The Value of Listening

Grieving womanI’ve seen a client for three months and am at a loss for what to do. Her husband of 35 years died suddenly last year, and our work has focused on her grief and loss. Her feelings are still very intense, and I’m beginning to wonder if I can help her. I’m in my early thirties with both of my parents still living, so I don’t know what she’s going through.

It’s good that your client is getting your help and support at this difficult time. It isn’t necessary to have personal experience with issues like those of your clients in order to be helpful to them. Instead, your grieving client will benefit from your attention and skillful listening as she struggles to live with her intense grief. Listening to your client is a vital part of the therapeutic process and will facilitate her healing.

You may be more accustomed to thinking about and planning for active interventions in your clinical work. Clinical training often emphasizes the use and mastery of techniques, and this may have given you the impression that being a therapist centers on finding something to do that will lead to change in your clients’ lives. You may undervalue the impact of your presence in listening to your clients and sharing their pain without pressure to make it go away. This is especially true for feelings of grief and loss, which many people in our society avoid. Clients who have experienced a recent loss often have been encouraged to “get over it” or advised to “move on” by well-meaning but ill-informed friends and family members.

In this case, your primary task is to give your client as much room and time as she needs to talk about her 35-year marriage, the circumstances of her husband’s death, the feelings she has had during the last year, and how she feels on a day-to-day basis as she copes with this loss. Although you haven’t experienced such a loss, you can and should be open to hearing from her what this loss has been like for her. Your empathy, warmth and acceptance will be the primary therapeutic tools you need. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed with the intensity of her emotions, since it sounds like she feels overwhelmed with them. It’s not your job to change her feelings, but they will become more manageable over time as she feels your presence and support in sharing them with her. This process will unfold gradually as she recognizes your ability to work on her internal timetable rather than imposing one of your own.

If you work in a setting that places a time limit on treatment, you may need to let go of your wish for a specific outcome and instead focus on her need for you to share this part of her journey, which began before she came to see you and will continue after she ends. She will be grateful for your capacity to sit with her rather than to rush toward an artificial end point.

I hope you found this helpful in understanding the value of listening. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.