the likelihood of those new behaviors, what would happen next? In other words, what would be the results of those new behaviors? Would those results be desirable, undesirable or neutral based on the goal of getting to work on time, or not too late, and safely? If those results are desirable or neutral, then you have successfully completed examination of this scenario. If the results are undesirable, repeat steps 1 through 8 until you are left with desirable or neutral results. If a neutral result does not make the situation worse, then it is desirable in itself.

9) What are some situations in your life that have caused stress?

10) What were the automatic thoughts running through your mind at the time?

11) Given those life situations, what were the undesirable results that were occurring?

12) Given those life situations, what were the behaviors that were contributing to those undesirable results?

13) Looking back, could you have said anything different to yourself in those moments to reduce the level of stress? If so, what would those coping thoughts be?

14) Given those life situations, what are examples of healthier behaviors that you want to be able to engage in?

15) Given those life situations, what emotions would be needed to make those healthier behaviors easier to achieve?

16) Given those life situations, what results would you want to be able to achieve, experience or receive?

17) With those desired results in mind, what can you say to yourself about those life situations that might help to produce healthier emotions and healthier behaviors?

18) Copy down those thoughts. Put them on an index card. This will serve as your coping cue to take with you. It will be a reminder that although we may not be able to fix a stressor at hand, we do have the opportunity to access alternative thoughts. It is those alternative thoughts that kickstart the process of reduced distress, healthier behaviors, and the satisfying experience of more desirable results. Thus, we are creating an opportunity for achievement as we assist ourselves in getting closer to our goals, even if certain stressors stay the same. With consistent practice, we teach our brains that we control our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We give power to ourselves in knowing that we do not need situations to change in order to feel better and do better.

 

 

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Brandon S. Ballantyne has been practicing clinical counseling for 12 years. He is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression. He currently practices at a variety of different agencies in eastern Pennsylvania. Find him on the web at https://thriveworks.com/bethlehem-counseling/our-counselors/, and contact him at brandon.ballantyne@childfamilyfirst.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Remembering Martin Buber and the I–Thou in counseling

By Matthew Martin and Eric W. Cowan May 8, 2019

Counseling research designed to measure therapeutic efficacy has increasingly focused on empirically validated methods and interventions. On the other hand, counselors have long understood the therapeutic relationship to be the most powerful meta-intervention for fostering client change and transformation. Carl Rogers’ No. 1 rule — that the counselor and client must be in psychological contact — is the precondition for all therapeutic movement. As counselors, we must “be someone with” rather than “do something to” the client.

However, the interpersonal process that occurs between counselor and client is difficult to quantify because it possesses intangible qualities that slip through the fingers of measurement and scientific scrutiny. The relationship between counselor and client seems to transcend any particular intervention strategy. The maxim “it is the relationship itself that heals” is an organizing principle to which most counselors subscribe and yet still sometimes forget. In the search for empirically validated methods, are we in danger of losing touch with what matters most in counseling?

Another consideration is the cultural shift that has altered how people communicate, with interpersonal contact becoming increasingly digitized, objectified and packaged in virtual platforms. Will the next generation of counselors still give primacy to the sense of “presence” in the therapeutic relationship that is the heart of counseling? From our perspective, it seems that a counselor’s enhanced capacity for meaningful interpersonal contact is more important than ever.

Philosopher Martin Buber detailed the qualities that characterize a real “encounter,” or I–Thou meeting, between two people. His ideas remain as relevant today as when they helped to shape the humanistic movement in psychology and counseling.

The I-Thou encounter

According to Buber, an interpersonal encounter contains wonderful potential that far exceeds two separate people in conversation. This potential becomes apparent when two people actively and authentically engage each other in the here and now and truly “show up” to one another. In this encounter, a new relational dimension that Buber termed “the between” becomes manifest. When this between dimension exists, the relationship becomes greater than the individual contributions of those involved. This type of meeting is what Buber described as an I–Thou relationship.

The I–Thou relationship is characterized by mutuality, directness, presentness, intensity and ineffability. Buber described the between as a bold leap into the experience of the other while simultaneously being transparent, present and accessible. He used the term “inclusion” to describe this heightened form of empathy. It is a far cry from the now-familiar scene of a group of friends sitting around a table at a restaurant, all gazing into their smartphones.

Buber saw the meeting between I and Thou as the most important aspect of human experience because it is in relationship that we become fully human. When one meets another as Thou, the uniqueness and separateness of the other is acknowledged without obscuring the relatedness or common humanness that is shared. Buber contrasted this I–Thou relationship with an I–It relationship, in which the other person is experienced as an object to be influenced or used — a means to an end. Regrettably, the I–It relationship requires little explanation for anyone living in a cultural frame of absent-mindedness and technological materialism.

The world of I–It can be coherent and ordered — even efficient — but it lacks the essential elements of human connection and wholeness that characterize the I–Thou encounter. The I–It attitude is increasingly depersonalizing and alienating as it becomes structuralized in human institutions. When an extreme I–It attitude becomes embedded in cultural patterns and human interactions, the result is greater objectification of others, exploitation of people and resources, and forms of prejudice that obscure the common humanity that unites us.

Although Buber saw the I–It as an essential pole of human existence, he thought humanity was losing its ability to orient toward the Thou. He emphasized the important balance required between the two poles if humanity was to survive the dangers inherent in the possibility of mutual destruction.

Counselors view the client–counselor relationship as the foundation of all therapeutic growth because it is fundamentally affirming of human connection, validation and participation. In our own small sphere of influence, we are a force for promoting a more compassionate and humanized world. Counselors should keep this in mind even as we strive toward greater technical organization and efficiency within a mental health “service delivery system” that is not entirely compatible with our broader aims.

To exist is to be in relation

Buber rightly understood that human development occurs in a relational context. Human beings are highly social creatures who need love and care from others to survive through infancy and beyond. An absence of these relational needs almost always leads to psychological injury.

Buber called this deep participation with, and acceptance of, another’s essential being “confirmation.” He believed that one’s innate capacity to confirm others, and to be confirmed in one’s own uniqueness by others, is the source of our humanity. The innate subjectivity that unfolds within every human being can begin to be actualized only when it is accurately mirrored in the eyes of another. Confirmation is at the heart of the I–Thou meeting, of human flourishing and of counseling.

Confirmation is similar to the concept of not imposing “conditions of worth” in the relationship. However, confirmation goes a step further by acknowledging the person’s potentialities — what one may become. For example, a child experiences the tension between growth and fear along each step of the developmental path. The parent can either accept the child’s reluctance in the moment or encourage the child to take the leap. At all ages, human thriving is found in these continual moments of confirmation of potentiality from person to person. As a client struggles with making the “growth choice” or the “fear choice,” the counselor invites the client to greater participation, yet expects to bump into the old fears that make such participation fraught for the client.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always as mindful and present as we’d like to be with others, and we ourselves have not been affirmed in the eyes of others as often as we would like. Even the best of us can fall into an I–It orientation with the world, failing to see the other person at all. Buber believed that these “missed meetings” were the ultimate failure of human relationships and resulted in us losing a part of ourselves.

We all desire to be confirmed in our uniqueness, but when we realize that confirmation is not going to happen, we seem to sacrifice true confirmation for mere approval in hopes of preserving our attachment to others. We cultivate the ability to “seem” a certain way to others to elicit approval, but such approval does nothing to nourish our “being.” A person would rather be confirmed in that which he or she is not than chance the possibility of not being accepted at all.

Unfortunately, this “seeming” mask tends to get stuck, and as one hides one’s being in fear, the possibility of an I–Thou relationship is lost. As Buber cautioned, “To yield to seeming is man’s essential cowardice, to resist it is his essential courage.” When the I of the I–Thou relationship is sacrificed for the It orientation of abstracted relation, authentic human growth and connection are lost, and the I begins to wither away.

Healing through meeting

How can we as counselors foster and model I–Thou relationships with our clients and help them avoid the temptation of “seeming” like someone they are not? Buber thought the answer could be found in a process of active imagination that he termed “inclusion.” In this process, the barriers and constrictions that prevent one from being fully present to an I–Thou encounter indicate where the work is to be done. In what ways must the client stay hidden from others and protect his or her own inner thoughts, feelings and fantasies?

In inclusion, one imagines what another person is feeling, thinking and experiencing while standing in relation to them as a Thou. Rogers’ concept of empathy and Buber’s concept of inclusion are similar (in fact, the two of them debated about it). However, inclusion places greater emphasis on the unique subjectivity of the person attempting to understand the other.

The attempt at understanding the subjective inner world of the person is not a one-way street because the counselor must account for his or her own influence upon the client as both participants come into psychological contact. The I–Thou is a relational event that is co-created; it does not fully reside in one participant or the other. The counselor’s ability to mine the riches of the present encounter and wonder “what is happening between us in the immediate moment” expresses Buber’s notion of inclusion.

We as counselors have the ability to confirm our clients through the process of inclusion, providing them with a relationship that can heal the wounds of their past missed meetings. We must stand in relation to our clients as an I to a Thou to successfully inspire them to move from a “seeming” stance to one of greater authentic participation and “being.”

Although empirical methods and interventions are critical in guiding our understanding of best practices, we must not forget that the single most predictive variable in whether counseling is effective is the client’s experience of the counseling relationship itself. Clients deserve to be seen as a Thou. As Buber once said, “In spite of all similarities, every living situation has, like a newborn child, a new face that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence, responsibility; it demands you.”

Every moment is an opportunity for “healing through meeting.”

 

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Matthew Martin is a graduate of James Madison University’s clinical mental health counseling master’s program. He is currently completing his residency in counseling at the university’s counseling center. Contact him at matthewmartin.rva@gmail.com.

Eric W. Cowan is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Graduate Psychology at James Madison University. He is the author of Ariadne’s Thread: Case Studies in the Therapeutic Relationship. Contact him at cowanwe@jmu.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Culturally competent end-of-life counseling

By Ashley C. Overman-Goldsmith May 1, 2019

End-of-life counseling is an important area of our profession. Unfortunately, it is also an area of the profession that is underdeveloped and seldom researched. Consequently, few resources are available to professional counselors that specifically address multicultural competence in end-of-life counseling.

I first became interested in end-of-life counseling while working as a bereavement program manager and counselor in a private hospice setting. As a bereavement counselor, I worked not only with the families of patients receiving hospice services but also with higher risk patients (those who struggled with psychological and physical pain). The private hospice organization provided social services for patients, but our social workers had large caseloads and found it difficult to meet the emotional and psychological needs of patients and family members who required ongoing therapeutic intervention. To meet those needs, I developed an end-of-life counseling program in which I personally worked with patients and family members deemed medium to high risk.

I currently practice counseling at Sea Change Therapy PLLC, where I help individuals who are struggling with life transitions, including the end of life. In addition to my clinical practice, I am conducting research in end-of-life counseling under the advisement of my dissertation committee at North Carolina State University.

The list of reasons for counseling at the end of life can be similar to the reasons that individuals seek out counseling earlier in life. The largest difference, of course, is that with end-of-life counseling, the client is facing his or her death. This makes this area of counseling all the more challenging. Because these clients die at the end of counseling, counselors are responsible for so much more than just helping clients pursue improvements in a relationship or changes to an existing issue. Counselors are helping these clients achieve goals that may improve the possibility of them experiencing peace before they die. This is a major undertaking.

As an end-of-life counselor, I have witnessed the impact that clients’ lived experiences and aspects of their identity have on their end-of-life experiences. These experiences are personal, unique events that require counselors to be skilled in addressing a multitude of issues regarding both a client’s identity and the dying process. Multicultural and social justice competence is key to counselors being able to provide effective end-of-life counseling and help clients navigate end-of-life experiences successfully.

The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) endorsed by the American Counseling Association are a set of guidelines for developing and maintaining multicultural and social justice competence as counselors. The MSJCC framework aids in understanding the complexities of the counseling relationship, specifically with counselor–client interactions. The MSJCC support counselors in addressing issues that are often not well-recognized but that have a significant impact on the client. These issues include power dynamics, privilege and oppression. The MSJCC are well-supported by our profession and are a very useful tool for promoting cultural competence for counselors.

The Handbook of Thanatology, a resource created for practitioners by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, provides detailed, thought-provoking suggestions on how to be culturally competent when working with clients at the end of life. The handbook includes a combination of research findings, practical implications and recommendations for end-of-life practice.

Using the MSJCC and suggestions from the Handbook of Thanatology, counselors can ensure that they are providing culturally competent and effective end-of-life counseling services to their clients. Using these references, along with information from my professional experience as an end-of-life counselor, I have developed a simple framework for culturally competent end-of-life counseling practice.

Education

Education is an important component of culturally competent practice. Continuing our education beyond the completion of the master’s degree requirement is necessary for growth and effective practice in this field.

As professional counselors, we are required to complete a specific number of continuing education credits yearly to maintain state and national licenses. For many of us, a certain number of these continuing education credits are required in the area of multicultural competence. Continuing education in end-of-life practice is increasingly available, and there are many opportunities for growth across disciplines in this specialty area. For example, there are distance learning programs that provide thanatology coursework, including multicultural competence in end-of-life care. During my personal search for continuing education, I have come across numerous courses or sessions that are outside of the university setting. Professional memberships, local funeral homes, palliative care programs and medical facilities all offer continuing education opportunities, sometimes at little to no cost.

In addition to the more formal avenues for advancing your education, there are ways to learn and grow in the understanding of other cultures through observation, immersion and self-education. The Handbook of Thanatology says that if we want to better understand the beliefs and practices of a particular cultural group, immersing ourselves in that group can aid in this quest. Obviously, that approach is time-consuming and not feasible for all counselors. However, I would recommend, at minimum, that counselors observe and investigate the beliefs and practices of the clients (and clients’ family members) with whom they are working. Don’t fear asking questions that will improve your knowledge.

We are encouraged as counselors to be well-informed about what is going on in the world around us and to consider the ways in which events may affect our clients. For example, changes in health care coverage and policies can impact terminally ill clients and their families. Seeking out details on these changes and working to stay informed not only can help us to prepare for what our clients may be facing but can also provide us with information that could be important to pass along to our clients. Social, cultural and political developments may also influence our clients’ emotional and psychological states. It is important that we maintain an awareness of how these developments could affect clients from varying groups in different ways.

Possessing knowledge of both historical and current events — particularly those resulting in the oppression of a group of individuals due to their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation — can help us better understand the lived experiences of our clients. Linking historical and current events can provide us with a clearer perspective on the adversities that our clients and their families continue to face. These adversities are woven into their personal narratives and are often revisited at the end of life. Our clients may want to remember the happy experiences they have had, but they may also recall the adversities they have confronted. Our clients’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and marginalized or privileged statuses (lived experiences) all have an impact on their perceptions of death and dying. In turn, their perceptions of death and dying have an impact on their end-of-life experiences.

Education is the foundation of culturally competent end-of-life counseling. Developing knowledge of the impact of history, events, culture, religion/spirituality and other influencers on our clients’ lived experiences can help us reach a better understanding of their end-of-life experiences. Possessing a solid knowledge base — and continuing to expand that base by seeking out educational opportunities — has a direct impact on the effectiveness of our practice as counselors.

Practice

This section of the framework is designed to be used in addition to the approaches and interventions that end-of-life counselors are already trained in and currently practicing. Like other areas of the counseling profession, end-of-life counseling is not limited to one single approach or a specific set of interventions.

Culturally competent end-of-life counselors embrace the fact that multiculturalism and social justice are central to end-of-life counseling. In culturally competent end-of-life counseling, counselors work to be aware of the many identities that counselors and clients possess, as well as their privileged and marginalized statuses. These identities and privileged or marginalized statuses enter into and influence how each individual will experience interactions that occur during the counseling relationship. Culturally competent end-of-life counselors skillfully facilitate discussions about these identities and statuses. They share information about their own identities, allow clients to explore their personal identities, and work to identify and overcome any barriers that may arise in the counseling relationship.

The knowledge that culturally competent end-of-life counselors possess and continue to build upon (addressed in the education portion of the framework) aids them in better understanding clients’ identities. Open dialogue about these identities can help counselors gain insight into an individual’s unique background. Through this work, clients may even come to recognize their diagnosis or terminal illness as a new identity or way in which they see themselves. When this happens, counselors can help clients examine this new identity and use interventions that are helpful in exploring clients’ perceptions of what this new identity means to them.

Occasionally during this time in the counseling process, clients will discuss experiences that led to their understanding of these identities. These experiences and others that are shared during counseling are the clients’ lived experiences, which may influence how they view themselves and their end-of-life experience. Making space for these discussions (or even initiating them) and asking questions to better understand our clients helps us to become more culturally competent counselors. As a result, trust is built between the counselor and the client, and the counseling relationship is enhanced.

In end-of-life counseling, these discussions usually take place early on in the counseling relationship. In fact, faster development of the counseling relationship can be more critical in end-of-life counseling than in other areas of counseling practice. Allowing opportunities for these discussions early on may greatly enhance the client’s comfort in sharing with the counselor and may aid in achieving the goals of counseling in the limited time available.

The ultimate goal of end-of-life counseling is to facilitate psychological and emotional healing that will allow clients to experience peace. Counselors and clients work together to identify sources of stress or any psychological disturbances (e.g., depression, anxiety) that are preventing the client from achieving peace. Reasons behind the presence of disturbances such as depression or anxiety may vary. Clients might express fear of death, a sense of isolation, a loss of purpose or meaning, struggles with feelings of guilt, conflict in relationships or other concerns. Occasionally, struggles in relationships, personal regrets, feelings around a loss of independence, feelings of loneliness, or emotions connected to experiences with racism, sexism, religious oppression or other forms of oppression may also surface at the end of life.

Culturally competent end-of-life counselors understand that clients’ lived experiences (inclusive of issues such as oppression and discrimination) are unique and personal and should be handled delicately. Providing a safe space for clients to express their feelings surrounding these experiences is an important step in helping them achieve peace at the end of life. This safe space is created early on in the counseling relationship through structure, support, encouragement and unconditional positive regard. It is enhanced when counselors effectively and openly discuss identities, privileged or marginalized statuses, and issues such as oppression and discrimination. Allowing space for the anger, frustration, sadness and other feelings that clients may feel when sharing about these experiences is very important.

The MSJCC emphasize the need for counselors to work outside of the office, meeting directly with the client’s family members and friends (with permission from the client) to determine what relationships exist that will either support the client’s progress in counseling or present barriers to change. With end-of-life counseling, counselors are more likely to work with the client outside of the office. This might include meeting in hospice facilities, nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, hospitals or clients’ homes. As a result, end-of-life counselors are occasionally afforded opportunities to observe interactions that clients have with their family members and friends. If clients have identified resolution of conflict in a relationship as a goal of end-of-life counseling, then counselors are able to intervene.

By facilitating these discussions early on in the counseling relationship, counselors can create the solid foundation necessary for various counseling approaches and interventions. Counselors should ensure that they are using approaches and interventions that are culturally appropriate and that empower clients.

Advocacy

Advocacy at the end of life can be complicated, but it is important that we make sure our clients’ voices are heard. End-of-life counselors often are responsible for updating the interdisciplinary team about the client’s emotional and psychological well-being and the progress being made in counseling.

The interdisciplinary team (sometimes referred to as the multidisciplinary team) generally consists of medical professionals (doctors and nurses) and a group of supportive services professionals that can include some combination of social workers, counselors, psychologists, and clergy or spiritual care counselors. These teams are usually organized and assigned through hospitals and palliative care/hospice organizations. Team members work together to ensure that they are meeting the needs of individuals enrolled in services. Team meetings can vary in approach, but in my experience, each team member is asked to provide an update on the services for which they are responsible, along with any concerns they have about the needs of the individual who is facing end of life.

As counselors, we are often uniquely cognizant of the emotional and psychological needs of our clients. This gives us the ability to identify additional issues that are affecting our clients’ well-being. We can share these concerns and challenges with the interdisciplinary team in many ways. For example, we can relay information about the progress our clients are making in sessions by tracking their levels of depression or distress via simple assessments and then presenting our data during team meetings. We can also bring up any concerns that our clients have voiced during sessions regarding their care or interactions with other team members.

Our role on the team also gives us opportunities to educate the other team members on cultural considerations. The cultural insights we provide may influence discussions that these other team members have with our clients and their family members. Because of our greater level of understanding of the lived experiences of our clients and the impact these have on our clients’ end-of-life experiences, we can provide guidance to the team on how best to provide individualized care to clients.

In our role as advocates, we can also give voice to our clients’ end-of-life wishes. This may sometimes require us to relay difficult and sensitive information (again, with the client’s permission) to family members, team members and caregivers. This might involve the client’s desire concerning the presence or absence of certain individuals during the end-of-life experience, the environment in which the person wishes to die, requests for final meals, the kind of medical care or interventions the person would like to receive, and so on. As advocates, it is important that we relay this information in ways that are sensitive while also being true to our clients’ voices.

In addition to our responsibility to give our clients voice, it is also important that we work to improve the understanding of the attitudes, beliefs, biases and prejudices that exist in our communities, not just in our places of work. Among the ways we can do this are advocating for policies and procedures that rectify existing inequities, offering additional support to marginalized clients, and collaborating with others to address issues of power, privilege and oppression in advanced care settings. Some examples of how these issues arise in advanced care settings include the ways in which information is relayed to marginalized clients and assumptions that all clients have strong support systems, the same knowledge of or experience in health care settings, and similar perspectives on the end of life. Providing education on culturally competent practice to others who work in end-of-life care can also serve as advocacy. Advocacy is a part of cultural competence, and it is an important role that end-of-life counselors can play for clients.

Summary recommendations

Key considerations for providing effective, culturally competent end-of-life counseling are as follows:

  • Seek out educational opportunities that challenge and expand your understanding of multicultural and social justice issues in end-of-life counseling settings.
  • Treat the “whole” client and not just the parts of the client with which you are comfortable.
  • Integrate discussion of both the client’s and counselor’s worldviews, beliefs, attitudes, and marginalized or privileged statuses.
  • Help clients explore their lived experiences and the impact these have on their end-of-life experiences.
  • Advocate for clients by giving them a voice and pursuing social justice in end-of-life policies and practices.

Conclusion

Counselors should continue to strive to be culturally competent to provide the best services possible to our clients. Being culturally competent involves not just our professional selves but also our personal beliefs, values and worldviews. As we become more culturally competent and actively engage in multicultural and social justice advocacy, we will become more well-rounded, effective counselors.

 

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Ashley C. Overman-Goldsmith is a licensed professional counselor, a national certified counselor, and a doctoral student at North Carolina State University. She is the owner and lead therapist at Sea Change Therapy PLLC. Her current research centers on honoring the lived experiences of terminally ill clients while helping these clients resolve issues that affect their end-of-life experience. Contact her at seatherapychange@gmail.com or through her website at ashleyoverman-goldsmith.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

New maternal mental health certification available to counselors

By Bethany Bray April 25, 2019

It’s estimated that 1 in 9 American mothers experience peripartum depression.

Because maternal mental health issues are so prevalent, many counselors’ caseloads include clients who are struggling during the first weeks and months of motherhood. However, few practitioners are well-trained enough to fully understand the unique needs and risks this population presents, says Birdie Meyer, the director of certification for Postpartum Support International (PSI), a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit established to raise awareness of and connect people to resources for maternal mental health issues.

“There are a lot of nuances to this stage of life,” says Meyer, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in counseling. “You can really do damage if you send someone to a therapist who doesn’t know perinatal mental health … [And] There aren’t enough providers out there.”

Worse yet, a practitioner who treats perinatal clients but hasn’t completed comprehensive coursework or trainings in this area can risk doing harm to mothers at a vulnerable time of life. In her decades working in perinatal mental health, Meyer says she’s witnessed horror stories of women being reported to their local department of social services by a practitioner who mis-read the symptoms of peripartum distress – which can include feeling ambivalent toward a new baby or, in severe cases, thoughts of harming the baby or themselves.

“The despair that comes with [peripartum depression] feels like life will never be better, never be the same again. Many times, women seek help but don’t get someone [a practitioner] who understood, or the woman didn’t know where to turn,” says Meyer, who recently retired as coordinator of the perinatal mood disorders program at Indiana University Health, a large hospital system based in Indianapolis.

For this very reason, PSI has begun to offer a certification for helping professionals in perinatal mental health. It’s a project that has been three years in coming, and Meyer was closely involved in the certification’s development and launch.

PSI’s new Certification in Perinatal Mental Health became available in August to counselors, social workers and other mental health practitioners, as well as prescribers (medical doctors, psychiatrists), doulas, midwifes, lactation consultants and other affiliated professions. So far, 130 practitioners have become certified but hundreds more have begun collecting the hours of coursework required to qualify to take the certification exam, Meyer says.

Before a practitioner can list PMH-C after their name, they must pass a rigorous exam and have at least two years of experience in their field. They must also show proof of completion for 14 hours of continuing education in a subject related to maternal mental health. Finally, applicants must participate in an intensive, six-hour training that PSI offers in locations across the U.S., or a pre-approved course equivalent.

PSI has partnered with Pearson VUE, a company with testing centers across the U.S., to proctor the certification exam. The cost to sit for the exam, a test of 125 multiple choice questions, is $500.

PSI developed and refined the certification exam with several teams of subject-matter experts, including professional counselors, Meyer says.

“The test is rigorous,” says Meyer, “but if you’ve had the training that is required you should be able to pass.”

In order to keep up the PMH-C certification, a practitioner will have to complete at least six hours of continuing education each year, she adds.

Meyer believes that the PMH certification will ensure that more and more practitioners are qualified and available to give parents get the help they need in a most critical and vulnerable time of life.

The certification came to fruition after the family of Robyn Cohen, a woman who passed away as a result of a maternal mental health issues, donated to PSI to fund the project in her memory.

 

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Find out more about PSI and the Certification in Perinatal Mental Health at postpartum.net

 

Email questions about the PMH-C to certification@postpartum.net

 

Listen to an extended interview with Birdie Meyer on the Mom & Mind podcast (episode 104): drkaeni.com/podcast/

 

 

 

Related reading: For more on the unique mental health needs of peripartum clients, see the feature article “Bundle of joy?” in the April issue of Counseling Today.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

 

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

Grieving everyday losses

By Laurie Meyers April 24, 2019

As a society, we think we know what loss is: the death of a parent, partner or child; the destruction of a home through disaster; the shattering of finances through bankruptcy. These are tangible, recognized — sanctioned, if you will — losses. But counselors know that in reality, life brings myriad losses, many of which go unrecognized, unacknowledged and, most importantly, unmourned. The damage caused by these accumulated losses — sometimes referred to in the popular lexicon as “emotional baggage” — often brings clients to counselors’ doors wondering why they’re in so much pain.

In 1989, American Counseling Association member Kenneth Doka, who has written numerous books on grief and loss, established the phrase disenfranchised grief, which he defines as grief that is experienced by those who incur a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported. Disenfranchised grief may result from the loss of a relationship, the loss of identity or ability, pet loss, or even the loss of “giving up” an addiction.

“This unrecognized loss can be happening all around us but, because of the lack of acknowledgment and support, we wouldn’t know about it,” says ACA member Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, a licensed professional counselor in Littleton, Colorado, whose practice specializes in grief and loss.

She gives the hypothetical example of a woman who is about to move to a thriving new town to start a higher paying job with great benefits. The woman has spent the past 20 years raising her family and creating a great life for her children, but now she is ready to move on. She is excited about entering this new phase in her life and meeting new people. At the same time, the woman is experiencing a lingering and persistent sense of sadness that she can’t explain.

What the woman is experiencing, Sheehan-Zeidler explains, is disenfranchised grief, which can affect clients in numerous ways:

  • Physically: Headaches, loss of appetite, insomnia, pain and other physical symptoms
  • Emotionally: Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety or guilt
  • Cognitively: Obsessive thinking, inability to concentrate, distressing dreams
  • Behaviorally: Crying, avoiding others, withdrawing socially
  • Spiritually: Searching for meaning or pursuing changes in spiritual practice

In the example, the woman was not recognizing the losses of community, familiarity, social status and spiritual support from her local church that would come with moving, Sheehan-Zeidler explains. Once the woman actually identified and named those things as losses, the counselor was able to validate and explain her symptoms of insomnia, guilt, absent-mindedness, crying, indecisiveness, pervasive sadness and avoidance of social situations. This allowed the woman to grieve her losses and settle into her new life, Sheehan-Zeidler says.

“When we do not process unrecognized or disenfranchised losses, we run the risk of creating a narrative that is tainted with unprocessed feelings and unresolved grief,” she says. “Their Weltanschauung, a German word for worldview, is corrupted with an emotional burden that influences their beliefs and ability to connect. Consequently, they may be limited in projecting self-confidence needed to secure a new job or challenged to join a new social circle due to feelings of depression or unworthiness.” Unrecognized grief from the loss of a job, health or lifestyle can also cause secondary losses, such as damage to one’s self-esteem, a sense of shattered dreams, and lost community, she adds.

Sheehan-Zeidler helps clients process their grief through a variety of rituals. “I invite clients to create a special time, maybe 5 to 15 minutes daily, for the purpose of ‘being with’ their emotions and thoughts,” she says. “During this dedicated time, I suggest clients find a comfortable and private place to sit, journal their feelings and thoughts, light a candle, have soothing music, enjoy a cup of tea, and maybe have a special shawl or blanket to be used during these ‘time-to-mourn’ moments. Or maybe the client is more active, in which case I’d invite them to mindfully walk in a calming place where they can be with their thoughts and feelings as they reflect on their loss.

“The purpose of this time-to-mourn ritual is to create comfort around you and encourage the feelings to come forward in a planned way so we lead the dance with grief and mourning, and not the other way around. Additionally, as grief can come in unexpected waves, if we have a ritual in place, then we can put the ‘surprise’ grief aside, noting that we will visit with it the next time we are sitting or walking in our special place dedicated to honoring and processing the grief and mourning.”

Sheehan-Zeidler also recommends that clients drink plenty of water and get adequate sleep — taking naps if needed — as their minds and bodies process the loss. Finally, she reminds clients that their grieving process will include bad days, but also good ones.

Losing my addiction

“Put simply, disenfranchised grief is grief that is not acknowledged or valued by society,” says Julie Bates-Maves, an ACA member and a former addictions counselor. “Losses that are not seen as legitimate or worthy of our sadness or grief fit here.”

Addiction may be the king (or queen) of losses that are not typically viewed as legitimate or worthy. “Some people … don’t think that losing something ‘bad’ should hurt, but it does,” Bates-Maves says. “If we think about the functions of an addiction — that is, what they can provide for people — you start to see how hard they would be to give up.”

Bates-Maves notes all the ways in which addictions can fulfill people’s needs, albeit in unhealthy ways. “Addictive patterns often bring pain, but it’s a pain that’s familiar,” she notes. “They bring routine, even if it’s an unhealthy one. [It’s] the illusion of power and control over one’s body and mind: ‘I want to feel or think differently, and I know how to accomplish that.’”

Addiction can also provide companionship or escape from a sense of loneliness, whether through friends who also use, through distraction, through numbing (both physically and emotionally), or through the sense of energy and excitement that using substances can provide, Bates-Maves explains. “Losing any of that would be, at best, uncomfortable [and], at worst, unbearable,” she asserts.

“In my own clinical work and in speaking to other counseling professionals and clients, I have noted little discomfort or objection to exploring the negatives of an addiction with clients,” Bates-Maves says. “Notably, I have encountered hesitation or overt avoidance of the ‘positives’ of addiction, [such as] ‘don’t speak of the glory days’ or ‘don’t encourage clients to focus on what they miss; instead focus on what they have to look forward to in recovery.’ Consider this though — what if the ‘glory days’ are the only time the client felt powerful, or safe, or noticed, or admired, or skillful?”

When entering recovery, clients not only contend with the addition of a new set of behaviors, thoughts and feelings, but also an absence of “glory,” Bates-Maves continues. She believes that talking about the “positives” of addiction can help clients in recovery tackle challenges such as reestablishing a sense of their own identity, learning how to connect with others, and filling in any social skill deficits.

“Inviting reflection on the ‘glory’ of it all is a chance to observe a client reminisce about a time when they felt more worthy,” she explains. “If self-worth is centered on the addiction or a component of it, we need to know so we can help them redefine and reconstruct who they are, not just what they do. Losing an addiction is not simply losing a substance or behavior. It’s losing a way of surviving that our body and mind have become settled in. It can be a tremendous loss.”

As Bates-Maves points out, losses can occur anywhere along the addiction and recovery spectrum: prior to addiction; during addiction; during detoxification, treatment, initial, mid- or advanced recovery; prior to a lapse or relapse; and after a lapse or relapse. Some losses, such as a negative alteration in personal appearance or losing custody of children, may be the direct result of the person’s addiction. Other losses, such as the death of a parent, may happen separately from the person’s addiction but will still affect a client’s addiction or recovery, Bates-Maves emphasizes.

Other experiences common to people working to move from addiction to recovery include:

  • Loss of comfort: The person can no longer rely on his or her addictive pattern as a coping mechanism.
  • Loss of power: Choices are often restricted in recovery, and it’s not always OK to make a “bad” choice.
  • Loss of identity: The person may wrestle with the question, “If I’m not an addict, who am I?”
  • Loss of pain relief: The person may ask, “How am I supposed to manage my pain now? I don’t know any other ways that work as well as _________ does.”
  • Loss of perceived choice: Because substance use is no longer an option, the person has to find another way to live, cope and function.

“It can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them, and some can flounder in the absence of the structure of an addiction,” Bates-Maves says.

“Also consider the more commonly talked about losses, like loss of lifestyle or [loss of] ‘using’ friends,” she adds. “While it may be healthy to move away from people who remain stuck in unhealthy patterns, it’s certainly not easy. As a counselor, I believe that people have a ton of worth, even in the presence of an addiction or negative behaviors. If I’m told to walk away from the positives of a relationship because there are also negative behaviors, I’d struggle. Clients deserve to struggle with that too. Health and happiness are not always the same thing. If I have the choice to be alone and healthy or to be in the company of others and unhealthy, I’d waiver — particularly if others forced me in one direction or another.

“I think it’s important that counselors really sit with what’s being asked of someone when they’re told they must now avoid people who are still using. Allow for the struggle and encourage clients to grieve the loss of good people who are still stuck. Don’t lose sight of the loss and grief there. Value what’s being lost or taken away instead of encouraging — or sometimes mandating — the death of a relationship. And talk about it. Balance is key. Talk about why some losses are needed, and validate that they’re painful. Allow the pain, allow the struggle, and help clients to cope with them as they move toward something different.”

Losses that are controllable — meaning that clients have some say over their occurrence — can actually foster hope in clients that there will be a chance for repair or course correction once they have adopted a new way of living, Bates-Maves says. Examples of losses that might be controllable include legal problems or convictions, family ruptures, loss of employment and financial problems.

However, even with new skills and hope, there is no guarantee that clients in recovery will be able to fix or recoup all that they have lost, she cautions. For that reason, counselors need to help these clients “sit with that and explore both options: How can I learn to be OK and heal if this is changed or fixed? And how can I learn to be OK and heal if this stays broken or less than I hope?”

“The key lesson there is that clients can reconstruct a meaningful life in recovery, even if some components never return to what they once were,” Bates-Maves says. “It’s about moving ahead and grieving what doesn’t move with you. Again, balance. Growth is often painful, and we want to value the pain and loss that come with growth. Knowing that some relationships have been damaged beyond repair might be very painful and a point of personal despair, but it can also be framed as a powerful motivator. We can mourn the past and work to repair the damage that’s done, and we can work to not repeat it. I think our main task as counselors is to help frame the pain as useful and informative. What people hurt about reveals what they value. It also reveals what they don’t want to repeat. Both elements are quite useful to a counselor in helping a client figure out where they want to go and how to start getting there.”

“I think the most important thing for counselors to remember is that change is really hard,” she emphasizes. “That may seem obvious, but consider how often we forget it. Sometimes clients are kicked out of treatment because they’ve lapsed or relapsed. Other times there are mandates about [whom] one can spend time with and [whom] one cannot, requirements for employment, etc.”

Continuing not to engage in addictive behavior, forging relationships with people who don’t use substances, and gaining and maintaining employment are all healthy goals. However, clients need to process many of their losses — particularly those connected to self-worth and self-efficacy — before it is possible for them to achieve those goals, Bates-Maves says.

“Give people credit for the pain that comes with change, and give them space to talk about it,” she urges. “Talk about how health and happiness aren’t the same thing [but] that the work of counseling is to make them closer. Talk about how in order to move forward, we often have to let go and how hard that is, even when we’re letting go of ‘bad’ things. Focus on where someone is and not only where we/they/you want them to be. If we want to help people move forward, we have to understand what’s keeping them where they are currently. But mostly, give people credit for the pain that comes with change, talk about it, and help them grieve.”

A question of identity

As a certified rehabilitation counselor and someone who sustained a spinal cord injury more than 30 years ago, ACA member Susan Stuntzner knows a lot about the losses and grief that come with disability. 

“At the time, I was paralyzed from the waist down, but within two months, I achieved some mobility and enough to walk with below-the-knee ankle-foot-orthotics [AFOs],” she recounts. “While learning to walk was a fantastic high point of the rehabilitation process, an equally important aspect was figuring out my new or different capabilities. More specifically, I learned I could not run, which is something I used to enjoy; lift more than 25-30 pounds; and that I had to push or pull things rather than lift as a means to move objects. I learned it was probably not a good idea to stand indefinitely and the importance of recognizing and honoring what my
body could do rather than expect me to do things in exactly the same way as I could before.”

Stuntzner also grappled with an issue that is particularly common among women with disabilities whose physical appearance is altered, either through injury or a disability present at birth: body image and attractiveness.

“Again, going back to my own experience, while muscles in my thighs worked, those below my knees did not. This meant my feet and ankles did not either,” she says. “Thus, there was a change in how I initially saw myself and my calves, as these did not have muscle return but they were an attached part of my body. Changing the way I viewed myself was difficult and a form of loss, as I was 19 years of age and highly conscious of fashion and, in particular, shoes. In short, I loved cool shoes and I still do. However, the partial paralysis below my knees meant I now had to wear AFOs and could no longer wear the stylish shoes I had so loved. While some of this may sound trivial, fashion and shoes — again, I was 19 years of age — was important to me, and this change represented a form of loss, along with the attention that my AFOs brought to the stranger passing by.”

“My own story is only one of many, as each person who lives with a disability — visible or invisible — has a story or set of experiences,” Stuntzner says. “For some, it may be cognitive changes [such as] memory, learning, recall, traumatic brain injury. For others, it may be health conditions [such as] irritable bowel syndrome, heart conditions [or] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that disrupt daily activities and events. Other people live with sensory disabilities — loss of vision or hard of hearing. People who are hard of hearing but not deaf face challenges because people sometimes report not feeling as if they fit anywhere; they are not deaf, nor are they a part of the ‘hearing’ sector due to some of the limitations they experience.”

Regardless of a person’s specific set of circumstances, it is important that the person views themselves as a “whole” person, recognizes their assets and strengths, and builds upon those assets and strengths, Stuntzner says. Identifying one’s abilities, strengths and talents regardless of disability and functional limitations is a key part of what rehabilitation counselors help people do, she adds.

Counselors can help these clients grieve by listening and supporting them emotionally and psychologically as they work through the changes brought about by their disability, Stuntzner says. Counselors should understand that adjustment and grief are individualized processes and that two people with very similar conditions and functional changes may cope and adapt very differently, she notes. They also may require different therapeutic approaches to help them move forward. One size does not fit all based on disability type, Stuntzner emphasizes. It is important to view the person as a whole individual and to help people learn to see themselves as capable individuals comprising many different aspects and interests.

“Another key component of working through loss is helping people work through their negative thoughts and feelings, and experience successes, while living with a disability so they develop a strong internal locus of control and a sense that they can effect change in their life and create the life they seek,” Stuntzner says. “In short, it is about empowering people to discover who they are or who they can be in spite of the disability. As people become empowered, they learn to find their voice and own it and use it to help themselves and others. It is through this process that people oftentimes heal and learn to see the bright side of living with a disability.

“By bright side, I mean they learn to see the positive ways their life has changed or can change, and many find a higher purpose through the experience of living with a disability. However, this is a process, one that may begin with grief and loss, then morph into a personal and/or spiritual journey where people discover ways to grow and sometimes access their higher purpose or sense of self. It is on this journey that people find healing.”

Not just a pet

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, at the end of 2016 (the latest year for which statistics were available), nearly 57 percent of American households had pets. Surveys have shown that the majority of people among that 57 percent also view their pets as part of the family. Yet many people do not regard the death of a pet as a “legitimate” loss. Indeed, those who have suffered the loss of a pet may not recognize their own grief, says licensed clinical professional counselor Cheryl Fisher, an ACA member whose counseling specialties include grief and loss.

In Fisher’s experience, it is not unusual for new clients to present with issues such as depression, anxiety or stress, and when talking about why they are seeking therapy, mention — almost as if it were a side note — “By the way, I just lost my cat.”

Fisher recalls a client who had come to her for grief counseling after the death of a relative. As Fisher listened, she realized that the client’s loss extended beyond that one death and that she was experiencing complicated grief.

The woman mentioned in passing that she rescued feral cats, two of which had died recently. These street felines were not easily domesticated, so the woman’s interactions with them had mainly been restricted to feeding them, Fisher notes. Yet the woman kept collecting them.

The client was very isolated. In fact, the recently deceased relative had been her only remaining family member. Except for the cats. As limited as her relationship was with them, the feral cats were her family, and she was grieving those losses as well.

“People are sheepish about sharing their grief, but our animals are the most vulnerable members of our families and also the most unconditional and accepting,” says Fisher, who shared the experience of losing her beloved dog Lily in her CT Online column, The Counseling Connoisseur (“Pet loss: Lessons in grief,” April 2017).

As she tells clients who are grieving (sheepishly or not), the relationships that people have with their pets — whether dogs, cats, fish or fowl — are strong not just emotionally but biochemically. In interacting with their pets, people feel a release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of closeness and attachment.

Fisher also asks these clients to tell their “pet story.” She begins by asking how they met their pets. Fisher says the adoption or birthing story is very significant to the pet–human bond, and when clients start to recount it, they get very passionate as they open up to those memories.

“I always want to know the pet’s name, what kind [of animal it was], what the client liked to do with them and if they have pictures,” Fisher says. “It’s like traditional grief therapy — I’m helping them talk about their loved one.”

As clients talk, Fisher will say things that highlight the significance of their relationship with their pet. For example, she might say, “It sounds like Sadie stood right by you through the divorce.”

Fisher says she can almost see clients exhale: “You get it. I didn’t realize this was so important. She wasn’t just a cat!’”

Fisher also helps clients find ways to stay connected to their pet by giving examples of rituals that others have used. She urges clients to think about their relationship with their pet and the type of remembrance that would fit that bond.

For Fisher and her husband, it was taking Lily’s ashes to the beach where they and their goldendoodle had so often visited and played. “She loved the beach,” Fisher notes.

Some clients create scrapbooks with items such as their pet’s adoption papers and first pictures. Fisher included all the condolence cards she and her husband received in the wake of Lily’s death.

One of Fisher’s clients honored her cat, who loved to look out the window at birds, by constructing a special birdhouse that held pride of place next to the pet’s perch.

Fisher also mentions a video she saw at a conference on children and grief. It was called “Bridget’s Loss,” and in it, a little girl says goodbye to her fish in a “ritual flush.”

Fisher describes the scene: The mother, who filmed the video, asks her daughter if there is anything she wants to say before flushing the fish. The girl says, “Sammy, you were a good fish. You always did good fish things, and now you will be able to go with all the other fish, and I will see you in another time in heaven or wherever.”

The key to grieving pet loss is to have some kind of goodbye ritual, Fisher says, even if it is something completely private that involves only clients and their pet.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/pages/events)

  • “An Overview of Military Service Members and Their Families: How Mental Health Professionals Can Best Serve This Population” with John P. Duggan and Odis McKinzie (WEB17002)

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “When Grief Becomes Complicated” with Antoinetta Corvasce (ACA252)
  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone (ACA231)
  • “Disability Awareness” with Robbin Miller (ACA196)
  • “Counseling Military Families” (ACA139)

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.