Therapy is great. Therapy can be life-giving and life-saving and a necessary coping mechanism for surviving loss. Short term, long term, sporadic… couples, individual, group… there are a ton of options for folks to find something that helps. I am pro therapy for anyone and everyone who wants it. No shame, no stigma.
With all of the positive messages about therapy in my community, there was one I personally did not hear enough: Therapy is optional. There are an infinite number of ways to cope and talking with a professional is not the only valid choice.
Nobody should be shamed OUT OF therapy but there’s no need to bully anyone into it either. We all deserve the right to tend to our grief however we darn well please.
Throughout my grieving process, I was asked about therapy a lot. Sometimes it was people in my closest support group, folks who knew my heart and were trying to help me find ways to process our loss. I never minded talking about therapy with them. But far more often, acquaintances or practitioners asked me for one of two reasons:
- They were trying to determine whether I was working through my grief and they used therapy as the indicator, or
- I expressed a big emotion and it made them uncomfortable.
For me, when folks asked for one of these two reasons, it was not helpful. Therapy is not a perfect indicator of how someone is coping. And therapy or not, my son died. Of course I have big emotions. Also, people never seemed to ask my husband about therapy for either of these two reasons. Hmmph. That’s obnoxious to say the least.
Instead of just complaining about these interactions, I started to make a list of what I wish people had said. Why? Because most folks genuinely wanted to support me and just didn’t know how. So, here’s my list of helpful suggestions:
1. What coping mechanisms are working well for you right now? Which ones aren’t working? Do you need help finding new ones?
This. I wish every caring practitioner asked this question to loss parents instead of asking about therapy. If therapy is an important strategy for me, I’d tell you as I answered this question. If exercise and church and journaling are helping me right now, I’d tell you about the work I was doing to make those things happen. This question encourages me to reflect and see if anything isn’t working, and if I need help or resources, you just showed me that your door is open. Please ask this.
2. How are you doing day to day? Are you sleeping, eating, working, spending time with loved ones, laughing?
Sure, this is a very basic level of functioning, but I lost my son. During the good weeks I’ll be happy to tell you about sleeping and eating well and enjoying some activities. On the tougher weeks I’ll be able to express that no, basic tasks feel hard right now. This question makes me feel like you understand how difficult life can be when you’re grieving.
3. How’s your heart? How’s your anxiety?
Ask a question that invites me to talk about big feelings if I want to and help me normalize them if you can. Even with the best coping mechanisms, my heart is sad and my anxiety will never go away completely. That’s my normal and I appreciate you acknowledging it.
4. I’m sorry. This sucks.
This is always one of the most comforting things to hear. Don’t look for a silver lining. Don’t use the phrase “at least…” followed by anything. Stand with me for a moment and acknowledge that losing someone you love is just terrible. It feels uncomfortable, but it’s the truth and it’s helpful when we can both admit it.