By David Treadway
Complicated grief, involving varying degrees of guilt, anger, relief, and blame, separates people who might otherwise draw closely together after the loss of a loved one. That family members often grieve in very different ways may cause conflict among them, which can actually block the grieving process itself.
Sameet Kumar's case presents an excellent example of how delicate and difficult it is to address complicated grief. He does a superb and tender job of holding all the family members, despite their conflicts. Then, by sidestepping the impasse over John's daughter and triangulating in the grandson Bobby, he provides a connecting link that keeps them together despite their many unresolved issues.
He also shows the power of taking here-and-now action steps to promote healing, rather than being overly dependent on the sharing feelings method that most of us therapists are biased toward. Tears of joy in discovering a relationship with his grandson are just as healing for John as tears of sadness, perhaps more so. It seems clear that slowly, over time, the family will reunite and forgive their father.
It's very important for all of us in the therapeutic community to respect the different ways people have of grieving and to guard against our own biases about what's the right way to grieve. In the last few years, four of my clients have had a child die during the course of our therapy. In the face of this unbearable tragedy, each grieving parent has struggled to survive in very individual ways, and each couple has shown profound differences in how they've coped. The essence of my role with each of them has been to provide support in whatever way of grieving seems to work best, and to avoid projecting onto them my assumptions about psychologically healthy ways of expressing grief.