The language of our culture is full of sentiments acknowledging how we feel after a loss. The term “heartache” and the phrase “I’m so sad, it hurts” immediately come to mind. Grief is the body’s response to loss, and we attempt expression of physical, emotional and mental feeling with words or displays of emotion to express these painful sensations.
Mental and Physical Housecleaning
The expression of grief can be provoked by a single event and can also be a cumulative reaction due to many unexpressed grievous moments. Unresolved grief, I believe, can create physical ailments and emotional dysfunction. Because our culture does not deal with the grieving individual effectively, such grief can create long-lasting physical imbalances (“dis-ease“) in the human body. These ailments can be successfully healed using a multi-faceted therapeutic process called Degriefing.
As we discussed in Part 1, Degriefing combines an in-depth exploration of a person’s emotional and mental state, along with a complete assessment of their physical condition. With proper investigation, a therapeutic treatment plan, unique for each individual, is created. The therapy incorporates conventional and complementary (integrative) healing strategies, depending upon the client’s needs and responses. Degriefing is used to unlock and release grief from an individual’s body, thereby allowing physical symptoms as well as mental and emotional wounds to heal. When individuals establish an awareness of the amount of grief they are exposed to, affected by, habitually repressing, denying and, yet, carrying in their musculature, they can adapt new behavioral patterns that will help them now and throughout the rest of their lives. Grief, like traffic, doesn’t quit.
Conventional psychotherapies alone may not be effective for this level of grief. Some psychotherapies do not attempt to address the physical imbalances induced by loss, trauma or great sorrow. Although an individual’s mental state might be temporarily lifted with psychotherapy, the physical condition often remains untreated. I have found by introducing the body to specific somatic therapies while also addressing the psyche, a person’s mental and emotional state improves tremendously and, often, permanently.
By caring for the body, we can learn to release psychic clutter (held grief) and do physical housecleaning so we can expand our sense of self within the body and thereby stretch our inner and outer limits.
Psychosomatic semanticsâ„¢ is a primary technique used throughout the Degriefing process. What does “psychosomatic” mean? It simply refers to the mind/body connection. Unfortunately, today there is a residual stigma associated with the term because of its use in the medical community to describe “imaginary” ailments, or those that could not be diagnosed as “of physical origin.” The term psychosomatic was frequently used as a catch-all phrase associated with incurable hypochondriacs, and it usually inferred mental instability.
In truth, there is a long history of physical symptoms and ailments being caused (and treated) by mental and emotional factors. The modern connection between mind and body was popularized several decades ago by biofeedback demonstrations. Today, there is a large body of literature that acknowledges, if not establishes, this connection. The use of placebos is often seen as a conventional example of this treatment technique, which relies on this connection.
The word “semantics” is commonly defined as linguistic interpretations, connotations and meaning. It implies verbal communication, but also includes the interpretation of visual symbols and other nonverbal cues (body language), but not touch.
Psychosomatic semantics, as it relates to Degriefing, is the use of language as a therapeutic tool to evoke a desired physical response, encouraging a release of grief held by the body – using language (semantics) to enter the mind (psyche) to affect the body (soma). Intentionally selecting words to affect changes similar to those induced by certain physical treatments (such as massage) is accomplished by accessing the intellectual awareness, the comprehension and the power of the mind. This technique can initiate profoundly positive changes in the somatic aspects of well-being.
Let’s examine the role of the therapist. To be truly effective, a Degriefer, like many therapists, should have an accurate self-awareness in four primary areas before beginning work with a client:
– Awareness of their own physical state, including body language, posture, eye contact, gestures and appearance.
– Awareness of their emotional state, their own amount of grief, their motivations/experiences, their degree of compassion/burnout, etc.
– Awareness of their own spiritual state (their own existing spiritual/religious beliefs).
– Awareness of their own behavior.
An honest self-assessment by the therapist helps create a sincere, trusting, safe, confident environment, which is especially important when working with grieving clients. Because deeply personal issues and painful experiences are discussed, a self-aware therapist has the capacity to be more objective, when necessary, and more empathetic when needed. A self-aware therapist will also better maintain their own state of well-being. Degriefing sessions have the potential to be draining both emotionally and physically, as a Degriefing therapist is devoted to supporting individuals dealing with difficult, painful and often tragic stories. Sessions that also incorporate massage, yoga or dance can be physically strenuous and demanding. The competent, successful therapist needs to remain focused, present, compassionate and unburdened.
It is the Degriefing therapist’s responsibility to set the climate for the grieving individual, whether it takes place in an office, nursing facility, home or hospital. For instance, position yourself face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart; keep both feet on the floor, establish connection of how and why the client came to you, and acknowledge the courage and wisdom it takes to seek treatment.
In order to normalize grief, the therapist listens to the client’s story, explains the nature and stages of grief, and outlines the Degriefing process. Degriefing consists of two overlapping processes: 1) a non-physical exploration of a person’s suffering, and related counseling, and 2) a physical assessment and somatic treatment.
The therapy incorporates conventional and complementary healing strategies, depending upon the patient’s needs and responses. An important precept is that treatment is individualized for each patient. What is appropriate for one might not be for another.
Verbal therapies are used to educate the grieving individual and instigate introspection, recognition and acceptance. It is necessary to teach what grief is, how grief manifests itself and the different stages through which grieving people typically pass. The grieving person’s particular response to loss and personal condition is explored and discussed. This involves education and active listening (compassionate listening with supportive feedback, co-counseling and use of responders) combined with physical modalities to cleanse the body/mind. The therapist points out the unique nature and benefits of this treatment and may have the client read selected passages of material or do some writing.
For example, I give a handout of reading materials including a recommended list of books, an article on my work and a listing of some grief relief techniques. I ask my clients to keep a grief folder and a notebook to jot down thoughts they would like to talk about with me. As long as the client is sincere and willing, specific healing strategies (such as nostril breathing, using some form of hydrotherapy and yoga postures) and constructive physical activities (such as tai chi, vipassana or a personal trainer with activity tailored to the individual’s needs) can be set by mutual consent.
The Degriefing tools live in the awareness I bring to the somatic grieving process through the breath, and so each client is assisted in feeling safe while working with their emotions. I use toys for psychodrama, or give a Swedish, lymphatic massage or reiki treatment, accompanied by specifically chosen music. For the transformation of grief, I use my Tibetan bowls and a medical tuning fork for toning the chakras. A comprehensive intake questionnaire is an essential and skillful aid, showing correct intention and minimizing stress. Degriefing also uses humor to engage others. For instance, I am having handkerchiefs made with my logo to give clients as a gift, to let them know crying is not only okay, it is advised and appreciated.
Finally, Degriefing practitioners often have close contact with the family, friends and caregivers of the client. They frequently interact with doctors and medical support team, and can assist by making referrals to widen the client’s healing network.
An example of the successful use of psychosomatic semantics occurred when I was called into a Bay Area hospital to work with a primary care physician’s patient. The client was an 84-year-old, legally-blind female who had been in a crosswalk with her husband when they were hit by a car. They both survived. She was in shock and weeping for several weeks and had rejected a psychiatrist’s recommendation she take anti-depressants. Because she could see me only in shadow, and it was too soon to touch her, I spent two hours, sitting well-positioned in front of her, using psychosomatic semantic communication, nostril breathing and my constant compassionate presence to reach her.
I would say things such as: “Marie, I feel this is a very difficult moment for you, since, after all these years of marriage, you are here alone in the hospital worrying about your husband and having no one to talk to who doesn’t get upset by your tears.” She nodded in agreement. I then talked about the value of her tears and applauded her for being so intuitive.
Ultimately, after trust was established, she agreed to take an herbal treatment to combat her depression. I explained that the drugs she was taking were known to sometimes depress the system and, therefore, might make her depressed, upset, difficult, despairing, misunderstood, withdrawn, sensitive, emotional, inquisitive and/or questioning. The herbal treatment was described as a “rebalancer” to work along with her system and help balance the side effects caused by painkillers. During the two-hour session, I never used the term “anti-depressant,” because she believed they were “only for crazy people.” After taking the herbal treatment, she spoke of the satisfaction of being consulted about her own care and of being “heard.”
Psychosomatic semantics can be an effective primary therapeutic technique for communication and support for grieving persons. Combined with appropriate bodywork and other physical modalities, it is the foundation for effective Degriefing. A successful Degriefing process can produce transformatively nurturing results for prolonged balance and integration, encouraging health and well-being of the body and mind.
By Lyn Prashant, founder of the Degriefing Process, completed JFK University’s Graduate Psychology Grief Certification Program. She has a private therapeutic bodywork, yoga and grief counseling practice in Marin County, Calif. She teaches at UC Berkeley Extension, at Alive & Well! School of Conscious Bodywork, and presents nationally and for the University of Arizona. Her forthcoming book is titled The New Art of Degriefing: Transforming Grief Using Body/Mind Therapies for Health Care Professionals, Counselors, Clergy and Caregivers. She is presently in a Ph.D. program in Degriefing with the University of Integrative Learning. For information, call 415/457-2272, visit www.degriefing.com, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Portions of this article were excerpted from AHP Perspective Magazine, Aug./Sept. 2001.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2002.Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.