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An Analogy to Use When Working With Someone's Grief

Drawn from my clinical experiences working with grieving people, I've surmised that our grief often comes from our difficulty reconciling competing emotions. Many people believe in the euphoria found in the afterlife. or the eternal condition of the spirit. Yet, despite this belief, we will rightly feel despair, sadness, and regret in the absence of our deceased loved one from our every day life. We miss them terribly and have difficulty envisioning a time when we will feel better, despite believing the deceased is in a "better place." Some people's despair reaches a point of serious consideration of suicide. Many others will feel guilt for not doing enough, or worry that the deceased is disappointed in them.

With people who struggled with their reconciliation of affect, I have found success using a technique based on an analogy drawn from most of our childhoods. I ask them to remember a time during their childhood when they played musical chairs. I ask them to remember going around the chairs with their loved one, trying to listen for the moment when the music stops while eyeing their opportunity to sit. I ask them to imagine a situation where they get a chair and their loved one doesn't.

Then I ask "How do you think your (loved one) would react to you continuing the game?"

Those whom I have posed the question invariably responded "(loved one) would want me to continue" or "to win the game."

Then I ask "How do you think she/he will be acting while out of the game?"

They will answer "She/he would be watching, cheering me on."

I then ask "How do you think she/he would be feeling while watching you?"

They will answer with "happy" or "excited" or "thrilled."

If the game musical chairs is life, and an afterlife is eternal, then wouldn't it be best to continue with the game with gumption and fervor, knowing we are watched over by our loved one? The thought is almost always yes. This is a thought exercise that facilitates a person's imagination, memory, and affect to help the grieving person organize their thoughts and feelings around their beliefs. The grieving person can picture their loved one watching them with a huge smile, cheering them on as someone would cheer on their favorite football team.

This technique is one of many I use to address grief, and, as with many psychotherapeutic approaches, it will depend on the clinician's clinical experience to present the thought experiment with fidelity. Our beliefs are potent moderators of our values and experiences, and can be utilized to relieve suffering if properly aligned.


By Artaxerxes - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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