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Joanne Cacciatore on Bereavement Work and Traumatic Loss

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Joanne Cacciatore

EM: You have a special interest in bereavement work and traumatic loss. Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?

JC: The work I’ve done for two decades is working with and researching traumatic grief, primarily parents whose children of all ages have died and those whose family members were murdered or completed suicide. It’s not exactly the kind of work that brings lots of party invitations; fortunately for me, I’m a quasi-ascetic introvert. I help people, sometimes as a last resort when medications, tapping, EMDR, and other forms of ‘healing’ have ‘failed’, and I’ve worked with people from nearly every religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic group all around the world. It’s what I call a tragic privilege to do this work.

EM: You take many different approaches in your bereavement counseling but you say that all are mindfulness-based. Can you tell us a little bit about what mindfulness is and why you see it as so important?

JC: Mindfulness based work is primarily about me. Time and time again, research has shown that the intervention matters much less than the quality of the relationship between provider and client. So I have a meditation and compassion practice, personally, that makes me a better person to be with those suffering.

If, at some point, those I’m helping want to cultivate their own practice, then I am more than willing to teach them. But it matters, more, what I bring to the relationship: loving kindness, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, and unconditional support. I am able to bear witness to the excruciatingly painful expression of grief, despair, shame, guilt, panic, and this list is endless really. Who I am and the qualities I embody which occupy the space between other and me is the ‘intervention’ itself (as you can guess, I’m not a fan of that word ‘intervention’).

EM: If a person is grieving the loss of a loved one, what are some suggestions you might offer him or her?

JC: Oh, it’s so hard to reduce the process of mourning to such simple terms. However, one important thing for us all: find nonjudgmental others who can be with you without needing to change your feelings. Our feelings are legitimate even if the stories we tell ourselves may come from other places. Being with those whose hearts are open to suffering is crucial. Yet, many are unable to tolerate the expression of pain. This comes from what I call the ‘happiness-cult’ of Western culture. We cannot, however, experience happiness, not authentic full-on joy, without also inhabiting our suffering. I have a new book coming out next year that will illuminate this process in much greater detail by Wisdom Publications. I hope readers will look for it.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress of any sort (not specifically bereavement), what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

JC: Part of being human means that we do experience the natural ebb and flow of life. This brings sadness and joy, despair and happiness, pain and beauty, loss and love. These aspects of the human experience are normal. This idea that we are automatons who can only feel the ‘good’ is ridiculous.

Self-care and compassion can really help here. Sometimes, we need to listen deeply to our own hearts, especially when we feel they are breaking. Pain brings wisdom; we grow through pain when we allow it. But importantly we also need support from others who love us. Find a good counselor who will not pathologize your pain but who, rather, has his or her own practice of compassion which he or she can then offer as a place of safe respite for you.


Dr. Joanne Cacciatore is an Associate Professor at Arizona State University, Founder of Center for Loss and Trauma/MISS Foundation, and can be found on Facebook and on her blog.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

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