Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them

Author: Alan Wolfelt

“Allow stories to be told without slipping into interpretations, analysis, and conclusions.”

— Thomas Moore

Survivors at National Seminar

When I attended graduate school in traditional psychology, I learned semantics such as assess, diagnose and treat. In large part, I was taught to study a body of knowledge surrounding mental health, assume expert status as a professional and treat people as patients. Yes, I was taught a catalog of disorders and standard interventions based on the assumption that I had made an accurate diagnosis. What I later came to call my “unconscious contamination” had me believing I was responsible for the cure. It was only through time, maturation and experience that I came to reject this model of caregiving.

Walking with thousands of people in grief has resulted in an “educated heart” that has led to an acceptance of my role as a responsible rebel. I learned the medical model of mental health care, but my real life experiences caused me to reject it in favor of a companioning model of caregiving. I believe that our modern understanding of grief lacks an appreciation for and attention to the spiritual, soulful nature of the grief journey.

I have left my clinical doctoring behind to become the companion I am today. As a companion, I believe that grief is organic. Grief is as natural as the setting of the sun and as elemental as gravity. Grief is a complex but perfectly natural — and necessary — mixture of human emotions. Companions do not cure mourners; instead we create conditions that allow them to teach us. Our ministry is more art than science, more head than heart. The bereaved person is not our patient but instead our companion.

Support Groups and Stories

In North America today, thousands of people find this kind of companionship in grief support groups. The worth of these programs certainly does not emanate from empirically supported treatments, but from something much more simple (yet powerful): the telling of stories. The meetings are anchored in honoring each member’s stories of grief and supporting each other’s need to authentically mourn. No effort is made to interpret or analyze. The group affirms the storyteller for the courage to express the raw wounds that often accompany loss. The stories speak the truth. The stories create hope. The stories create healing.

Effective leaders of such groups come to recognize that their role is not so much about group counseling techniques as it is about creating “sacred space” in the group so that each person’s story can be nonjudgmentally received. Effective grief group leadership is a humble yet demanding role of creating this space in ways that members can express their wounds in the body of community. The very experience of telling one’s story in the common bond of the group contradicts the isolation and shame that characterizes so many people’s lives in a mourning-avoidant culture. And, because stories of love and loss take time, patience and unconditional love, they serve as powerful antidotes to a modern society that is all too often preoccupied with getting people to “let go” and “move on.”

The creation of new meaning and purpose in life requires that mourners “re-story” their lives. Obviously, this calls out for the need for empathetic companions, not treaters. Indigenous cultures acknowledge that honoring stories helps reshape a person’s experience. The stories are reshaped not in the telling of the story once or twice or even three times, but over and over again. Mourners need compassionate listeners to hear and affirm their truths. So, as a companion, your upholding of people’s stories allows you the privilege of being a “shapeshifter!”

The many benefits of honoring the stories of our fellow human beings include:

  • We can search for wholeness among our fractured parts.
  • We can come to know who we are in new and unexpected ways.
  • We can explore our past and come to a more profound understanding of our origins and our future directions.
  • We can tentatively explain our view of the world and come to understand who we are. 
  • We can explore how love experienced and love lost have influenced our time on earth.
  • We can discover that a life without story is like a book without pages — nice to see but lacking in substance.
  • We can seek forgiveness and be humbled by our mortality.
  • We can determine how adversity has enriched our meaning and purpose in life.
  • We can journey inward and discover connections previously not understood or acknowledged.
  • We can create an awareness of how the past interfaces with the present, and how the present ebbs back into the past.
  • We can discover that the route to healing lies not only in the physical realm, but also in the emotional and spiritual realms.
  • We can find that the fulfillment of a life well lived is bestowed through the translation of our past into experiences that are expressed through the oral or written word.
  • We can realize that the true significance of each unique story is that you can capture the spirit, the soul, and the genuine worth of the person who has died.
  • We can come to understand that in our pain and suffering lies the awareness of the preciousness of each day on the earth. 
  • We can discover our truth in this present moment of time and space.

Honoring Our Own Stories

I believe that mourners can instinctively sense who can listen to their stories and who cannot. They often look for signs of open-heartedness and will gladly tell their stories to those they sense have a receptive spirit. The capacity to attend to your own stories of loss allows you to open your heart and connect to other people’s stories.

Honoring stories, both our own and others’, requires that we slow down, turn inward and create the sacred space to do so. Yes, this can be challenging in a fast-paced, efficiency-based culture in which many people lack an understanding of the value of telling the story.

Yet, companions realize that it is in having places to re-story their lives that they can embrace what needs to be embraced and come to understand that the human spirit prevails. We heal ourselves as we tell the tale. This is the awesome power of the story.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, available at bookstores and at Dr. Wolfelt’s website, www.centerforloss.com. Dr. Wolfelt is an internationally noted author, teacher and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is an educational consultant to funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, schools and a variety of community agencies across North America.