A day in the life of a thanathologist
The one movie which left quite an impression on me when it comes to the heavier subject of people coping with grief is Reign Over Me.
In the story, Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) lost his entire family in the 9/11 attack and in order to cope with his pain, retreated into a world of his own.
The part of the movie which makes me tear up all the time:
With three major plane incidents that afflicted our country in 2014, grief seems to be an apparent topic of discussion, more so because grief is hardly discussed openly in our Asian context.
In the process, I accidentally found out that there’s a “career” as a thanatologist. I was so thankful to get hold of Dr Edmund Ng, who graciously responded.
1. Do tell us about yourself.
I am a psychotherapist and I specialise in grief therapy. I was trained in counseling in Australia and obtained my doctorate in the United Kingdom through research in grief support. I subsequently received my certification in Thanatology in the United States (US).
2. What is a thanatologist?
Thanatology is the science of dying, death and bereavement. The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), based in the US, is the only world body that certifies thanatologists.
I am the first thanatologist in Malaysia. There are now two thanatologists in Malaysia.
3. Are there any minimum requirements?
Only those who have passed the ADEC examinations can be certified in thanatology. ADEC conducts such examinations once a year and it is a tough one to get through.
4. What sparked your interest in grief management?
When my first wife died of a brain aneurysm in 2005, I was devastated. I discovered that in our modern society, we are ill-equipped to handle grief.
I also recall reading in the papers of the suicide of a prominent former judge, three years after his wife died. The news shocked the nation.
I saw that as a public cry for help. I thought to myself that the whole nation either didn’t care about him or didn’t know how to help him in his grief. This prompted me to go for training in grief management.
5. Describe your job scope.
I typically run two one-to-one grief therapy sessions on a weekday for people who find it difficult to cope with grief. Each session takes 1½ hours.
I commit them to eight weekly or fortnightly sessions.
However, if they are not progressing well with their recovery, then I spend more sessions with them.
Often, those who come to see me are also suffering from depression, childhood traumas, personal problems and other mental health issues. Since I am also a psychotherapist, I take the opportunity to address these other challenges too.
6. What else do you do?
I also run two community-based agencies. One is a micro-finance agency called Partners In Enterprise that gives interest-free loans for small income-generating activities of the hardcore poor.
The other agency is called GGP (Grace to Grieving Persons) Outreach, which supports people who have lost their loved ones.
The outreach maintains a widow’s fund that gives monthly financial assistance to the poorest widows in the Klang Valley.
The objective of GGP Outreach is to promote and facilitate awareness, care and involvement for grieving persons regardless of economic, racial or religious background.
I spend the rest of my typical weekday either attending to the affairs of these two NGOs (non-profit organisations) or visiting the families of the widows.
Once a year, I also give a community-based psychoeducation seminar on grief support so that newly bereaved persons from the public can learn how to grieve healthily.
There are other involvements that arise on a need basis. For instance:
- MH370 tragedy – I conducted a seminar to equip caregivers and volunteers from the Befrienders Malaysia on how to reach out to family members of the missing passengers.
- Typhoon Yolanda – I was invited by the University of the Philippines and the Philippines Psychological Association to train their mental health workers in grief recovery work.I brought a team of nine Malaysian volunteers to Tacloban in April 2014 to conduct the first grief recovery programme for 300 disaster survivors there.
I also get invited to speak on the subject of thanatology and grief support in seminars or conferences both locally and abroad.
7. How has your journey been?
It is often satisfying to be able to make a difference in those who are going through difficult seasons.
When you first meet them, their faces are downcast, their eyes teary, their hair uncombed and they are shabbily dressed.
You initially see some of them so overwhelmed by their pain that they are hardly functioning in their simplest routines.
After a few sessions, you begin to notice a smile on their faces and they are well-dressed.
Through interventions, they begin to make progress in their healing process and they start to move on in life. To me, this is priceless.
8. What are some of the challenges in your work?
The most challenging part is trying to reach out to clients who are not open or genuine with you.
They may be having so much fear in looking inwards to their true self, while others just put up a brave front to protect themselves.
Grief therapy is not just a cognitive process. To make good progress, we must get to the emotional level as the grief process involves emotions.
It is also not all about crying. Our attitudes and perspectives must also change because our emotions, thoughts and behaviour are inter-related.
For me to help them, they must be willing to help themselves.
9. How do you disengage yourself from the work you do?
We are professionally trained to empathise with our clients but not carry their burdens by taking on what is their responsibility.
I often debrief by discussing difficult cases with people who understand what I’m talking about, including my present wife who helps me with some of the therapy sessions.
I am careful to see that I have sufficient time off for rest and recreation. We cannot give all the time without receiving and getting recharged.
10. What do you find most rewarding?
Seeing my clients smile again and move on in life despite their loss. This makes living more worthwhile, and you feel more complete as a human being. This is what keeps me going.
Some clients may never acknowledge you after returning to their normal lives, but you know the difference you’ve made to help them recover.
Once in a while, someone would want to show gratitude and this is a bonus.
Some will buy you something to eat while others offer to make a financial donation to the GGP widow’s fund to help the poor widows in our midst.
I am also most pleased when they say they want to use their experience and be a volunteer to reach out to other grieving people.
As a result, I now have a team of core volunteers who are trained by me to reach out to others as lay counselors.
11. Your advice to people who might be interested in this field.
There is no glamour in doing something away from the limelight, and the person in front of you is crying most of the time.
It is not fun empathising with someone suffering in the lowest moments of his or her life. Neither is it going to be financially rewarding as a profession.
Thus, you must be fully convinced that your motivation and interest to become a thanatologist is solely to help others who are hurting without expecting anything in return.
This only comes when you do it out of love and compassion for another human being.