Category: <span>Trauma counselling</span>

death and dying therapy dr. marisa van niekerk educational psychologist midstream centurion pretoria

Death and dying therapy

Death and dying therapy

Death and dying therapy is something that people need, but most tend to avoid.

Death and life – two parts of the same coin. The one can’t go with the other one

(Have another look at the picture above. What word do you see? Now rotate the picture 180 degrees. Now what word do you see?)

 “The world breaks everyone and afterward, some grow strong at the broken places”.

As an educational psychologist, who specializes in trauma, including death and dying therapy and who completed both my masters and doctorate degrees in trauma (with both teenagers and adults), I’m confronted on a daily basis with “broken people” and / or hurt people. Examples of what I’m dealing with are divorce, abuse, suicide, death, housebreaking, hijacks, bullying, retrenchments and natural disasters. But one of these traumas remains a taboo subject, an absolutely no, to talk about…DEATH.

death and dying therapy dr. marisa van niekerk educational psychologist midstream centurion pretoria
Picture above: No! No! Don’t talk about death


Through the ages and generations death has been a taboo and a ‘no no’ subject and until today most people refuse to think and talk about death. Thinking and talking, as well as reading about death, threaten most people and make them feel uncomfortable. Thus death = silent ignorance (to most people).

The reality is that death and life are two parts of the same “coin”. The one part of this “coin” which is “life” can’t be understand, without understanding something about the second part which is “death”. Our parents teach us how to live (if they themselves knew how, and if we are lucky), but teaching us to die doesn’t even exist in their vocabulary. We don’t want to think and talk about death, because we don’t want to die, at least not for now. The fact is that we all will die and it can happen with you or one of your family members or friends today. Every day, since we can remember, we see, hear and read of people who died, but we think “thank goodness it’s not us”. Then life goes on, until the day arrives when someone close to you die or when you are confronted with death by means of an unexpected diagnosis…and suddenly your life is shattered and falls apart.

Death and dying therapy: A different view

In his book ‘The Alchemist’, Paulo Coelho describes death as a beautiful woman. Coelho says that this beautiful woman (death) is always by his side in life. She had been there since his birth. A friend of Coelho asked him whether the beautiful woman says something. Coelho’s answer to his friend was: The beautiful woman is saying:

“I’m going to kiss you,” and I say to her, “not now, please.” But she says, “OK, not now – but pay attention and try to get the best of every moment because I am going to take you”. And I say, “OK, thank you for giving me the most important advice in life – to live your moment fully.”

death and dying therapy dr. marisa van niekerk educational psychologist midstream centurion pretoria

To be able to really learn to live and to understand life, it’s impossible not to learn and understand more about death. Look at the picture of death again. Life and death are intertwined, they can’t be separated and the one can’t exist without the other. People ask: “Where do I start with death?”

The first thing is to face death. Yes, to face death. Facing death means to be able to stand still and say: I am confronted with death and I need to face it. Research indicated that “facing” your fear, panic and insecurities, is the first step to go on and pursue hope. But what is facing death exactly? Facing death is about getting up in the morning, although you do not feel like doing it, and facing the day, facing your fear, facing your challenges and most of all, facing yourself.

Facing yourself and facing the fear of death is about going forward although with trembling legs and maybe sweating hands, and a shattered heart that pounds in your body, even you do not feel like it. Facing death is about going on, like the metaphor of a river which describes trauma:

“The river flows relentlessly to the sea. When it reaches a point where it is blocked by rocks and debris it struggles to find ways to continue its path. Would the alternative be to flow backwards? That is what a person in trauma craves, to go back in time. But life doesn’t provide a reverse gear and the struggle must go forward, like the river, with occasional pauses to tread water and check where we are heading”….water adapts itself to the configuration of the land.

death and dying therapy dr. marisa van niekerk educational psychologist midstream centurion pretoria


Facing death and facing yourself takes a tremendous amount of energy. Don’t face this on your own. There is help. Often during trauma and death, negative experiences of the past, which wasn’t properly faced and addressed, tend to come to the surface again. Feelings of guilt, sleeplessness, anxiety, feelings of depression and more can bother you and make your shattered life even more confusing and unbearable. The intense and overwhelming feelings and emotions which is caused by death infiltrates every cell in your body.

Your brain’s main aim is to protect you. In experiencing trauma your logical and rational thinking process will be put on pause for a while, because your brain will automatically put you in fight, freeze or flight “mode”. That is one of the reasons why you can’t think clearly. Through psychotherapy and counselling you will be supported to face your unresolved issues of the past during your mourning process of death and make it “dealt with” issues.  By sitting with an experienced trauma psychologist, will help you to start to gather the shattered pieces of your life. It will be an intense journey, but by doing this for yourself, will support you to be better equipped for the journey that still lies ahead – as you are alive which means there is still a road to travel.

Should you just need to talk to someone who can listen and walk the journey with you, you can contact me here, or visit my Facebook or Twitter pages.

For more information about death and trauma therapy click here.

Photo credits:

Photo by Zach Lezniewicz on Unsplash

Photo by Mattia Ascenzo on Unsplash

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash (Stop)

Photo by Suzy Turbenson on Unsplash (Cemetery)


Paulo Coelho – The Alchamist

Diagram: The grief Centre of Texas. Corr, CA, Nabe, Corr,DM. 2006. Death and dying, life and living. 5thedition. United States of America:Thompson Wadsworth.

Van Niekerk, AMS. 2011. Opvoedkundig-Sielkundige riglyne vir die hantering van die verlies- en treurproses (Unpublished M.Ed Dissertation).

Top traumatic and the most stressful life events, before the Corona virus Dr. Marisa van Niekerk Educational Psychologist Midstream Pretoria death divorce

Top traumatic and the most stressful life events, before the Corona virus

Top traumatic and the most stressful life events, before the Corona virus or Covid-19

Covid-19 certainly is one of the most stressful life events ever.  The world has stopped and people right over the world are in lockdown. The corona virus or Covid-19 indeed is certainly one of the top traumatic and the most stressful life events.

What were known as the top traumatic and the most stressful life events until recently when Covid-19 hit us?

  • Death of a loved one.
  • Separation or divorce.
  • Getting married.
  • Major illness or injury.
  • Starting a new job.
  • Job loss.
  • Workplace stressors.
  • Financial problems.
  • Move to a new house.


What is the definition of trauma?

Trauma is defined as stressful events, over which a person has no control. This stressful events can cause highlevels of anxiety which threatens or harm a person’s emotional, physical, and / or social well-being and interferes with his / her normal daily functioning in such a way that reevaluationof his / her actions and thoughts are needed. These strong emotional reactions have the potential to interfere with a person’s ability to function in the traumatic situation or later (Van Niekerk 2014).

Suddenly all of us as human beings have to face the reality of Covid-19. So many people wonder what’s wrong with them and wonder whether they are loosing themselves and whether the lockdown might be the reason why they suddenly experience negative incidents from the past to bother them now. Trauma research indicates that during times of trauma it is most possible that negative incidents of the past comes to the surface and bother you again. These negative past incidents are however “normal” to experience in an “abnormal situation”, like COVID-19. These incidents are most of the time things that a person hasn’t dealt with properly in the past. This is one of the most important things to take good care of your own as well as your families’ emotional well-being.

Trauma crying divorce death Dr. Marisa van Niekerk Educational Psychologist


This sudden anger, sadness, confusion and guilt that suddenly came into your life, can be addressed through therapy. Therefore do what you can do during the lockdown time, but if these emotions and feelings with regards to incidents that happened in your past, keep on bothering you and interfere with your everyday life, it might be time to talk to a professional person who specializes in trauma.

The importance of working through traumatic incidents from the past, as well as the trauma of Covid-19 can’t be highlighted enough as you don’t want and need to carry ‘unfinished business’ for the rest of your life. Therefore “face” your fear, sadness, anger, etcetera and make your own as well as your loved ones’ ‘unfinished’ issues of the past, ‘finished’ learning experiences for the future.

I am an educational psychologist and trauma specialist in private practice in Pretoria, Midstream, Centurion, and Midrand areas. I have completed my master’s and doctoral degrees in trauma with teenagers and adults. I had been a teacher (both pre-primary and primary) for 18 years and later on a school principal who completed my honors degree in early childhood development. My specialization area of working with trauma starts from the age of two years up to 92+ years of age. I have more than 26 years of experience in working with children, parents and other adults.

Read more on trauma counselling on my blog. You can also connect with me on my Facebook page to read more on other educational psychology topics.

Reference:  Van Niekerk, M. 2014. Unpublished doctoral thesis: ‘The psycho-educational use of mental toughness in dealing with trauma.’


Photo credits:
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash
Photo by Darya Tryfanava on Unsplash
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