The new, ungoverned and unsubstantiated profession of "grief counselling" first gained prominence barely a decade ago. On January 8, 1986, when the American space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing the entire crew of astronauts including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, children all over the continent were watching the fatal fireball on their classroom TVs. The media milked the tragedy for days, emphasizing the "traumatization" of millions of empathetic school children. This created an instant demand for counsellors to deal with the media-induced hysteria.
The application of the theories about grief has, however, been slower to gain ground as a base for working with losses other than bereavement. Even though analysis of the 'problems' of many client groups points to loss as a significant area for counselling or less formal modes of helping, in practice the concepts of grief and loss are given relatively little attention in training in the helping professions. While nursing and social work training may often include the subjects of grief and counselling skills within the curriculum, these have largely remained token elements and have given little opportunity for the development of practice competence.
Will we harm young people by offering grief counselling to them when they may not feel the need for it? My guess is that these young people are far wiser than we give them credit for, and will take what is offered and decide for themselves if they need help or not.
Healthy youth are the face of the future. When grief is not addressed in the early years, it can manifest as inappropriate behaviour.
Many psychoanalysts have even argued that failure to express grief indicates - or may lead to - deep psychological problems.
These days, bereavement counsellors often urge people to express their sadness in order to release "suppressed emotions''. Now, however, a group of psychologists from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who carried out their own research and reviewed that of others, has found no link between emotional expression of grief and a lessening of subsequent distress.
Thus it is no surprise that we turn increasingly to professional grief counsellors to help us cope with death. This profession is growing fast: Organizations have sprung up (such as the U.S. Association for Death Education and Counselling) to certify grief counsellors, and Britain's Reading University now offers an MA in Death and Society.
But not everyone agrees that this is the best course, particularly if pushed on people who do not seek it.
Pioneered by U.S. paramedic Jeff Mitchell, the debriefing requires anyone involved in a traumatic incident to rehash the details of the event with a counsellor.
But reliving the trauma is now being questioned as a means of therapy.
"For some people, these cathartic interventions actually retard their ability to recover naturally," says Dr. Richard Gist, a public health psychologist with the Kansas City Fire Department, and a leading critic of conventional grief counselling.
Helping clients adjust to grief and loss is a critical skill for counselors that will be in more demand in the coming decades. Grief is the "emotion, generated by an experience of loss and characterized by sorrow and/or distress and the personal and interpersonal experience of loss" (Humphrey, 2009, p. 5). Researchers (Maples & Abney, 2006; Robb, Haley, Becker, Polivka, & Chwa, 2003) anticipate aging baby boomers' requests for grief counseling to rise as they experience successive losses.
Until now, there was little support for people who lose a loved pet, even though the grief can be every bit as lasting as with a human death, said Cindy Adams, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.
Beginning next year, a new curriculum at the college will add grief counseling for pet owners to the standard classes in healing animals.
Grieving such losses is important because it allows us to "free-up" energy bound to the lost person or experience, so that we might re-invest that energy elsewhere. Until we grieve effectively, we are likely to find reinvesting difficult; a part of us remains tied to the past.
The field of grief counseling has changed during the past 15 to 20 years, Humphrey says, and one thing that’s fallen by the wayside is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief model. “We know better than that now,” says Humphrey, who is a member of ACA. “Everybody experiences loss and grief differently and uniquely. We need to start from people’s unique experience of loss and grief rather than applying universal templates.”