What Is Grief Counseling and How Does It Help?

Published on: 22 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Updated 9/23/2021

Although grief is an inevitable part of life, the loss of a loved one is always an unexpected and challenging situation to cope with, even when the loss is expected. It stirs up a myriad of complex emotions, and its reality dwarfs everything you’ve heard about grieving. There is no way to prepare to grieve.

As time passes, most come to terms with their loss and learn to cope in their own ways. Others, however, struggle with grief for prolonged periods without improvement, and as a result, their ability to carry on with daily activities is disrupted.

No matter how long it takes you to mourn a loved one, grief counseling can help you navigate one of the most challenging experiences of life.

What Is Grief Counseling?

Grief counseling, or bereavement counseling, is designed to help people cope with the loss of a loved one. A grief counselor can help you develop methods and strategies for coping with your loss and grief. Grief counseling provides bereaved people with an avenue to discuss their feelings and emotions, helping them discover ways to ease the grieving process.

You may have heard of the stages of grief, which can be challenging for anyone, but grief counseling is recommended especially for individuals whose grief:

  • Interferes with daily activities
  • Causes feelings of guilt or depression
  • Makes it harder to carry on with their own lives
  • Causes problems in existing relationships

What is Grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to any form of loss, especially someone’s death. It goes beyond mere sadness and often evokes feelings of confusion, doubt, guilt, anger, and other complex emotions.

There’s no right way to grieve everyone reacts to loss differently and grieves in their own way. There’s also no normal duration for grief; it may take months or years to accept the loss of a loved one. Nonetheless, most people can indeed recover from loss with the help of a great social support network and healthy coping mechanisms. Grief counseling provides the necessary support for those finding it hard to recover.

How Grief Works

The nature of grieving often corresponds with the circumstances of the loss. The loss of a loved one due to old age, for instance, would typically elicit a different reaction than the premature loss of a child. No one kind of grief should be downplayed or favored over another, however.

Grief also manifests in a range of thoughts and behaviors. Some people prefer the company of others and sharing their feelings; others prefer to mourn alone. Bereaved people may exhibit “instrumental grieving,” where they focus on solving other problems to distract from the need to express their emotions, or “intuitive grieving,” which involves communicating and sharing one’s feelings.

Sometimes, normal thoughts and behaviors associated with grief may transform or combine into intense symptoms like anxiety, depression, eating problems, aggressive or self-destructive behaviors, and trouble sleeping. This condition is known as “complicated grief,” and over 15 percent of bereaved people are likely to experience it according to the American Psychological Association.

If you are facing any of these symptoms outside the expected range of reactions to loss, consulting a licensed professional grief counselor can help you deal with any mental or physical side-effects of loss you may be experiencing. In such cases, grief therapy is the most appropriate option, and it involves sessions channeled toward individuals struggling with severe responses to grief.

The Stages of Grief

Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed 5 stages of dealing with grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Each of these stages can last for as little as a few days, or for as long as a year. The stages of grief can also occur in a different order, some people don’t experience every stage, and many people don’t realize that they’re even experiencing these stages. In some cases, people might not go through any of these stages.

In the Kubler-Ross’s first stage, ”denial,” people are usually unable or unwilling to admit their loss. The second stage, ”anger,” comes when the realization of the loss sets in. It is followed by ”bargaining,” the third stage, where the bereaved will often try to plead with whoever, or whatever, they can to restore their loved one back into their life. The fourth stage, ”depression,” is often the most challenging stage to get through. The fifth and final stage,”acceptance,” typically completes the process of grieving; most people come to terms with their loss at this stage.

How Does Grief Counseling Help?

Apart from helping you cope with your loss, grief counseling lets you:

  • Treat your trauma
  • Express your emotions
  • Address feelings of guilt you may harbor
  • Build a strong support system to help you carry on
  • Come to terms with your new reality

Living with the pain of unresolved loss is unhealthy and can lead to complicated grief, which is more severe, long lasting, and difficult to remedy.

What Happens During Grief Counseling?

Dr. Robert A. Neimeyer, a clinical psychologist and expert in grief therapy, suggested two major steps a grief counselor is required to take while working with someone dealing with the loss of a loved one.

The first step involves fostering a trusting relationship with the client to create a safe and comfortable environment for the bereaved to openly share the circumstances of their loss.

The second step, apart from actively listening to the grieving person, involves the counselor asking specific questions about the nature of the client’s relationship with the deceased. If the relationship with the deceased was a difficult one, counseling would require a different approach than in a situation where there was a healthy relationship between the griever and deceased.

Grief counseling is not only for adults coping with loss. Grief counselors might focus on issues such as: individuals who lost a coworker; children coming to terms with the loss of a parent, a friend, or a pet; patients in hospice care; women or couples who are dealing with a miscarriage; and people who have gone through a traumatic event.

Grief Counseling Techniques

After the circumstances surrounding the loss have been successfully established, the grief counselor may move on to specific grief counseling techniques, which may include the following:

  • Talking about the deceased person. Sometimes people who are grieving need to talk about their loss but are unable to find a safe space to do so. A grief counselor should encourage the grieving person to talk about the deceased’s life: what were they like, who did they love and who loved them, what were their hobbies? Specific qualities that made them so special (and even what made them difficult)?
  • Distinguishing grief from trauma. If someone is feeling traumatized from the memory or the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one, a grief counselor will help them to readjust their outlook on those memories and reframe their relation to the deceased to encourage healthier grieving.
  • Addressing feelings of guilt. Some people feel guilty for things they did or didn’t do while their loved one was with them. A grief counselor should encourage the grieving person to let go of the guilt, or even to allow themselves to forget their loved one for a little while, so that they can remember the person fondly at other times.

How To Begin Grief Counseling

Making the decision to consult a grief counselor is usually not an easy decision – especially when you’re grieving – so it’s understandable if you are initially skeptical about grief counseling. However, you don’t need to reach severe levels of grief to opt for grief counseling. It helps to consult a grief counselor even if you’re merely in need of a space to talk about your loss without fear of judgement, or if you need help processing your emotions as you grieve.

It also helps to consider the kind of experiences you need help with; you may need to find a grief counselor with expertise in a certain specialty, in addition to grief. For instance, if you wish to go for grief counseling as a family, then a marriage and family therapist may be your best option. For people who have experienced a traumatic loss, the most appropriate counselor would be a mental health professional specializing in trauma.

If you’re searching for grief counseling services and support groups, in addition to traditional therapy options, there are also online platforms like Talkspace created to help you find the best fit for your specific needs.

General Tips For Coping With Your Loss

Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one takes time. It can be helpful to be patient with yourself and avoid rushing through your grieving period. Don’t shy away talking about your loss with friends and family — not discussing the loss could make you feel alone and impede your healing. Accepting your feelings as they come and spending time with people who care about your well-being makes grieving a lot easier to bear.

Above all, remember to celebrate your loved one in a way that would honor their life.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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