Friday, May 16, 2014

Can counseling really help a broken heart?

“Well, no, I don’t specialize in grief specifically but with my many years of experience I’m confident I can help you,” said the counselor on the other end of the phone. It had been eighteen months since we lost our teenage daughter in a car accident, and my husband and I were caught in the black abyss of sadness and hopelessness. We were finally ready to wave the white flag and seek help.
Many well-meaning family and friends urged us to get counselling immediately after the accident, but I adamantly refused. I bristled at the very idea that someone would tell me how to grieve the loss of my beloved child. Worse, there was no way I wanted to be trapped in a group of crying mothers stuck in their own horrible grief. No, I would rather do it myself, for I didn’t want to be part of that club in the first place.
But over the coming months as reality sank in and the nightmare became permanent, we found ourselves on autopilot, barely staying afloat on the outside and dead on the inside. By design, men and women are wired differently. So as husband and wife, we were each caught in our own despair. We had nothing left to give each other, little alone our marriage.
By the time we realized we needed help processing our grief, we had fallen so deep into the black abyss that the simple task of finding a counselor, any counselor, felt utterly overwhelming. So I dug deep to muster what energy I could to google local counselors, and called the first number I saw.
And thus began an eighteen-month relationship with a counselor who knew absolutely nothing about grief. She was a lovely woman, and in looking back I’m sure she learned a great deal from us as her clients. But much to our dismay, we gained nothing from our appointments. At least we hadn’t gone backwards, I told myself, but the idea of trying to find a better counselor was simply too overwhelming. So we stayed where we were week after week for eighteen months.
And then tragedy struck once again.
Three years after losing our daughter, my forty-six year-old husband suffered a major stroke. He went from being a highly intelligent, well respected, vibrant man who managed multi-million dollar projects to an invalid wearing a hospital gown in the intensive care unit. He couldn’t walk, talk, read, or write. My beloved soul mate, my dear sweet husband, suffered a major embolic stroke in the left frontal lobe. Paralyzing the entire right side of his body, the damage also destroyed the Broca's region of his brain, the center of communication. He understood those around him, but he couldn’t speak at all. Nor could he read, write, or comprehend letters and numbers. Strangely enough, Brocas is his legal middle name.
We found ourselves facing a fresh, new black abyss, and we hadn’t even found our way out of the first one.
And then help arrived in the form of a neuropsychologist who made daily hospital rounds to the stroke unit. His specialty was supporting patients facing significant disabilities and helping them adapt to a new way of life. Now that my husband was trapped in a hospital bed, he could no longer bury his grief in eighty-hour work weeks. The neuropsychologist found himself doubly tasked with not only helping us adjust to our new life left in the wake of my husband's stroke, but assisting us in processing the profound, unresolved grief left in the wake of our daughter's death.
Dr. Ford was in his early fifties, about the same age as our prior counselor. He was tall and fit, and his short hair yielded to a stubborn childhood cowlick he never outgrew. His face was kind, his voice calm yet intelligent. My husband and I liked him immediately. And, to our collective surprise, Dr. Ford's specialty of helping stroke patients face a new life with severe disabilities wasn’t all that different from helping the bereaved face a new life without their loved one. And thus began a professional relationship in which we finally found the help needed to process our double sorrow.
It has now been over three years since my husband’s life-changing stroke, and six years since our daughter’s passing. Because of the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to rewire around dead tissue, my husband continues to improve beyond medical expectation. Through intense inpatient and then dedicated outpatient rehabilitation, he learned to walk again and use his right hand though he still can’t feel anything on his right side. His speech remains challenged, and he fatigues quite easily, preventing him from returning to gainful employment, and our family from returning to our former life.
We continue to see the neuropsychologist though the frequency changes depending upon our needs. As far as I see it, the life-changing stroke was actually a lifeline in disguise, for it brought a compassionate, intuitive, and highly skilled practitioner through the door of my husband’s hospital room and into our lives. And although Dr. Ford came because of the devastating stroke, his counseling proved to be the help we desperately needed to navigate our daughter's death.
I am not angry we spent eighteen months with a counselor who was unable to meet our needs. Actually, I admire her for taking us on in the first place. She didn’t harm us, and she did try her best to help us, and I am forever thankful. But I wish I had acknowledged sooner just how critically important it is to find the right care in our darkest hours.
When one suffers a heart attack, they call in a cardiologist. When one has a broken leg, they call in an orthopedist. So when one faces profound loss, a highly skilled and qualified practitioner to help navigate the way through, and eventually out of, the deep abyss of overwhelming grief is just as crucial.
With over 168,000 counselors available in the U.S. alone, there is no shortage from which to choose. If your counselor is unable to help you navigate a life-changing loss or challenge, don't be afraid to find another. Just as grief isn't one size fits all, neither is support.
Can a heart attack patient survive without a cardiologist? Yes, but the chances of surviving are much greater when under the care of a proper practitioner. And this is never more true than with the most critical of all wounds….that of a broken heart. 

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