Grief Counselling Role-Play Exercise for Four Participants

by Ben Stephenson

Ben Stephenson is the author of the novel A Matter of Life and Death or Something (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). It was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and CBC Books named him one of “10 Canadian Writers to Watch.” His work has appeared in JoylandHer Royal Majesty, The Coast, and the Telegraph-Journal. He is currently working on a story collection, and he tweets @ben_stephenson_.


After J. William Worden


1. Divide the seminar into groups of four. After brief introductions, randomly assign one of the following scripts to each group member, and give everyone a few minutes to think and prepare. Remind them that perfection in acting is not the workshop’s goal, but rather the furthering of their counselling skill set. NOTE: They must not discuss their scripts with one another prior to the exercise.

FATHER: Your wife died of leukemia a month ago. You’re left with your two children: a fourteen-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. Single parenting is completely exhausting. Your workplace is almost an hour’s commute away through dense, hostile freeway traffic. You’re ashamed of how many of the family’s dinners turn out to be a Hawaiian pizza picked up on your drive home. Leading up to her death, you’d imagined the tragedy might unite the three of you: that, having nowhere else to turn, you’d all band together, help each other to go on. This is not the case. Personally you feel more isolated than ever before. For some reason your intake of pornography has virtually tripled. This worries you, but it’s nowhere near the top of your list. Your despondent daughter is particularly unhelpful: she’ll never pitch in, won’t even do something as simple as setting the table when asked half an hour in advance. Your young son spends much of his days on the couch with his iPad glowing an inch from his face. You know they’re both grieving too, but find it impossible to surmount your own anger and disbelief in order to reach out to them. With the daily stress of her slow dying now gone, all that remain are ghosts of the plans the two of you made, were always making: before the kids, before everything. She will not get to watch them grow into adults, she will never again share your pride in them. A teacher found your daughter cutting her forearm with craft scissors in the girls’ washroom, so you’ve agreed to begin work with a grief counsellor.

DAUGHTER: You’re fourteen, and a month ago your mother lost her long battle with cancer. For the last two years of her life, you two didn’t exactly get along. Even though you knew she was suffering and sick, even dying, you could barely stand to be in a room with her. It was like she thought just because she was sick she had the right to constantly grill you? When you were a kid your dad was your biggest fan, and kind of your hero, but now he looks more and more like some sad loser every day. He’s morphed into some kind of troll who expects you to do every single chore, like Cinderella, which includes babysitting your weirdo brother—for free!—every second he’s not home. He never even thanks you—just flips out if you don’t immediately obey his latest command.

“You know the cutting is bad and you feel stupid about it, and emo, like some ‘troubled teen’ on TV.”

You can’t even remember the last time you got to hang with your friends outside of school. Grade Nine is way harder than Eight, and your marks suck. Even in her hospital bed Mom was constantly asking about how well you were “adjusting.” You thought you were good at English. Now all of a sudden you have to analyze all these similes by ancient poets and they never even let you write. You know the cutting is bad and you feel stupid about it, and emo, like some “troubled teen” on TV. It even makes you kind of sick, to think about it—it’s not that big a deal. It’s not like you’re trying to kill yourself. Are you guilty about everything with Mom? Sure. You’re already on anxiety meds but your dad seems to think it’s necessary to drag you to yet another shrink.

SON: A month ago, the day before Halloween, nine days before your seventh birthday, your mom died from cancer that grew inside her bones. It made you feel very sad and very alone. Your sister never cried about it, but you cried about it all the time, every day, and sometimes when you count numbers to fall asleep you still cry. One time Dad came in and asked why you couldn’t stop. Another time he said Mom doesn’t exist anymore, but Corey said she’s either in Heaven or Hell. But she would for sure be in Heaven since she was such a great mom all the time, plus a great person. At the funeral your pants were too big, and you fell. At night she is always in your dreams, scratching your head. Sometimes it’s like she’s inside the cat, too, like she possessed her, and she comes over to sit in your lap and look up like Don’t worry, I’ll always be right here. Your sister is weird. Ever since she left your school for high school she turned evil. You don’t actually hate her as much as you tell her you do, and you kind of miss knowing she was in the same school as you. Corey said she was pretty hot for a goth, but that you wouldn’t know since you’re such a gaylord. You wish more kids at school liked the stuff you like. You asked Dad for a skateboard, but he got it at Wal-Mart and a wheel broke off the first day.

COUNSELLOR: The local high school has referred a family to you for family/grief counselling. The mother died of cancer one month prior, leaving behind a fourteen-year-old daughter, a seven-year-old son, and their father. Evaluate the family’s needs and develop a workable Intervention Strategy.

2. Distribute the following scripts so that each participant now plays a different role than in the previous exercise. For those participants who are struggling, encourage them to draw not only on their knowledge of grief counselling, but also on their own personal histories with grief and loss––does this help stimulate their ability to role-play?

DAUGHTER: When the shrink asked if things were feeling any better you didn’t really know what to say. There’s this boy Nico you’ve liked for a super long time and last week in the dark gym you finally got the balls to ask him to dance for the last slow song. That ruled, and so did making out with him in the stairwell, watching through shatter-proof glass for your dad’s truck, but now whenever you ask if Nico can come over after school he’s not allowed. Who does Dad think he is?! Doesn’t he realize this could actually be a good thing? This weekend you barely even drew blood. Obviously his heart is totally broken, of course it is, but what, no one gets to be happy? When you went straight to Nico’s after school Dad got so pissed you were honestly terrified. Nico doesn’t know how bad your depression actually is. You don’t really know if you’ll tell him. Not yet. He’s not even technically your boyfriend. So why did you tell him about Mom? What’s he supposed to say? It was cute when he told you to forgive yourself, but secretly you know you scared the shit out of him, and now you’re all paranoid. But he likes you. He said so. Oh my God––are you going to lose your virginity to Nico? You are, aren’t you? Do you really want to?

SON: When she scratches your head in your dreams it makes you happy, but when you wake up it makes you sad. When she uses the cat to talk from Heaven it makes you feel confused. Half the time she is normal, and does her little jump at your hand so you’ll pet her, and coughs up leaves from the plant in the bathroom, but sometimes she sits on your lap and her yellow eyes look right at you and it’s scary. What is she trying to say? Why did she have to pick you? You know the way to cry in school is to go to the nurse’s office, but usually you go to the bathroom instead. Last night you counted to the number five-hundred-and-thirty-eight before you stopped counting and just lay there. If she was still alive right now, lying in the robot bed with the tubes, and she asked you to cuddle with her you would just do it, and not tell her you were too old or that she was being embarrassing, and what if she wouldn’t have died?

“You know the way to cry in school is to go to the nurse’s office, but usually you go to the bathroom instead.

The counsellor said it was OK to be sad. But it doesn’t feel OK. Corey is kind of annoying with his skateboard. It’s weird how Mr. McLaughlin lets him use it in Phys. Ed. Why can’t people in Heaven control people instead of cats? People who could speak English? That would be so much easier! There’s a new iPad at the store that’s so much cooler than yours.

COUNSELLOR: Two months on, the family who lost their mother is still early on in the mourning process. The pain of grief is jeopardizing the father’s productivity at work. The daughter has internalized a considerable amount of misdirected anger. The son’s guilt has led him to exhibit some Magical Thinking. Identify their first tasks of mourning, and decide whether to assist them individually/as a family/both.

FATHER: You are hitting the gym twice a week, you are cooking healthier meals, you are making a huge, active mental effort to openly acknowledge your anger and pain rather than run from them, knowing that this will help them pass: you are not dwelling in the past. Still, the past is dwelling in you. The pain is physical, it resides in your chest and comes with a schedule and day plan totally independent of your own. Some days––like today––it greets you in the morning and then accompanies you all day, rattling you on the edge of a psychosomatic precipice, your nerves shivering and sick, all day long threatening a collapse that never fully comes. Other days it does come, hard, pulling you to the back stairwell to wander with your forehead in your hands. When the counsellor observed that much of your trouble stems from how much you leaned on your wife for self-esteem, it was the first time since the funeral that the kids saw you cry. Where did all your old friends go? You have to get over your need to appear as the strong, confident Man Of The House: it’s not helping anything. And the house itself feels impossible to live in now, though there’s nothing feasible on the market at your current salary.

“The pain is physical, it resides in your chest and comes with a schedule and day plan totally independent of your own.”

You should reach out to Pete, try to get the poker night going again. It could be that you’re overprotective––you had your first girlfriend when you were thirteen, and you turned out fine. It’s likely beneficial for her to have a friend, and honestly it should worry you far less than whatever’s gotten into your son. This is now the second time you’ve overheard an extended soliloquy from upstairs and opened his door to find only he and your aging cat. What permanent traumatic effects will your failure to keep it together have on your fragile children? How can you possibly help? It’s no wonder you spend half of each work day staring at your idle computer and practicing “mindful breathing” in an effort to suppress the next anxiety attack, and no wonder your supervisor keeps calling you into her office for “little chats.”

3. Rotate the scripts so that again everyone plays a different role. If difficulties persist, ask the participants to recall something specific they themselves have lost. This might be a person, a relationship, an attitude, or a dream. As they remember, request that they close their eyes. Do they see it?

SON: You found a stick in the pipe in the ditch that turned out to be a wand, and it’s good to keep it with you all the time. At least it’s starting to almost be spring, and sometimes you can play outside. Maybe you are a little fat but it’s not your fault the wheel broke off again and it wouldn’t have cost that much more to get a real board from a skate shop. Mom said when you get your growth spurt you’ll stretch out, and you still believe her. The cat turned back to being more normal last week, which was nice, but you’re still nervous of her when she gives you that look, and the wand helps.

It’s OK because sometimes magic just takes a long time.

Nico is actually kind of cool. He’s really nice to you, and why doesn’t Dad like him? Nico didn’t think the wand was stupid. You didn’t tell him you used it on people’s bones but he would probably understand, and he taught you a cool spell that turns anything into a grenade. Every morning you cast a spell for your dad and your sister to be less sad, for a new house, and a new iPad. It’s OK because sometimes magic just takes a long time. Sometimes when Mom scratches your head she is a cat, even though you can tell it’s still her except with claws that feel amazing.

COUNSELLOR: On the whole, things seem to be at a positive threshold point for the transitioning family. The father has decided to quit his long-standing job and look for something better. The daughter has found a confidant in her new boyfriend. The son is thinking positively and beginning to engage his imagination as a constructive/redemptive tool. However, any competent mental health professional understands that the counsellor-patient relationship can often become a delicate stage on which latent romantic/sexual desires play out a drama of erotic transference, and a good counsellor always keeps a wary eye trained on this—so why exactly did you provide the father with your personal cellphone number when he asked? You knew why he was asking, but you didn’t trust your gut. There have been red flags for weeks: though you always doubt it, deep down you always know when you’re being hit on. And what’s worse, he has his stupid charm, and it’s working. It’s not that he’s unattractive—he’s your patient. This texting-you-in-the-afternoon-just-to-ask-how-you’re-doing—it has to stop. You have to stop replying altogether. You can’t go there. You’ll bring it up when they come in this week. Nothing dramatic, just a quick Hey, can I speak with you? after the hour’s up.

FATHER: She must know that you’re not in any position to begin something new, right? It goes without saying. Does she think you’re trying to—to what? Date her? Could there be anything lower? You just like her, you feel a connection. But you’re not about to investigate the specifics of a connection to your psychotherapist—who does she think you are? It doesn’t matter: you’ve decided to take the job, and this time next month you’ll be 3,000 km west. Your sister is insistently generous about letting the three of you crash at her place for the week before the new house is ready. It will be healthy for you, to be somewhere fresh and somewhere warm, and to be near family. Your daughter won’t take it so easily, though: that’s a given. What would your wife have thought about the move? Would you even be doing this if she were here? It’s not that you’re running, not trying to leave her behind. You’ve grown accustomed to the reality that your rib cage is now her permanent home. “In the end, everyone loses and is lost to everyone. It’s what you do afterward that’s your life.” You find yourself mentally quoting the counsellor and her book more and more, especially in the evening when the sun gives up and you have only the company of self-help authors, fading memories of making love in this same bed, and Facebook photos of acquaintances from a bizarre past. The counsellor will understand—it just wasn’t in the cards for you two. Now to tell the kids.

DAUGHTER: Honestly you don’t know how your dad or your little brother are doing: you’re like never home. Your house is just like this sad hotel you come back to every night to sleep. On the weekends there are always shows to go to with Nico, and after school you’re at his place making out or watching him play Call of Duty, or just lying all twisted together on the couch downstairs, staring at each other. It’s exactly like you always imagined. The first time you had sex, you were trembling so hard. You don’t know why you waited so long. You’re so happy it’s actually kind of terrifying, like any second something shitty’s going to happen and cancel it all out. You’re talking about getting married. If you could just be older!

“You have to have your own life, and Mom would’ve wanted you to be happy.

What would it be like to open your eyes to his skin every morning, to fall asleep in his smell? It’s weird, but you wish you could talk to Mom about how happy you are. But you definitely wouldn’t have—that’s like a fantasy version of her. You still cry in your sleep sometimes. Remember when you were a kid and she used to take you out for Sunday poutine and then the petting zoo? You were actually friends. Then what happened? You miss her. But suddenly you can’t help feeling like you’re actually “recovering.” At least way better than your brother and your dad. Is it bad to say that? You’re not heartless, it’s just everyone grieves differently, right? Dad seems like he’s going into crazy denial-mode … it’s kind of scary. Every once in a while Nico gets all worried that you spend too much time with him instead of your family. But you don’t care. You have to have your own life, and Mom would’ve wanted you to be happy. Ugh—how come every time you’re in Family Session you get this sad creepy feeling like your dad’s trying to bang the shrink?

4. As usual, make a rotation in the roles—by now everyone should have had the opportunity to play each role once. However, a new participant has joined the seminar very late, and insists on taking part in this final exercise. Accommodate this visitor by providing one group with a fifth, experimental script. Allow the role-play to go on as long as it seems productive, improvising, together, various endings to the family’s grief story. Is each group able to reach a satisfactory resolution? Discuss.

COUNSELLOR: The grieving father has suddenly elected to move the family across the country. In terms of your own peace of mind, this is frankly a relief. (Maybe this had to happen once in your career, and it’s good you’ve gotten it out of the way early. You’ll be more than prepared should it ever happen again.) But at the same time, you can’t condone this sudden move: in your opinion the father is still in the unpredictable depths of processing his pain/loss, and it seems dangerously ambitious of him to jump into a new life far away without having fully accepted the absence of his main source of support. Not to mention the toll that this rupture will take on the kids. Or are you mistaking your ego for compassion?

“You cannot bring her back, or act as her stand-in; he cannot afford you the satisfaction of having helped.

The situation is straight out of a textbook. Chapter One: Grief poses unique challenges to both the patient and counsellor, since neither has the power to give the other what they truly want, et cetera, et cetera. You cannot bring her back, or act as her stand-in; he cannot afford you the satisfaction of having helped. It is he who must learn to adjust to a world without her/memorialize her and begin building with her a realistic post-death relationship. You can only guide. Still, you can’t help feeling like you’ve failed the family. Maybe you’re just not cut out for this? It’s so obvious the pain will catch up to him in no time, but you can’t even ask him to consider staying, for fear he’ll misread it as you wanting him around. And so what else can you do? You’ll write them a referral for your best colleague out west, see if he’d like a summary of their file, and sincerely wish them all the best.

FATHER: You’re really going to do it. You’re going to load your whole life’s collection into the back of this massive orange truck one box at a time, hand off the keys, and head on the open road: just you and the kids. You’ll stay in motels, snack on beef jerky behind the wheel, mediate arguments, stop for a thousand restrooms, blare the radio, and spend more quality time together than you have since who knows when. Your wife’s spirit will watch over and protect you on this adventure: there’s no way she’d miss it. She’ll look on as her family takes in the scope of this broad country, province by unique province. Finally you’ll become intimate with the proverbial flatness of the prairies, the massive serrated Rockies walling up the horizon, as the three of you roll steadily toward an ever-expanding future. What would you trade to have her back? Anything. Absolutely anything. But the other night as you moved closer to sleep, with one foot already in the realm of dreams, you watched yourself arrive at a mental place where, for the briefest moment, you felt no anger. This is going to be very, very hard. But it could just be that the universe is extending its hand. And your life surely depends upon taking up its offer.

DAUGHTER: What the fucking fuck. Is he serious?! There’s no way this is happening. You aren’t going, you’re just not! You’re almost fifteen! You finally have something to live for! You hope they fucking enjoy life without you, ’cause 4 a.m. Tuesday morning you’re gone. He can box your shit up all he wants, but you’re taking the army green hiking bag from the basement, filling it with everything you need to survive, leaving the misleading note on the counter, and running to the bus station to meet Nico. He bought the tickets last night on his mom’s Visa. You’ll bus to his parents’ cottage and hide out together eating canned things, keeping the curtains shut, emerging only at night to go skinny-dipping. You’ll live on chocolate milk and love. You’ll dye your hair and come up with fake names. He’ll propose to you in the woods, or in his canoe. Fuck that—you’ll propose to him. Maybe you’ll come back once they give up looking for you. You’ll find an apartment together and get a job at a clothing store. Eventually you’ll finish high school? Someday? This is fucked. But you warned him! You’ll send a postcard, after a while. Dear Dad. You FAILED at ruining my life.

SON: It doesn’t make sense, though. She’s your cat, not the strangers’ cat. She’s a part of your family. Why can’t she come? She’s been in your family even longer than you. She could have a litter box in the back seat and you’d clean it and feed her treats from the glove compartment, and she’d sit on your lap the whole way. You wouldn’t mind. You like her. But no one listens to anything you say. You could run in and say Dad I’m on fire come quick! and he wouldn’t even put the box down. What school will you go to? What if there’s no one to be friends with? What if you want to talk to Corey? Mom used to listen. She always listened. But her marrow got weird and filled her blood with stuff and now you have to tell Dad Yes I want to keep that about every single thing and even pull sticks out of the garbage and hide them in the bottom of the box because they’re wands. It’s not even like they’re amazing people. They’re strangers—he doesn’t even know them! They just came in their black car and said hello and pulled her right out of your arms. Now she lives in a house you’ll probably never get to see yourself. They said they’d take her and love her and give her a good home and maybe they will, but still, how is that supposed to make you not sad? She was yours. You miss her so much.

MOTHER: It is only a sheet of hail, they said, and a step into fog. It is only something else. It is not only dew on the lawn, a sign saying SOLD. Not children marching the sidewalks in disguises. It is all pain transposed to compassion. It is fear revealed as incoherence. Nothing at all like imagined. You will heal them, they said, for it does not end so simply. It is not agency, now, but an infusion. It is one lung that breathes for all. Nothing of the dread. None of the terror. Nothing of anything, just as they said. It is the absence of everything it wasn’t all along. See them together now, in this new room. Expecting nothing but nothing. Surprise them. Move right in through that doorway: step right back in. Go on.


Ben Stephenson is the author of the novel A Matter of Life and Death or Something (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). It was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and CBC Books named him one of “10 Canadian Writers to Watch.” His work has appeared in JoylandHer Royal Majesty, The Coast, and the Telegraph-Journal. He is currently working on a story collection, and he tweets @ben_stephenson_.