One of my more difficult, draining and yet rewarding consultations in general practice has been one centered around grief and loss. I saw a new patient who had moved to the area with her husband just over 12 months ago when they had both just retired in their early 60s – soon after, he was having elective surgery and tragically he died suddenly after the operation from an unrelated cause. She then had a heart attack on that same day and required urgent cardiac stenting.
My heart ached for her. Needless to say, she was still struggling somewhat with all of this, about 15 months down the track. What could I say? I did my best to listen and offer support. She was thankful for the 45 years of a wonderful marriage relationship with her late husband, and for the children they raised together, but it was partly the fact that she knew just how much she had lost which made it so difficult for her to keep on keeping on. She felt guilty that she had outlived someone she saw as such a great person, with so much to offer to world still.
We both agreed that the pain of her loss will never completely go away – she will never ‘get over it’ or ‘move on’, but she will learn to live with the grief – the alternative being not to live at all. I realised however, the shameful lack of counselling skills I had been taught in medical school, even though by the end of the consult, rapport was good and she thanked me for listening. I wished there was more I could do to assist her. I felt terribly helpless – and she knew I could not do anything to take her pain away.
So is there such a thing as ‘good grief’? Can one ‘grieve well’? What are the principles of counselling someone suffering with grief?
I would love to hear your thoughts.