It all comes down to words.
Reading a book and counseling someone through a period of grief may seem to have little in common, but both practices depend on words.
Many works of literature — poetry like that of Dylan Thomas or Derek Walcott, novels like those by Arundati Roy or Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo, plays like Greek or Shakespearean tragedies — are built around a central trauma or psychological breaking point. The words that construct their narratives are concerned with how humans deal with traumatic experiences.
Even as the characters come to grips with their situation or are broken by it, the narrative structure — how the trauma is portrayed — is also a way for the author and reader to make sense of tragedy.
Just as individuals deal with trauma in different ways, literary works also vary. Some express the unspeakable nature of trauma. The source is never identified, and tragedy is evinced only in what is never said. Others use an effusion of sensation and words in an attempt to bury the source–to forget. Some lash out. Others internalize. Some pretend indifference. Some seek answers. Some choose despair.
While a counselor may offer coping mechanisms and encourage a healthier response, his or her tools are predominantly words. It is up to the individual to choose a course.
In a similar way, works of literature cannot replace or force change in a reader, but they can offer perspective. They can offer catharsis or hope. They can offer alternative models and paradigms.
This is not to say in any way that novels should replace a conversation with a caring and skilled counselor: literature can offer hope, but it is equally capable of feeding despair. However, I think the links between counseling and literature are worth considering for several reasons.
First, as a reminder that authors, readers, critics, and teachers can have a real impact on others through the words they choose, especially when dealing with the experience of trauma.
Second, as a reminder that dealing with tragedy (whether global or personal) involves deciding how to tell a story: it is a verbal process as well as an internal one, requiring a listener as much as a pharmacist.
Finally, to suggest that our stories are not meant to be told in isolation, and to recognize the need for relationship and community in dealing with our own and each other’s periods of darkness and grief.