Suffering a significant loss can make it impossible to move forward, even for the most stalwart of personalities. You might be unsure how to pick up the pieces, and may even feel like your grief is acutely painful, and that no one can understand.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Grief Counseling?
- What Happens During a Grief Counseling Session?
- Popular Grief Counseling Techniques
- How Do You Know If You’re Ready for Grief Counseling?
- How to Start Grief Counseling
People suffer different types of grief, depending on the loss they've suffered. It's difficult to know exactly how grief will affect you until you go through such an experience.
Grief counselors can help with issues of pain and suffering due to loss and bereavement, as it is a major factor in grief work. If you’re curious about grief counseling, the information below will help you better understand what grief counseling is, what a grief counselor does, and how this type of counseling might benefit you or a loved one.
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What Is Grief Counseling?
Grief counseling is a subset of counseling—a specific form of therapy that focuses on those who are grieving and bereaved. Much like regular counseling, grief counseling offers release from emotions through the talk therapy model employed in traditional counseling sessions.
A grief counselor can help you cope with specific challenges associated with grief, such as the emotional, social, physical, and spiritual responses to your loss. They can also help you regain some of the cognitive losses associated with grieving, such as short-term memory loss, difficulties concentrating, and loss of orientation.
Purpose or goal
The purpose or goal of grief counseling is to help you through the following process:
- Accepting your loss
- Talking out your feelings
- Understanding the grief process
- Finding ways of coping that work for you
- Identifying issues that may be hindering your progress
- Healing from your pain and suffering
- Reconnecting with others
- Learning to live without your loved one
- Moving forward from your loss
- Finding hope and renewed purpose
Difference between grief counseling and other forms of counseling or therapy
There are many counseling options aimed at helping an individual or group deal with loss, trauma, or other life-altering events. Counselors are trained to seek out issues affecting a person, help them identify how they’re being impacted by them, and help them find ways to cope, heal, and move forward in life.
Some counselors are specifically trained to help with issues that affect an individual dealing with a significant loss in their life. The difference between the two forms of counseling are as follows:
The traditional methods of counseling use talk-therapy to help an individual pinpoint what’s affecting their lives now or the events in their past that have had a significant impact on their lives. Past traumas are explored along with how the patient is currently affected by them.
A counselor is trained to listen and to guide the flow of conversation into self-discovery in a safe and non-judgmental way.
A grief counselor has all of the basic training in traditional methods of counseling, along with the added training, or sub-specialty training, in grief and bereavement counseling. Grief counselors look at specific ways loss affects a person, and are trained in recognizing the specific stages of grief.
A grief counselor helps their patients understand the grieving process, and guides them into healing from their loss.
Grief counseling vs. grief therapy
Counseling generally involves talk therapy that takes the individual from learning about their feelings of loss and bereavement to finding ways of coping with their loss.
Grief therapy combines talk therapy counseling with specific tasks that aim to provide therapy to the bereaved individual. These may include any, or all, of the following:
- Joining online grief support groups
What Happens During a Grief Counseling Session?
Your first grief counseling session allows you and your counselor to get to know each other and to talk about the loss that you’ve suffered. You may be asked to fill out a questionnaire before your session begins, or you and your counselor might fill it out together as part of your first session. The answering of some basic questions lays the foundation for your future counseling sessions.
The counselor will ask you questions about your past as they relate to your loss. They might also ask you how you view death in the context of your cultural traditions and spiritual beliefs. This is the framework that the counselor will use to build a tailored counseling plan for you that will have a specific beginning and an end.
Individual counseling is one of the most common ways of seeking grief counseling. It provides a safe place to talk openly about the things that may feel uncomfortable for you to discuss with your family and friends. One-on-one counseling allows you to create a bond of trust between you and your counselor.
They can help you understand your loss and put your experience into the context of what’s expected in a normal grieving process.
Together, you’ll come up with specific ways that'll help you cope with your loss. Your counselor will also help you navigate the grieving process until you gain a better understanding of what grief is and why you're going through it.
It’s not unusual for a couple who’s grieving a significant loss to have conflicting grieving styles. Because individuals all grieve in distinct ways, a significant loss has the potential to cause the breakdown of a relationship.
A grief counselor is trained not only in the basics of counseling that includes couples or marriage counseling but also in how to approach a couple that may be grieving.
They help them to better understand each other’s needs. When a couple goes through the pain and suffering of losing a child or a parent, for example, it sometimes proves too much for them to bear, and the relationship suffers as well. Grief counseling teaches a grieving couple ways in which to approach one another in ways that are loving and healthy to the relationship.
When a loss happens within the family dynamic, such as the loss of a parent or sibling, it may be difficult for the surviving family members to offer support to one another. Families sometimes fall apart because they don’t know how to help each other process their grief when they’re each trying to cope with their grief.
Emotions may be running high while energy may be running low. The surviving family members may not have the energy to give to one another in helping each other cope with their grief. A grief counselor who's trained in grief and family counseling will suit the family best when seeking out treatment.
Popular Grief Counseling Techniques
Many individuals who exhibit grief-related symptoms and concerns seek out professional counseling or therapy to help them cope with their loss. At times, grief is the primary concern for which they seek treatment.
Other times, grief is the underlying issue to another issue, like anxiety. Both of these scenarios require the grief counselor to assess, measure, and treat grief as an essential part of an individual's healing and wellbeing. Below are some of the more commonly used grief counseling techniques today.
Grief counseling is designed to help grieving individuals cope with significant losses in their life, including the death of a loved one. Grief counselors help those suffering from loss develop healthy and effective coping methods and strategies.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or talk therapy is one of the most popular grief counseling techniques used by grief counselors and therapists as an introduction to treatment that allows them to explore the roots of the issues presented. Talk therapy helps those grieving open up about their feelings and emotions so they can discover ways to ease their suffering.
Continuing bonds therapy
The continuing bonds model of grief therapy eliminates the need for the bereaved to go through stages of grief, the tasks of mourning, or phases of loss. Instead, it focuses on the slow adjustment to the death of a loved one while adapting the changed relationship to the deceased.
Continuation of the relationship allows for a bond that lasts throughout the survivor's lifetime and is a natural and normal adjustment to the loss. Some examples of continuing bonds therapy include the following.
- Talking to a deceased loved one
- Visiting the graveside
- Keeping mementos of the deceased
The main principle of grief work requires that the grieving individual allow time for the natural psychological process of grief to take shape. It involves acknowledging their suffering and giving it the time and attention it needs to manifest, grow, and heal.
The focus of grief work is helping the bereaved talk about their feelings, their pain and suffering, the loss itself, their past and future, along with crushed hopes and dreams resulting from their loss. The grief therapist's role is guiding the patient in expressing their grief in healthy ways while allowing the process to take shape at its own pace.
There are certain benefits to receiving group therapy either in addition to or instead of individual treatment. For some individuals, the death of a loved one may be the first time they ever seek counseling or outside help to cope with their grief. Many people who suffer through losses will typically turn to their circle of trusted friends and family to get the support they need.
However, when dealing with the overwhelming pain of losing a close loved one, their suffering may be more than they can handle on their own. Group therapy may help them overcome their pain by observing and learning from others in similar circumstances.
How Do You Know If You’re Ready for Grief Counseling?
There’s no exact way to tell how long grief lasts, or if you’re a good candidate for grief counseling. However, the indicators below should give you an idea of when it may be time to seek out grief counseling.
You might need grief counseling if…
- You’re having difficulty accepting your loss. In particular, your inability to accept your loss goes beyond the initial feelings of shock and denial. It’s normal for your loss to feel surreal in the first few days or weeks. If you find yourself having trouble accepting that your loved one is gone, or you find yourself expecting them to walk through the door any minute even though it's been weeks since their death, consider seeking grief counseling.
- You feel that your life is meaningless. Sometimes when you lose a loved one like a child or spouse, your reason for living seems to die right along with them. Experiencing this level of loss and despair is not a part of the normal grieving process. A grief counselor can help you make sense of your life after the death of your loved one, and to find a renewed purpose as you move forward.
- You’re having suicidal thoughts. Having thoughts of ending your life is a sign that something has gone majorly wrong in your grief process, and you should seek the immediate help of a trained professional. They can help you sort out these suicidal thoughts and feelings that are usually associated with survivor’s guilt.
- You’re experiencing panic attacks. Everyday life without your loved one may seem overwhelming for you. This is normal when you first experience your loss. If the feelings of overwhelm fail to ease, and you begin to experience uncontrollable panic attacks (which, combined with grief, are called grief attacks), it may be a sign that you need to see a grief counselor soon.
You might not need grief counseling if…
- Feelings of overwhelming sadness ebb and flow. With normal grief, you’ll experience sadness that may at times feel overwhelming. And some days, your sadness will ease up and feel a bit more manageable. This is typical of the grieving process and shouldn’t cause you any alarm. In time, these feelings of overwhelming sadness will decrease.
- You can’t stop crying. Uncontrollable crying and the inability to be consoled for a few days after suffering a major loss is normal. Allow a few days for you to process your loss before deciding if it’s something more serious. After a few days, your crying spells may ease up a bit.
- You don’t have much appetite. It’s normal to feel a loss of appetite in the first few days after getting the bad news that someone you love has died. Your body will likely go into shock after hearing the news. You probably won’t have an appetite or be thinking of eating for the first few days. Try and get some nutrition and hydration so that you don’t compromise your health.
- You’ve accepted the loss. When you get the news that someone you love has died after a prolonged illness, for example, you won't be affected as much as when hearing news of the unexpected loss of a loved one. Your grief reaction won't be the same, and you may not need to seek any grief counseling to help you cope with your loss.
How to Start Grief Counseling
Getting started with grief counseling requires a determination to get professional help and seeking the best fit for you in a counselor or therapist. Many community and online resources connect you with referrals ready to help you according to your goals and needs. Some familiar places to seek treatment or to get referrals include your local hospitals and hospice services, places of worship, and funeral homes. Here are some steps to get started.
Determine your needs
Getting started with grief counseling requires you to be ready to receive the needed help in coping with your grief. For many individuals, this realization comes when they’re no longer capable of sustaining their everyday lives without being greatly affected by their grief and suffering. Some typical indicators include:
- The inability to function from day to day
- Declining physical and psychological condition
- Deepening of pain and sorrow
- Detachment and withdrawal from others
- Lost interest in ordinary activities
Talk with your healthcare provider
The first place to start looking for information on grief counseling is at the hospital or care facility attending to you or your loved one. Many hospitals, hospices, and long-term care facilities make grief counselors available to their patients and their families free of charge. Most will also provide these same free services to members of the community which they serve.
They may refer you to their in-house chaplain or religious services volunteers to get you the needed help. You may also request a secular counseling service if you’re uncomfortable with faith-based services.
Do your research
There are plenty of grief counselors to choose from, both in the community where you live and online. Take some time to vet counselors and therapists until you find a few that you feel comfortable with. The process may take a bit longer than just picking up the phone to call the first one on the list, but it is well worth it in the end.
Finding the right pairing for you is vital for obtaining comfortable and effective treatment for your grief. Don’t be afraid of asking for a free phone consultation to help you decide if they’re the right one for you.
Make an appointment
The most significant leap for anyone suffering from grief is taking the final step of making and keeping an appointment to meet with a grief counselor or therapist. Try not to be hard on yourself if it takes you several attempts at making the initial appointment. Trying something new can be intimidating for many and may take much more effort than anticipated.
If you’re unable or not yet emotionally ready to take this final step, ask a close loved one to help you get started. Although you’ll want to attend your counseling sessions by yourself, it doesn’t hurt to take someone along with you to accompany you during the first few sessions.
Is Grief Counseling Right for You?
If you aren’t yet ready to give grief counseling a go, try monitoring a few online grief forums to learn more about what grief counseling is, and how a grief counselor can help you overcome the pain and suffering associated with your loss.
- Hall, Charles A., et al. “Cognitive functioning in complicated grief.” Journal of psychiatric research, vol. 58 (2014): 20-5. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2014.07.002 ncbi.nlm.nih.gov