I am pleased to share with my readers a conversation I had recently with Alfred Fleischer, a well-known grief counselor. Over the past 30+ years, he has helped mourners who have lost a loved one deal with their grief--and survive.
WLM: How did you initially discover and feel called to grief ministry?
AF: My oldest son was killed in an auto accident in 1974. It was the start of a life change. I entered the Diaconate Formation program for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland (CA) in 1984. In our first year, we were asked to select a service ministry to become involved in. I selected Bereavement Ministry. I took a ten-week class from Noel Hedrick, the diocesan bereavement minister. What we learned fit right into my own grief needs and felt like the right ministry for me.
WLM: What is meant by the term “grief work”?
AF: Grief does not heal itself. No one can do the work of healing grief for us. We need to rebuild what was lost. We need to try new things to fill the void. Not everything we try is successful, so we need to keep exploring new things to fill our void. It takes a lot of hard work. We each deal with grief in our own way. There is no right or wrong way, as long as we deal with our emotions honestly.
WLM: You devised a counseling tool called the Grief Wheel. Can you describe this?
AF: In brief, the wheel illustrates the phases of the grief journey. If you know what to expect, it’s easier to deal with. You experience a Loss and go through periods of Shock, Protest/Anger, Disorientation, and then Reorganization. You come out the other side integrating the loss and moving on with your life. Not everyone experiences all phases or stages on the wheel. For example: not everyone experiences Protest/Anger.
WLM: When is the right time to seek assistance with handling grief?
AF: We are each unique individuals. Each of us has unique timing and needs. I’ve had people come to our support group two weeks after the death of a loved one. Others have waited two or three years. Whenever a person is ready to attend a support group, they should look to Hospice, hospitals, churches, or a local crisis center. For parents who have lost a child, I recommend Compassionate Friends. It’s important to talk about the tasks and emotions experienced on the grief journey. Talk, talk, then talk some more, regardless of the emotion(s) you are feeling and expressing.
WLM: Is there ever any real relief from one’s feeling of loss and separation?
AF: The grief journey never totally ends. We learn to live with our loss. But, sometimes the dormant feelings strike again, as we hear a song, catch a whiff of perfume, see a scene in a movie. Next thing you know, tears are flowing. With time these instances occur less frequently.
WLM: I hear that you have a favorite grief-relief story.
AF: Yes, it’s titled “A Cure for Sorrow.”
There is an old Chinese tale about a woman whose only son died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and said, “What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?”
Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said, “Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.”
The woman set off right away in search of that magical mustard seed. She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door, and said, “I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me.”
They told her, “You certainly came to the wrong place,” and they began to describe all the tragic things that had befallen them.
The woman said to herself, “Who is better able to help these poor, unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?” She stayed to comfort them, and then went on in her search for a home that had never known sorrow. But, wherever she turned, in hovels and other places, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune.
Ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people in their grief that she forgot about her own quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had in fact driven the sorrow out of her life.