Spiritual Evolution of Bereavement Counselors: An Exploratory Qualitative Study

By Puterbaugh, Dolores T. | Counseling and Values, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Evolution of Bereavement Counselors: An Exploratory Qualitative Study


Puterbaugh, Dolores T., Counseling and Values


This article draws from a phenomenological study on the experience of being a bereavement counselor, Ten bereavement counselors shared their experiences in bereavement counseling. Spiritual and emotional aspects of bereavement counseling with grieving and dying persons are discussed as well as the spiritual effects on and growth processes of the bereavement counselors, Participants also describe their self-care strategies pertaining to their bereavement counseling work,

For the purpose of this article, bereavement counseling comprises provision of support and psychotherapy to those who have experienced the death of a loved one as well as those who are preparing to die. The preponderance of literature indicates providing bereavement counseling carries a risk for personal suffering. Kassan (1996) interviewed 60 therapists and found that his participants cited death as one of the most difficult topics to discuss with clients, noting the clinicians' memories and experiences seemed to interfere with the therapy.

Because of the lack of information about positive experiences of bereavement counselors in the literature, the basic research question in the current study was "What are the lived experiences of bereavement counselors?" The overall topic of experience was broken down into subsidiary questions focused on the thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, memories, behaviors, effect on the counselor's life, and any other aspect of bereavement counseling the participants chose to share.

Literature Review

Methods of bereavement counseling and theories about the grief process constitute the majority of literature on grief (Caserta & Lund, 1996; Constantino, Sekula, & Rubenstein, 2001; Fitzgerald, 2000; Kneiper, 1999; Kubler-Ross, 1969; Mitchell, Kim, Prigerson, & Mortimer-Stephens, 2004; Stewart, 1999; Weinberg, 1995; Wolfelt, 1998; Worden, 2002). Far less has been written about the experiences of bereavement counselors. Primary areas of focus in research on bereavement counselors' experiences are burnout, compassion fatigue, and disenfranchised grief. There are also some first-person accounts of individuals' experiences.

First-person accounts constitute a small area in the literature on counseling bereaved or otherwise traumatized clients. These accounts are valuable in describing the experience but do not take the next step in looking for patterns, themes, and exceptions within the experience among even a small sample. First-person accounts include Farnsworth (1996) and Browning (2003). Farnsworth, a bereaved parent, described using her own grief and pain as a springboard to working with others and experiencing her own healing in the process. Browning, a clinical social worker working in bereavement and end-of-life care, explored how the death of his mother during his teenage years affected his personal and professional development. Burnout and compassion fatigue have been frequent areas of research (Astin, 1997; Brady, Guy, Polestra, & Brokaw, 1999; Doka, 2002; Gamble, 2002; Locavides, Fountoulakis, Kaprinis, & Kaprinis, 2002; Lamers, 2002; Maslach, 2003; Miller, 1998; Moss, Moss, Rubinstein, & Black, 2003; Pearlman & Maclan, 1995; Reynolds, 2002; Trippany, White Kress, & Wilcoxon, 2004; Worden, 2002). Burnout may include physical fatigue, poor concentration, cynicism, and loss of pleasure generally, not only in one's work (Maslach, 2003).

Compassion fatigue develops in counselors who fail to maintain healthy boundaries, neglect self-care, and/or receive inadequate professional and personal support (Astin, 1997; Brady et al., 1999; Miller, 1998; Morris & Blanton, 1994; Pearlman & MacIan, 1995; Trippany et al., 2004). Compassion fatigue is due to overidentification with clients' suffering (Iocavides et al., 2002), possibly growing from the traits that counselors believe make them effective: empathy, the ability to identify with clients, and gaining emotional satisfaction from the counseling work (Brady et al. …

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