Grief Counsellor Interview
"Its good for people to do what youre doing, to think and talk about death when they are not in grief, because when grief hits they have some framework to fall back on."
NEIL BLICK- VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA
-Would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself, your job, what it involves and who employs you.
I'm employed by the Department of Education of Victoria and my position is the Senior Psychologist in the Ballarat area. So my job is to work with school communities, thats parents, teachers and students between the age of about four up to nineteen. I work with a whole host of issues, social, emotional, intellectual all kinds of behavioral issues that kids have. I work with stressed out teachers who suffer various issues related to their work. I help with systems and organizational structures, developing better ways to group together in schools.
-This is a difficult area to work in, how did you come to be involved?
It just happened, I didnt plan to do this job, it just sort of emerged along the way. I taught for four years before I became involved in psychology and before that I traveled, experienced many varied walks of life, and had many different experiences. I guess that helped me to understand and appreciate the diversity of people, how different we all are.
-What sort of personal characteristics do you think are needed to work in this field?
I think the people who work in this area have to be fairly well grounded. They have to be in touch with lots of diversity of life and to be able to appreciate a wide spectrum. They have to be very tolerant and have good communication skills, the ability to listen and definitely a sense of humor. When I've been on panels interviewing people for jobs as psychologists or social workers I've looked for people who seem to be fluid, not rigid in their thinking. A psychologist should really have had a rich tapestry of experience.
-How do you feel about being interviewed by a teenager for a page dealing entirely with death.
I think it's very healthy. I think that death and dying is part of the life process. As soon as people come to terms with their own issues about death and life then its one of the broader things that give people an understanding of where they stand in the world. In our society up until recently there has been a lot of encouragement to pretend that death doesnt happen. I think that people suffer as a result of that. They have denied the experience of death in their lives and families and it is only once you start to recognize that and deal with it that things get better. I'm also aware that adolescence is a time when most kids are thinking about life and death. So I think what you're doing is a great thing.
-What the advantages and of this job? What do you get out of it?
I have a lot of autonomy and flexibility so I can decide what I do and dont do through most of my days so its nice to be in control of my diary. I work with a lot of different people in a lot of different places and I travel around a lot. It allows me to be creative, I get to come up with different ideas. Its a very stimulating job.
-What are the disadvantages? It has the potential to be a very depressing job, has it ever got too much?
What depresses me is dealing with a very big bureaucracy. A big organization can be very difficult to work with. The things I lose sleep over are the structural things, the political side. I rarely lose sleep over clients or people I'm working with. If there are things that I find difficult I go to other psychologists and I'll talk to them, so I build into my own practice de-briefing sessions. Very occasionally I worry about a clients situation but not often and I never talk about a situation I'm dealing with at work at home. I have a network of people I can talk to.
-I have read about a process of grieving - denial, anger, depression, acceptance - is that what you see?
Yes, though not every one goes through all the stages, usually people connect to other unresolved issues of other unresolved aspects of grief. Take a situation like someone's mother dying and the person doesnt really grieve. Three months later the cat dies and the person goes into a deep period of mourning because there is so much they havent really worked through. So I'm always aware of looking for what other issues have been unresolved in the past.
-How can counselling help people through this process?
It can do a few things. One is it can let people know that what they are going through is a process. They can learn that they will live through it that even though things wont ever return to the way they were before they will get to a point where they can live, and combat what is happening to them and go on. Hopefully they will be strengthened by it. That can take a while, but people need to know that it will eventually happen and they can take steps along that path and that makes people feel better.
They also need to know that some of the odd things that they may be doing straight after a death are OK. They can give themselves permission to perhaps make a joke about the person who has died. Or they might forget things, even important things but thats part of it to. They dont have to be too hard on themselves. It can be a problem when people are grieving after death and their emotional problem are so great that to do what we are doing now, to talk through the emotions, to think about them, is very, very hard. Its good for people to do what youre doing, that is thinking about it and talking about it when they are not in grief because when grief hits they have some framework to fall back on. It is the people who have no framework, who are in total denial, who are the most at risk of doing harmful things. It could be things like drinking binges or taking drugs and its probably not the best way to deal with it.
-Sometimes you have to deal with suicides. Is the nature of the grieving process different to that of a natural death?
Yes, part of a natural death is very often a sense of relief. When someone has had cancer or someone is very old even though it's sad, at least the relatives can get together and say to each other at least his suffering is at an end or she has gone to a better place. Whereas with suicide there are a lot of unanswered questions. People might feel that the person has treated them poorly by doing this. They might feel that the person who suicided has taken an easy option. There is more resentment, more confusion and often difficulty involved with people coming to terms with it. Especially if its a young person who has suicided. Older people often have more of an informed choice, and their situations can be very different, like terminal illness. People tend to understand these situations better.
-Is faith or religious belief an important aspect of coping with grief? Is it more difficult for those without a formal belief system?
It can be. People who have a belief that things are not totally in their control, that there are forces greater than themselves, so some sort of broader religion or spiritual belief will be able to see themselves as part of a bigger picture. There are a lot of different views and opinions and you can't categorize any specific groups.
-Do you feel that the Australian society deals well with death in general?
In some ways we do and in others we dont. I used to think that Australians dealt with it well but I'm not so sure anymore. I dont think Australians feel the need to present a really strong powerful public face to the extent that we once did or that may still exist in some other societies. Men, especially younger men, are more able to cry and to express emotion without feeling any public shame. There is a greater understanding that death can be talked about, that children have needs, that there are a range of possible reactions. Kids need not be protected from the reality of death, but can be supported through it. Generally we tend not to be as fearful. Maybe our society has always been less rigid ans maybe the many influences of different cultures have broadened our ways of behaving and seeing. However, there is still room for growth and I never make assumptions about where a person is at when they are confronted by a death.
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