There are several factors that may create unsafe conditions when counseling others in grief and loss. The first step in helping those with crisis and trauma is helping them to feel safe inside and outside of the counseling office (Wright, 2011). In light of this fact, it is the pastoral counselors duty to figure out what tendencies they have to make sure you do not leak out or cause harm to the counselee. Moreover, we must eliminate any embedded theology, feelings of shame and countertransference that would cause secondary wounds to a counselee’s primary trauma of loss and grief.
A counseling minister needs to be aware how these issues drive counseling relationships and their tendency to create unsafe counseling scenarios. Another critical area to consider is that we do not always feel adequate as counselors (Wright, 2011). This would also be related to shame in my estimation. The first issue I must recognize is imbedded theology or what I was raised to believe about the nature of God.
To provide emotional safety for the counselee I must recognize what has tainted my perspective. An example of this for me was that I was raised to a certain degree to blame myself when bad things happened to me or that God is punishing me in some way because of my sin. If I were to lead a counseling session with this leaning, it could lead to a secondary wound in the counselee. This may sound simplistic to some, but it happens all the time with ministers and it is not necessarily safe to assume these things. A very good question to ask myself is how I maintain integrity of my own faith and still meet the emotional safety needs of the counselee when they have theological differences from me (Townsen, 2002).
Let me give a real example of how one scenario played out. A seasoned pastor with a doctorate in ministry had a counseling session with a woman that had lost her husband and was very much in the midst of grieving. She explained to the minister that she had been badly abused by the husband and she was vacillating between anger and guilt about her feelings of anger. The minister was not comfortable with that part of her grief and ended up shutting down that part of the counseling discussion. The justification was that in his denomination, you do not talk badly about the deceased. This is not a biblical tenet to my knowledge, but it serves as a classic example of how further injury can occur from our own imbedded theology.
We as counseling ministers need to match the persons thinking and speaking and explore trauma memories with the person (Wright, 2011). If we are blocked from doing this due to our imbedded theology, it will not be safe and therapeutic for the counselee. These preconceived notions also need to be taken into consideration due to countertransference in counseling. One assertion made from the research conducted was that excessive amounts of shame can lead to many forms of defense mechanisms (Potter Efron & Potter Efron, 1989). Shame can be a major trigger for counter transference due to our imbedded theology and also family of origin issues that may come up during a counseling session.
Excessive shame can create unsafe counseling scenarios especially when the person is in the anger phase of grief and loss. During the anger phase of grief and loss the counselee may lash out at the counselor. This could cause the minister to countertransfer an unhealthy defense mechanism caused by excessive shame. This may sound far fetched, but I have witnessed this exact mechanism at work in several different ministry settings throughout the last 20 years.