Thursday, July 5, 2012


“Cowbells” ring – Are you listening?"

     "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child." Sometimes I really do! There are still resurging memories and thoughts and accompanying feelings that return me to griefpain and ... "sometimes I do feel like a motherless child." Grieving for me continues to be a lifelong process and after almost 33 years of helping grieving people, I know that the revisiting of loss and grief is as much a reality for them as it is for me. Normal, unresolved leftovers of the unfinished business of past loss and grief is stored in a space just out of conscious awareness and can be triggered into consciousness by external cues. This can happen when you or I are with a grieving person and can limit our availability to that individual,

The way unfinished business is stored and its subsequent effects on a helping person's own grief experience is illustrated by the following personal "Cowbells" story.*
When I was 4 years old, I attended a preschool program in a community center just across the street from the apartment building where my family lived. After some indoor games, we were sent outside to the playground. This was an area with a chain link fence separating us from the sidewalk and the street beyond. I could see our apartment building across the street and as soon as we got outside, I would run directly to the fence, stick my little fingers and nose through the fence, and look longingly, yearningly toward my home. The image of my “Mommy” was clearly in my mind, and I missed her and ached to be back with her.
At that same time every day, a junkman with a pushcart filled with old clothes and items he had been collecting, came by ringing a cowbell roped to the handlebar of the cart in order to announce his presence in the neighborhood. The sound of that cowbell and my yearning, grieving feelings became connected.
   Throughout my life when I have had aching, grieving feelings come up, the look on my face prompts my wife to ask, "Cowbells?" And I answer—“Cowbells.”
 Throughout the years, a symphony of Cowbells has rung out; and . . . every one of us has our own Cowbells.
They accompany us to every interaction with  friends and family, counseling or pastoral clients, parishioners, into staff meetings, treatment planning, and ... to every human contact we engage in. Anyone who steps up to help a grieving person can be more helpful, more available, when we are aware of our own Cowbells. We do not want our  own Cowbells to drown out the people we're helping!—ask not for whom the Cowbells toll; they toll for thee and me!
*Excerpt from: Jeffreys (2011). Helping Grieving People. (See also: Katz & Johnson (2006). When Professionals Weep. New York: Routledge.)
I am currently on deadline for a chapter I am writing on "Family Centered Approach to Helping Grieving Older Adults" – for a volume to be published next year.  A future blog will tell you about their special needs and how to help them cope with loss and change.