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Grief Counseling: A Personal Experience That Fueled a Passion for Helping Others [Podcast]

Posted August 03, 2022 by Shannon Blower, MA Pastoral Counseling, MAR in Religious Leadership

Listen to this episode of the Healthy Vitals Podcast.

Shannon Blower, Chaplain and Director of Pastoral Care Services, shares his personal experience with grief and provides tips and resources for anyone coping with grief.

Featured Guests:

Shannon Blower, MA Pastoral Counseling, MAR in Religious Leadership
Pastor Shannon Blower is the Director of Pastoral Care Services and Education at Summa Health System, where he oversees the spiritual care for patients, their families and our providers. He holds MA and MAR degrees in Leadership and Counseling. Shannon is a certified Grief Recovery Specialist with 30 years of experience as a Senior Pastor in the local church. He received his clinical training through the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education at Summa Health System. Pastor Shannon is a member of Summa’s Ethics Committee, Schwartz Rounds, and is a faculty member of Palliative Care Services. His spiritually integrative work supports the healing process in our hospital setting. 
Shannon is married to his wife Sherie of 41 years, father of 4 adult sons, and father in law to 4 daughters in law, and most importantly Papa to his 13 grandchildren.


Scott Webb (Host): Most of us have experienced loss and grief because we're human and maybe that's perhaps especially so over the past couple of years. And joining me today to discuss loss and grief and the benefits of counseling for those of us who are suffering is Shannon Blower. He's a chaplain and director of pastoral care services with Summa Health. This is Healthy Vitals, a podcast from Suma Health. I'm Scott Webb. Shannon, thanks so much for your time today. We're gonna talk about grief and loss and trauma and a whole bunch of those types of areas. And I wanna give you an opportunity as we get rolling here to just kind of tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into this, and then we can dive into more about how you help others coping with their grief, and so on.

Shannon Blower: I have served here at Summa Health since 2012. And I came in here as an intern, and then later as A chaplain resident. But there was a watershed event that preceded that. I've been pastoring for 30 plus years. And one of the things that I both recognized and personally experienced is the fact that, when folks experience loss, significant loss, traumatic loss, there is a general move in society to push them, to get over it more quickly, to get back to normal more quickly. And so, my own experience, with grief and loss and those sorts of things in my family really allowed me to experience it.

And I determined to use those losses to honor them by moving towards those suffering grief and loss, rather than moving away from them. So that's how I got into this and that just spiraled of course, because in some ways, grief loss is such a universal human experience. The response to grief and loss is also universally maladaptive. So there's plenty of room to work there.

Scott Webb (Host): There is. I was thinking the exact word you use, there is a human right. We're all humans, we've all experienced loss and grief and perhaps trauma. And I think you're so right. I think there is this feeling this, to use a, sort of a sports analogy that sort of rubs some dirt on it, Hey, you know we've all been there, but you need to get over it and move on. And for some, maybe that's easy to do and others it's more challenging. And so thankfully, at assuming they have someone like yourself. And I wanted to talk about the five stages of grief that denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and ask you, are those phases really real? And do you have to work through each phase in order to move on or to heal, do you have to do them in order? Maybe you can take us through that

Shannon Blower: Yeah. So, wouldn't be to God, it, things were that tidy and linear. The author of that concept, Kubler Ross. She did great work and primarily though, her work was around the patient or the person themselves that were experiencing a terminal diagnosis, or a terminal prognosis. And so because of that, there is all of those, but they're less linear and more, just a cluster of experiences. And there's no question that if you happen to be with someone who loves someone who has a terminal,, diagnosis or prognosis, those can be shared experiences, but they're not linear.

They're more of a cluster. They surprise you. They ambush you. And the greater work is accessing certain behavioral responses to when you are ambushed with grief or denial or anger, or bargaining or depression to have some honed human, spiritual. I use that term loosely, responses to those natural expressions of grief and loss.

Scott Webb (Host): It makes us so amazing as humans, the range of emotions we can cover and go through, but also probably what's so challenging.

Shannon Blower: Yeah, and that we hold them many times, at the same time. We hold anger and depression at the same time. We hold denial, and blame at the same time. And what that does is it confuses our processes. So grief is not a cognitive reality. It's not a cognitive phenomenon. We try to frame it cognitively, but in truth, it's an affective phenomenon. Our hearts are broken. And so whenever our minds get caught up in something, and we try to answer a question, that's really lament, we provide cold comfort. For instance, someone might say, why did this happen?

Why did this happen? Why did this happen? And if we're not careful, we will deem that a question that needs answered. When in fact it's really a lament, it is something, how could this happen? How could I be so unprepared for something like this in my life? And none of us are really prepared when we love deeply and honestly, for such a reversal of fortune. And though we can imagine it with our minds, the experience is far more visceral and far less predictable.

Scott Webb (Host): Yeah, I think that sounds right. As you say, in a lot of cases, we can imagine what it might feel like or what it might be like, but in the moment when you're actually dealing with it and you're trying to resolve these different levels of feelings and emotions it's pretty challenging. And something that I don't think any of us really ever would've imagined is what we've gone through during this pandemic. Right. I'm not even sure that I knew what a pandemic was until now we've all lived through it. Right. So we've all experienced grief and loss. And just wondering on a broader scale, do you have any advice, like how have you been helping folks to get through this, especially when it's happening so close to home, perhaps in their own homes, what are you telling folks?

Shannon Blower: So there's so many layers of people that have experienced the pandemic and different proximity to it. First thing that I would try to do is help folks to identify what was actually lost. So in some cases like me, it was a family member. My sister and my brother-in-law both died COVID related. And so because of that, there is the loss of predictability, there's the loss of safety. And then there's the loss of common narrative. So because there's such a push and pull in our culture around even the validity of a pandemic, there are those who have denied that the deaths were COVID related.

So even a narrative around the death of a loved one, is sometimes hard to piece together and segment it. And so the first thing that I try to do is help people to honor what was actually. Lost to identify it clearly. Many times it's a sense of trust, many times it's a sense of predictability. And death always puts us in a spot where we are saying., I don't like to think this, we have made an industry of turning away from death. We walk backwards into death and bump into it., and so consequently, we are just not accustomed and it feels Mecab to talk about death. It feels Mecab to do that. And yet we all experience it.

Scott Webb (Host): Yeah. And I'm so sorry to hear how close to home COVID has been for you and I I'm sure it's particularly challenging. As you mentioned, you use the word denial when you hear people sort of denying the pandemic or the realities of the pandemic and that it happened right there in your family. Perhaps you needed some counseling of your own. And wanted to get into that. I wanted to talk about what is grief counseling exactly? And when should someone know that they need counseling or help from a counselor or when might we, as we see our loved ones struggling, to deal with grief and loss, when should we recommend it to them?

Shannon Blower: My sense is support, counseling, any number of programs out there like that are always good for us. Because as, humans, we're taught how to get stuff. We are not taught how to release stuff. We get jobs, we get kids, we get marriages, we get homes. We're not taught how to release them or lose them. And so we're bereft of that affect of wisdom that is implicit in all human experiences, the loss of things, the loss of relationships. So in some ways, all of us need a good confidant that we can just talk through without that individual trying to rush us, hurry us, or fix us.

In terms of, you know, like grief counseling. So grief counseling I tease out a little differently from grief support, grief support is, what I do with my kids when we gather together and we tell stories, about our loved ones is step into eternity, or we have a good cry together. Or we go to the grave side together. That's the kind of support around, storytelling and narrative. Sometimes people need more professional support. Counseling is something a little different. Counseling has a goal in mind. I think it's a mistake to confuse counseling with support.

Counseling has a goal in mind and the goal is up to the person seeking the counseling. So I might go to counseling and say, listen, I have not felt the same since this loss, I've not been able to get my mojo back. I've not been able to integrate this loss into my life in such a way that I feel wise and loving and kind and gracious. I just feel angry and despondent. I would say that's a good. To say, I need to speak with a professional and work through some things.

But it has a goal in mind. Right. And the goal typically is an integration of this experience so that I look maybe just a little wiser, a little stronger, a little kinder. And that is a process. You don't just go through a drive through and get that.

Scott Webb (Host): Yeah. And I see what you mean that it's unique to the person who's seeking counseling. Wondering if there are some resources that you can share, websites, phone numbers, things like that?

Shannon Blower: Yes, of course. We have started initiative here at Summa, it is really more of a pilot program. Where, we are training, 24 grief recovery specialists, trained through the Grief Recovery Institute. And the purpose is that we just have these specialists placed throughout our system, that they can layer this into the kind of staff and patient support. That's necessary around loss. And so the Grief Recovery Institute is a remarkable resource. Other resources, other readings, I'm in the process of reading a book by, Amanda, Oppel, it's called A Hole in the World and she writes about finding hope in rituals of grief and healing.

As a society, we are kind of taught, at least the way I was raised to Be quiet and somber and, you know, don't make big public shows of expressions and that sort of thing. And more often than not, that is not helpful. It is good to wale. I talked about, when I came here in 2012, it was as the result of the loss of two grandchildren, two of our grandchildren in the space of about 18 months. And during that time I did what a lot of folks, my age and demographic do, which is sort of muscle up and take care of it. And I had an inner narrative that set, I cannot fall apart.

I have to be strong for my kids and my daughter-in-laws and everybody else, but in truth, them seeing me fall apart a little bit and seeing through falling apart, you sort of come to the end, you hit a bottom. It's sort of like floating down in the lake. When you hit bottom, you have something to spring, back up to. And so allowing myself to grieve in a fashion that both honored the depth of it, as well as allow them to see, yeah, this is being strong. Displays of emotion is a kind of strength to be able to do that. So, Grief Recovery Institute, this book A Whole in the World, there's a number of, resources on Summa's website, that talk about grief and loss. And so I encourage folks, to, just type in. Any Google search, you'll come up with remarkable things. But those would be the top two that I'm into right now.

Scott Webb (Host): As we wrap up here, Shannon, what would be your sort of just general advice on how to talk to someone who's ill or suffering, help them ease their pain, brighten their day? I Feel like it's better to listen more than I talk in those situations, but, from your experience and your expertise?

Shannon Blower: Your instinct are right. It's always better to listen more than speak., no one needs advice. It's their experience, not ours. And then one of the things that I like to do, especially when the losses around a person is to just ask the question, tell me what they were like, what made them laugh? What made them cry? What ticked them off? Because people want to talk about the loved ones that they have lost that have stepped into eternity. And so even when I'm dealing with patients where the loved one is in the ICU, they look nothing like they did a week ago and I'm mindful of that.

And I get them to show me pictures of when they were healthier and young and when they first met and how they fell in love. Because our narrative is more than just the end. And to the degree that we can see the whole of the narrative, that which is despairing and at the end gains some sort of perspective right. If I ask questions, it will be things like, what was the wisdom that you gained from this person? How is your life different today? To ask them open ended questions and allow them to self-report

Scott Webb (Host): Yeah. Well, it's been really great speaking with you today. I mentioned, I said earlier that was sort of good for the soul right, podcast for the soul. Yeah. And it always, my pleasure to speak with somebody like you who has the expertise, the compassion, the real experiences. You are a human too. We're all humans and we're all just trying to help each other and do our best and get through this thing called life. So Shannon, thanks so much for your time. You stay well.

Shannon Blower: Yeah, he was well, Scott, appreciate the opportunity.

Scott Webb (Host): For practical suggestions, to help you move toward healing in your unique grief journey, visit And if you found this podcast to be helpful and informative, please share it on your social channels and be sure to check out the full podcast library for additional topics of interest. This is Healthy Vitals, a podcast from Summa Health. I'm Scott Webb. Stay well, and we'll talk again next time.


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