Chapter 4: Boundaries and Ethics

Back to Reflections on Chapter 3

If  people come to you with their grief, or accept your offer of help, then it suggests that they already feel that they can trust you and that you will appreciate their needs.  How can you maintain this trust?

In formal work, you would be supported and guided by your agency, but as an individual, you need to work things out for yourself.  This requires you to rely upon your own awareness and appreciation of what would be the best way to behave, and also to keep track of the wellbeing of the grieving person to see whether or not your contact is helping or hindering them.

The old virtues, for example, prudence in the form of practical wisdom, courage especially as fortitude, justice as fairness, temperance as concern for the other, provide helpful ways of considering this approach.  But in formal counselling, the Ethical Framework is expressed as:

  • honour the trust placed in you,
  • recognise the neighbour’s right to autonomy,
  • promote the neighbour’s wellbeing,
  • agree and maintain an appropriate level of confidentiality,
  • avoid harming the neighbour.

By offering to help, and by keeping to the approach described in Chapter 2 you are already affirming three of these good practices.  So, with such good intentions in place, how could companionship possibly harm your neighbour? 

The main causes for harm can be listed in four sections:

  1. difficulties in confidentiality,
  2. unnecessarily allowing an unsatisfactory relationship to develop,
  3. making inappropriate assumptions,
  4. failing to cope with strongly different beliefs.


No formal counselling, medical, legal or confessional work, can proceed unless the information is given in confidence. It may be that you will be trusted as a companion only if it is felt that you will keep confidences. If confidentiality is required, how are you going to organise it, and how would this work where your family, neighbourhood or office already know the individual and something of the circumstances of the bereavement? You need to discuss the matter early in the relationship. 

Are there any special circumstances where you might feel you should deliberately break this confidence? If there are, perhaps these also should be discussed.


In accompanying a bereaved neighbour, you may be altering the relationship between you and embarking, with little or no preparation, on a very different relationship. Each person’s expectations, needs and understanding may be very different in their bereavement than they were beforehand. It is only too easy for misunderstandings to develop, and these may become sources of muddle and distrust, and so waste everyone’s time.  It is necessary continually to be aware where this is happening, and to bring these questions into the open so that they may be resolved.

It is nearly always useful, at the end of a session or at the beginning of a new session to ask how she is feeling about the new relationship between you.  And, if you are feeling uncertain about something you have said or how you have understood something she said, to ask for her opinion.


 Quite frequently, when visiting a grieving person, you realize that you are thinking more clearly, are more stable emotionally, better at concentrating than she is.  It is important that, even with this realisation, you avoid taking over her life, introducing your beliefs, or insisting on actions that you consider right, for that would prevent her growth, and disable her from adjusting to her new circumstances. Such control will almost always spoil the relationship between you making it unhelpful, even harmful.  As stated in Chapter 2, the neighbour gains immeasurably by being heard, appreciated and understood, and not by being treated as an inferior.


Your neighbour may have talked to you and told you of her loss and all that troubled her, and you will have listened and responded and that might be the end of it - apart from keeping her confidences.  But suppose you agree to see her a few more times; would that mean that you now have some responsibility to her or her family?

It is generally wise to agree very few meetings ahead, one, two or three perhaps, for then there need be no embarrassment if you prefer to stop the contact.  Generally this makes it clear that you are not prepared to help with long term needs.

Generally it might be said that, if you take on further contacts, you have taken on responsibility for your own responses to her, i.e. to arrive when agreed, to go even if you find you dislike her or have little sympathy for her attitudes or beliefs, and to continue to keep her confidences. You have not taken responsibility for her, for her actions or behaviour.  If she starts drinking, assaults a person who, she thinks, is responsible for the death, or even if she attempts to take her own life {see Chapter 7}, it is not your responsibility, though it may feel as though it is.

Inappropriate assumptions.

Unchecked general assumptions

It is easy to assume that, as the grieving person is distressed, the lost relation had been a good one.  But the loss of a relationship of hatred may also be distressing because the loss may bring remorse, regret or an unexpected emptiness.  You may be correct to feel for your neighbour because of his distress, but it may be necessary to check the cause of this distress before assuming that he lost someone he actually loved.

Similarly you may need to check that the distress stems from the loss of an open relationship, where it may be from the loss of a secret or inappropriate or scandalous relationship.

More generally, both you and the bereaved person may have been brought up to have entirely opposing opinions about things central to his current distress, for example about behaviour in grief or about religion or about the afterlife or about the possibility of knowing the “scientific truth” about illness or death which have the tendency to bring you into conflict. Conflict would not be helpful, so we need to investigate other peoples’ opinions carefully, exploring them to see if together we can move to a greater understanding and appreciation of the other person’s experiences at the same time, keeping control over our own reactions.

Inappropriate theories of  grieving

Both you and your neighbour may have picked up some theories of grieving or bereavement support which though “well known” may not be appropriate to your current situation.It is important that you are aware of these theories and gently question them, for otherwise you may both be raising a barrier to good understanding.

As examples, here are some ideas that have been very popular but which have proved to be only rarely useful:

Detachment It can be thought that the purpose of grieving is to detach oneself from the dead person, so that you can turn your energies to forming new relationship, This view is much disliked by many, especially parents who want to remember their dead child and to transform the old relationship in some new, appropriate way {see Chapter 5}.  A complication from using this idea has been that anyone wanting to remember was, except in the case of war dead, considered to be wrong and in need of correction - a mistaken and perhaps damaging attitude.

Grieving is a private, personal, well defined process As we saw in Chapter 1, grieving is different for everyone, there is no single process which is appropriate to everyone.  And, you will know, if you have seen a grieving family, that each person’s needs are different, sometimes conflicting sometimes supporting.  For each individual, the process may be as much social as it is individual.

Grieving is a process with a clear ending  Grieving is a process of transition, but it is not an even, linear process. It changes all the time, and when it may seem to cease, it may well be revived by an event, a passing comment or a story, The word “closure” may be appropriate, for example, when a lost body is discovered, or when a murderer is sentenced after a long trial, but it is not an appropriate expectation of the process of grieving.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 4