Helen Keller has said that “the only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.” This is certainly true in the work of transforming grief into healing and growth. This process involves allowing ourselves to feel the intense emotions of grief – sadness, anger, despair and other difficult emotions, as well as tapping into our internal strengths and external sources of support and ultimately finding new ways to stay connected to our departed loved ones.

Narrative therapy and has been used with a wide variety of difficulties and issues, including grief reactions. The role of the narrative therapist is as collaborator or co-author with the client. As such, the narrative therapist partners with the client to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life (White, 1995). Carr (1998) describes the context of narrative therapy as follows:

Within a narrative frame, human problems are viewed as arising from and being maintained by oppressive stories which dominate the person’s life….Developing therapeutic solutions to problems, within the narrative frame, involves opening space for the authoring of alternative stories, the possibility of which have previously been marginalized by the dominant oppressive narrative which maintains the problem (p. 468).

Narrative therapy is thus an empowering vehicle for “re-authoring lives” (Carr, 1998, p. 468; White, 1995), in which the therapist takes the role of a partner or collaborator with the client, rather than an authority figure (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1999).. The narrative therapist partners with the client to create a safe place to feel the emotions of grief, and to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life. The use of narrative or story is a useful vehicle for making meaning and sense of difficult experiences in our lives, by allowing us to access alternative cognitions and gain self-knowledge.

A narrative therapy tool that is often used in grief work is the use of written expression, such as journaling and letter writing. This can be a powerful vehicle for expressing the emotions of grief and accessing the individual’s unique internal resources and strength, as well as a means of enforcing continuing bonds with the deceased and keeping him or her in the bereaved person’s life as an internalized source of strength and guidance.

The collaborative approach of the narrative therapist can be useful for accessing the client’s spiritual strengths by respectful inquiry into the client’s worldviews, including his or her beliefs before the loss, and how they may have changed since the loss, and discussing spiritual and existential issues that arise in this context. (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2000, p. 167).

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition, life and death, as well as creating an ongoing relationship with the deceased (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000).

The strength-based and holistic approach I use with my grieving clients, through the use of techniques of narrative and solution-focused therapy, is informed by my Buddhist practice. In particular, I come to each session with my clients with the ground that each human being possesses inherent wisdom, or Buddha Nature, and that this wisdom can be called upon to access the individual’s strengths and resilience in times of suffering. As Stephen Levine (1982) notes, grief fully experienced allows us to “plumb the depths” of our souls and to “touch something essential in [our] being….[W]hat is often called tragedy holds the seeds of grace” (pp. 85-86). Those “seeds of grace” are the basic goodness and inherent wisdom possessed by all, and it is my job as a collaborator or partner in the journey of grief to support my clients to get in touch with the strengths that they possess, but which may be obscured by the intensity of their feelings of helplessness and loss. Through narrative therapy, including the use of literary and other creative forms of expression, clients are able to create some space around that intensity, which in turn gives them some perspective and hope for change and transformation.

The broader perspective that can be reached through narrative therapy techniques can put the client in touch with both the uniqueness of his or her own loss, and the universality of grief and suffering. Paradoxically, contemplating the universal truth of suffering can open us to acceptance and peace. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama (1998) observes, “if we can transform our attitude towards suffering, adopt an attitude that allows us greater tolerance of it, then this can do much to help counteract feelings of mental unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and discontent” (p. 140).

Through allowing ourselves to experience and express our suffering, we can find a meaningful way to grow, transforming hopelessness into hope and possibility. The use of journaling and other narrative therapy techniques can foster the realization that grief is an integral component of the human condition. Through experiencing our own unique grief, we can tap into its universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and the human condition. This is the transpersonal and transformative work of healing grief.

Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for working with the emotions and grief and finding new meaning in one’s life. The process of expression literally takes deep feelings out of the body, externalizing them so that they become workable. Through this process, grieving clients are able to see that they have some control over their lives, and can tap into their strengths and their inherent wisdom. With my guidance as a partner on the path of healing grief, my clients can discover their unique strengths, resources and resiliency, deepen their spiritual beliefs, and enhance the meaning of their lives in the context of the human condition.

© 2007 Beth S. Patterson

Author's Bio: 

Beth Patterson is a grief counselor and psychotherapist in Denver. She specializes in grief, loss and life transition issues, including the death of a loved one or pet, divorce, job loss, caregiving stress and other normal but overwhelming life changes. She is a graduate of the Transpersonal Counseling Psychology program at Naropa University in Boulder, CO, and is a cerified mindfulness meditation instructor and cerfified EMDR practioner.