The Problem with Helping Right Now

Let’s be honest, almost all of us helper types are struggling right now - especially if we are in a helping profession.  Between the horrors some of us are witnessing first hand and the needs presented to us that we don’t have solutions for, may of us are depressed, burned out, and maybe considering another career or at least questioning if this is really what we want to do anymore.

I’m in the same boat.  While I don’t have all of the answers right now, something shifted for me this week - something I have thought about but really hadn’t embraced on a deeper level yet.  I think this “something” may be an underlying piece of why we are all struggling so much.  This something is grief.  But it’s a special type of grief related to ambiguous loss, a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss to describe loss without the promise of anything that looks like resolution, loss without certainty.  People are coming to us with loads and loads of ambiguous loss from the past year, as we are wading through our own similar experiences, and we can’t do anything about it.


Let me back up.  In 2019 my mom died unexpectedly.  Aside from grandparents and beloved pets, that was the first major death in my life.  So I did what I do when something like this happens:  I read half a dozen books on the topic, attended a group on it, and wrote a lot about it.  What I learned is that grief is not a “fixable problem” and what we tend to call healing looks different.  Instead of the pain going away, we learn to weave the fabric of the loss into our life.  That’s not to say we are always sad or the pain is always as intense as it once was, but rather, the hurt still surfaces as we are reminded of what we lost even decades later.


Why does this matter?


I don’t know about you, but I have heard from others in the helping profession and noticed myself that people are coming to us in pain and they want us to fix it.  That may not be new.  What is new, is that the external stressors are so high right now (and have been for a year) coupled with ambiguous loss, that many cannot get themselves to follow through on what we recommend.  Just like us, they are overwhelmed and stressed perhaps knowing what they need to do right now but unable to do it.


As a grieving daughter and someone who has counseled more and more people around grief since the death of my mom, this was all feeling very familiar:  Sitting with people over the past nine months has felt like sitting with people in their deep grief.


So what if helping right now is more about holding a safe space for people to grieve and doing it for longer periods of time?  What if we shifted our approach to just sit with them in their pain and sorrow as long as they need just like we need to sit with ours?  It seems like a big ask, because it can feel helpless, but as I have started to shift towards companioning them in their grief (and dealing with my own) I have noticed some positive shifts both in my clients and in myself.


How do I companion someone in their grief?


Your role in your clients or loved ones lives will likely help you decide which of the following are appropriate for your situation.  At a minimum, perhaps these strategies can help you with your own ambiguous loss.


Since grief is as unique as a thumb print (to use Alan Wolfelt’s language), our grief will be unique to each person for each loss.  That said, I suspect some things may be common among many.  What follows are some tips on what I have noticed working for me and my clients who are grieving.  This certainly is not an exhaustive list.

1. Help the person name the loss(es), perhaps explaining more about ambiguous loss.

2. Hold a safe, calm space for them to share about their experiences with a focus on staying calm in your body and naming (or helping name) and validating their feelings as well as normalizing their experiences.

3. If a loved one has died, help them stay connected to that person (if they wish to), perhaps inviting them to share stories of their time together and discussing ways they can stay connected outside of your time together.

4. With ambiguous loss:

  • Help them practice dialectical or paradoxical thinking (e.g., I may be able to return to my previous work environment, but maybe not); this may not feel intuitive, but when we practice it over time it reduces the stress of not knowing.  It creates a sense of certainty because in a way, these are truthful and certain statements.
  • Encourage them to practice radical acceptance. For those unfamiliar with it, Radical Acceptance means that we practice accepting the reality of a situation even if we don’t like or agree with the situation.  For example, I don’t like that I can’t sit in a coffee shop while reading and writing right now - and OF COURSE I don’t like it.  Those feelings are real and valid.  AND, the reality is that I can’t.  When I let go of fighting with the reality of the situation, I can spend energy on finding something else that fills me up in a similar way.
  • Help them actively mourn. If you are a psychotherapist, this may be during your time together by holding space.  If not, you may encourage them to actively mourn on their own with supportive loved ones or their own psychotherapist.  For more on this, check out my blog post on ambiguous loss.  
  • Help them find meaning and purpose. This is different than the belief “everything happens for a reason.  Instead, finding meaning and purpose means directing our energy and experience of what happened into something meaningful.  Note that this step may take some time to get to; we may need to actively mourn what we have lost.  But eventually, finding meaning and purpose can give us hope and for some, reason to keep living.
  • Help them stop trying to get over it.  We don’t get over people and things we have lost, at least not if we loved them.  We either figure out a way to convince ourselves that we have, that we are “fine” (which usually involves some form of denial) or we reconcile the loss, weaving it into the fabric of our lives.  So instead of working to get over the loss and the feelings it brings, work with it.  Recognize this too is a part of their story, but know it is a part.  It isn’t the end.  We can choose to find a way to keep going and enjoy life again.

5. To do the above, you may find you need to do your own work around this perhaps using some of the ideas above.

Before we go, another piece I found helpful for me in being able to companion people more effectively right now is a virtual retreat I attended with Emilah Dawn DeToro on moving past 2020.  What I found incredibly helpful was writing about the different seasons of 2020 (starting with Winter Solstice 2019) and everything that was happening.  This was followed by reflecting on what I had written to identify themes that popped out as well as how I grew in 2020, how I supported myself in 2020, and how I got in my own way.  Being able to sort through the pain of last year really helped me feel less burdened by it and more free to move into the space of now.  Perhaps consider scheduling some time with yourself (if you haven’t already) to process through all of this.

Be a professional helper right now is tough.  My hope is we can find our way through it first supporting ourselves and then continue to serve those in our care.


May you be happy

May you be healthy

May you be at peace

May you live with ease

For more on grief and loss, check out my blog post on Shining a Light on Grief, Loss, and Mourning.

Looking for support from fellow healthcare workers and a mental health therapist?   Join Women in Healthcare Support Circle.  A Facebook Group just for you!


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