Friend: “Yeah, we saw Bruce Lee’s grave.”
Me: “Really? He’s buried there?”
Friend: “Yeah man, right next to his son.”
It felt casual to talk about death in this conversation with a friend about his recent visit to Seattle. Bruce Lee feels far away from me in some ways, from a far away time, a far away context.
Not the same as when one of my clients died last year.
Has that happened to you yet?
We had our session together, literally joking about how young he looked. The next week, this sweet middle-aged father was dead. When I first heard the news, I felt so unprepared (among many other feelings of course). Never-mind my life experience or the time I’d spent studying books about psychology. This was not far away. This was right next to me. I was stunned. Speechless. Heartbroken.
I know people die. My birth father died when I was 2 years old.
Death has always been part of my story.
I just hadn’t planned for this person to die.
Despite my existential background, I was so caught off guard that I actually googled suggestions about what to do, what to say, questions to ask, how to counsel their surviving family members around death, how to make sense out of the fact that my client is dead. Kind of a panic.
But then I snapped out of it. This is basically what my entire therapeutic orientation rests upon. Helping clients break loose from the superficial and meaningless fluff of the world and get to what matters most. And personally it’s at the foundation of my faith in Jesus Christ.
Love, death, resurrection.
Irvin Yalom writes about it in Existential Psychotherapy:
“The physicality of death destroys man. The idea of it saves him.”
Saves him from what? From our status quo. Our default toward the trivial. The recognition of death forces us to recognize what’s really important, strips us bare to what’s essential for a truly vibrant and satisfying life.
The client who’s pondered death knows what it is to live.
How are you helping your clients do that?
The very thing that brings up terror in us could actually help us break loose from the trouble we’re in and help restore our life to a clear perspective.
“yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” -James 4:14 (ESV)
For as long as we’re here, our clients will benefit from death-talk (at their pace of course). I’ve tried subtle and not-so-subtle ways to open the door to this conversation. And failed (gathered data). But eventually learned how to allow death into the room in a way that’s actually helpful.
Whether it’s with your client, coworker, classmate, friend, neighbor, family member, or you, this is a real sensitive topic. It feels a bit strange to even write about it. But I think it’s part of our job and calling. I don’t just shout these things out during conversations willy nilly for kicks and entertainment. I do keep them in the back of my mind and pull them in when it feels appropriate and helpful and needed for the client, in accordance with their goals and what they’ve given me permission to ask and say.
I’m sharing my thoughts with you so that you might feel more prepared to help your clients than I did.
And more than avoiding your client dying unexpectedly, we’ll seek additional outcomes. Clients begin to reconcile some relationship or decision their facing. They reach for a depth of hope they hadn’t considered before. Or they locate themselves back into the context of the much larger picture of life and the universe. Their perspectives get refreshed and their priorities begin shifting toward health and well-being.
Some clients are into this sort of thing. Others would rather die than talk about dying.
Here are 5 ideas to help get that process started:
1) Partner with your diagnostic assessment. Maybe you’ve just met. And you’re asking a bunch of personal questions that they’d never in a thousand years think of telling another person. So, why not take the opportunity and perhaps drop a little seed in the culture/values section? The DA can be your friend. Ask questions like, “What beliefs might your family have that shape the way you view the world? What are some or any spiritual needs that you’d like me to consider as we work together?” Questions like this will send the message, “Despite any differences we might have in world-view, yes, I value you, everything about you, you’re important to me and your beliefs matter to me and I’m going to make sure we include all of you as we navigate our precious time together.”
2) “Where do you see yourself in 500 years? Oops I meant 5 years, sorry!!” You might go on to confess you misspoke, and affirm that 500 years is a long time from now, “we’ll both be dead by then lol.” If they respond lightheartedly, you’ll know you can probably move forward and talk about about death, etc.
3) Create a timeline. A tactful sense of humor can go a long way (I’m still learning tactful). Joking aside, for #3, you might consider a timeline. This allows for some creativity, and helps us all feel more comfortable together talking about something ridiculously scary. Remember, “the idea of death saves him from…” Use markers and crayons, clay or water color, pen and paper, whatever you can get your hands on to draw some kind of timeline where there’s a birth and a death, beginning and end, left to right. Somewhere on there you could write the year they were born, and maybe today’s date, and then maaaaaaybe a final space with a question mark. And go from there. Talk about defining moments. Ups and downs. Firsts and lasts, who and where and when and why kinds of questions. The end of that line is indisputable. It’s right there on the table, staring back up at us. Your main message hopefully is, “In here, we’re safe. We can talk about it. This is important for our work together. I’m gonna walk with you on this one. I have my timeline, too, you know. You’re not alone.” It’s simple and dynamic.
4) Ask about what happens next. Life-span psychology can help us out here. You might consider this framework when folks are talking about overall goals and life stages. Think about the different seasons of life and what they mean, their expectations in them, where they learned those expectations and how they’re choosing to live from them, etc. Think about that common narrative, “Um. Graduate high school. Or college. Job. My career. Marriage. Children. Retirement. Um..” What do all those milestones mean to you? Why pursue them? And what happens next after retirement? I like this question my friend passed along from Seattle, “What do you want to do with your dash.. birth-death?”
5) Stay serious. Stay present. So there’s a time to laugh and a time to cry. The first 4 points were preliminary, happening before a crisis and gradually throughout sessions. This last one is responsive, after something happens. It’s when we need to exercise our therapeutic presence at a next-level mindset. That family member died. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Anniversary of a trauma, personal or family or community or national or global, one-time or chronic. It could be anything. It’s serious. Practice being ok with that. They need you to be ok with that. Think corrective emotional experience. Let them decide how much or little to say. Let them decide how to feel. Embrace silence. Consider using the word “die” and “dead.” Discern appropriate clinical judgment of course, but it could help in several ways. First, it normalizes the experience of dying. Second, it facilitates the acceptance process. Third, it gives them permission to think and feel about these super weighty ideas that confront all humans. Language carves a path for exploration and creates space to reflect on death and life. Simply put, they need love in this moment. Show them love.
I’m struck by Bruce Lee’s iconic quote from Enter the Dragon:
“It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”
Talking about death isn’t supposed to be an end in itself. It’s supposed to awaken us to what’s truly at stake. It’s meant to elevate our focus, raise our awareness to what really matters, propel us toward the Heavenly glory for which we were so fearfully and wonderfully designed.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything you disagree with? Anything sound familiar? How do you approach death with your clients?
Feel free to leave a comment and let us know!
featured photo credit: sribol.com