Can Grief Counseling Really Help? What It Is And How It Works
Updated March 06, 2020
Reviewer Martha Furman, LPC, CAC
Grief is a powerful emotion. After losing someone you love, the sadness can feel crushing. Humans are social creatures, and the bonds we make with others are strong and meaningful. The loss of a loved one is undoubtedly one of the most difficult hardships we'll endure in life, but it's possible to move forward. If you're willing to take the necessary steps, you can rediscover a life full of joy.
What Can Grief Counseling Do for Me?
All too often, when considering therapy, we imagine the TV cliché of uncomfortable couches and scratching pens. But the truth is, many people who receive grief counseling report reduced mental health symptoms like long-term depression. Additionally, understanding the stages of grief and loss by participating in grief therapy can put you more in touch with your emotions, thoughts, and feelings which will transfer into many other parts in your life.
If you want to be a part of the millions of people that have gained peace from grief counseling therapy sessions and support groups, you must take the first step. You owe it to yourself to do everything you can to get that happiness you deserve by moving through the stages of grief and loss. It's important to note that grief counseling and grief support groups can be a powerful tool, and help you find meaning.
Grief therapy won't solve every problem related to your traumatic loss - but sessions with behavioral health grief counselors can help you work through the stages of complicated grief. Although your time in grief counseling may have far-reaching effects, there are certain things bereavement counseling can't do.
- It won't make you forget the deceased.
- It won't allow you to bypass the pain of loss.
- It won't change the core of who you are.
Grief counseling is a type of therapy designed to help people who have experienced a loss, find meaning and move through the stages of grief to begin the healing process. Grief counselors study the stages of grief and learn techniques for helping people move through each stage in healthy ways as they mourn the death of a loved one. There are several goals of grief counseling.
Accepting the Reality of the Loss. Grief doesn't always hit you like a ton of bricks. Sometimes you feel nothing after a major loss. You may go on as if nothing has happened. Even if you're overwhelmed by emotion, you may feel disconnected from the source of those feelings. So, the first task of grieving, and thus the first goal of grief counseling is to help you understand with all your being that you've suffered a major loss.
Identifying and Dealing with Trauma. Before you and your behavioral health provider decide what treatment approach to take during the grief process to begin dealing with grief, your counselor needs to help you identify the parts of your experience that were traumatic. These may include witnessing the death, seeing the dead body, or other experiences surrounding your loved one's death. Once you know what those experiences are, you can describe them, discuss them, and your grief counselor can help you move past them and onto the task of grieving the death of a loved one.
Talking Freely about Your Loved One. If you don't have anyone to share your grief with, a grief counselor can provide an outlet for you. People find that participating in loss counseling or bereavement groups helps them to deal with the symptoms of grief and loss. If you're grieving in a fishbowl with friends and family judging your every move, you may need someone like your behavioral health counselor with whom you can share your personal feelings without the worry of saying the wrong thing. Expressing your thoughts and feelings about your relationship with your loved one can be a tremendous relief and place you on the path to loss renewal.
Experiencing and Expressing Emotions. Perhaps you haven't yet felt the sting of the loss you've just experienced. Some people can go months or even years before they experience their feelings about the loss. In the meantime, they continue feeling numb and distant. Others feel a jumble of emotions so intensely, they can't make sense of them. One of the goals of counseling and grief sessions is to express the emotions of normal grief in whatever way works best for you.
Overcoming Guilt. Guilt, in most cases, is not a healthy emotion to hang onto. Holding on to guilt can cause relationship problems when a partner is dealing with traumatic grief. Yet, death studies reveal that many people feel guilty for things they've said or done or for things they've failed to say or do before their loved one passed. It's essential to identify guilt feelings during your counseling and grief sessions to avoid having serious relationship problems, falling into drug abuse patterns, or other negative coping strategies like alcohol abuse. These negative grieving patterns are often the result of experiencing complicated grief.
Sessions with your mental health grief counselors and attending support groups can help you see the futility of smothering yourself with should-haves and shouldn't-haves as you mourn a deceased loved one.
Mental health grief counselors in the United States work with individuals to help them find more constructive ways to deal with the reality that no relationship is perfect. Sessions with mental health grief counselors help restore your sense of connection to yourself and your surviving family members.
Coping with Life Changes. When you lose someone who is close to you, (especially family members) your life changes as you realize you won't be able to share happy times with them again. And your entire daily life may be in a state of upheaval because you shared almost every waking moment.
Without your loved one, your life will change, and with that change comes additional losses, such as the loss of a morning routine. Grief counseling can help you examine those changes and find new ways to live your life.
Complicated Grief. Can occur when a traumatic loss isn't dealt with properly. Complicated grief happens when someone gets stuck or bypasses the grieving process entirely. People who are experiencing complicated grief have trouble dealing with grief and may lose a sense of connection to themselves and their surroundings as a result. Negative mental health symptoms of complicated grief can include drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and other related substance abuse.
Building a Support System. If the person you lost was your primary support system, you'll likely need to build up your support for daily living. Often when a spouse dies, you must perform the tasks you once relied on them to do. You may now have to file insurance papers, manage a budget, or do cooking and housekeeping chores you've never done before. This goes much more smoothly after your counselor helps you find community resources and encourages you to build stronger community ties.
Grief Counseling Techniques
Grief counselors use a variety of techniques during the process of grief and loss counseling to help you experience, understand, and move through the grief process as it relates to behavioral health. The following list covers some common grief counseling techniques. Keep reading to learn what treatment approach may work best for you.
- Talking Privately in a Quiet Place. Death studies reveal that trying to deal with death in a rushed, noisy atmosphere is extremely unproductive and can have a negative impact on your behavioral health. It's too hard to uncover the serious emotions and challenges that are a part of grief. Of course, most counseling and grief sessions happen in a quiet, private environment where you can comfortably participate in the grieving process. Exceptions to private counseling and grief sessions include participating in a therapy group or couples counseling session.
You may feel hurried to get to your appointment and rushed through your grieving process once you get there if you have in-office sessions with a mental health professional like a clinical psychologist. If so, you can set up online grief counseling through BetterHelp where you can meet with a clinical psychologist in private or join and online therapy group.
- Describing the Moment of Loss. The moment of loss may have been quiet or traumatic as it relates to your mental health state. Describing that moment completely, using sense words like loss, grief, "I heard" or "I saw" allows you to re-experience the loss with guidance and in the presence of a support group and mental health professionals.
As you do, your counselor can put it into perspective while giving you support for the emotions that surface as you remember. This also helps them identify trauma, which can then be dealt with before the grief.
- Discussing Funeral Arrangements. You might think, "Why would I talk about the funeral arrangements with my grief counselor? What do they have to do with that?" The funeral or memorial service you and/or others set up to honor your loved one is an important event in the grieving process. Grief counselors and your online bereavement group work with grieving individuals through every step of the grieving process - including funeral planning.
As you talk about making funeral arrangements, you can express your feelings about this last farewell and what you want it to be like as you move along to the next steps in the grieving process. You may even be able to identify ways you want to change the service to give the deceased your full respect.
- Using the Right Words. You might notice that one of your grief counselor's techniques is to use the words it's important for you to hear. For example, they'll be sure to use the past tense when talking about your loved one to prevent you from experiencing complicated grief. During your individual counseling sessions, and work with individuals' mental health grief counselors will say the name of the bereaved frequently as one of the common therapeutic approaches. They'll also use words that may be very hard for you to hear at first, such as forms of the word "to die." It's important to note that your grief counselor will never push you past your comfort zone and will respect your boundaries.
- Checking for Signs of Depression. Each time you see your grief counselor, you'll find that they work with individuals and will ask you at least a few questions to make sure you aren't falling into a deep depression as a measure of your mental health.
They may ask how you're sleeping and how much you're eating and suggest that you join a bereavement group or participate in family therapy. They may ask whether you feel unexplained physical pain. They also might discuss depression symptoms at different appointments with you to ensure they aren't missing anything.
- Talking about Past Losses. Counselors often prompt you to talk about similar situations from the past and how you dealt with loss trauma. In the case of grief, your counselor might ask you to remember how you coped when you faced death earlier in your life and recommend that you attend family therapy. Then they can support you in repeating the things that helped before and teach you new ways of coping to replace old methods that weren't effective.
- Boosting Self-Esteem. Your self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself, but it may also be tied up with what you perceived your loved one thought of you. If you always relied on them to say or do things that made you feel beautiful, intelligent, or capable, you might need an extra boost of self-esteem after they pass on. Your grief counselor can teach you ways to improve your self-confidence and learn to find validation within yourself.
- Giving Permission to Grieve. Many people find it hard to give themselves permission to grieve. They may see it as a sign of weakness, selfishness, or incompetence. Yet, grieving is a crucial part of saying goodbye to a loved one who has died. Your counselor can help you find it within you to give yourself the permission you need to feel and express your feelings and not be so perfect all the time.
- Setting Realistic Goals. Goal-setting is a part of almost every kind of therapy. Because grief involves so many life changes for most people, setting goals for your new life is especially important. You may find yourself setting unrealistic goals, though, as you try to push through your grief faster.
You need to be cautious, so you don't overwhelm yourself. Setting unreachable goals makes you feel like a failure when you can't accomplish them. It can also be a way of avoiding the natural grief process. Talk out your plans with your counselor so they can help you determine the right goals to work toward right now.
- Writing a Letter. Your therapist might suggest you write a letter to the deceased to tell them how you feel about losing them. They might also suggest you tell them about how your life is now and the goals you're working toward for the future. This exercise can help you get back in touch with the feelings of love you have for them. It can help you resolve issues that linger in your mind, too.
- Journaling. Journaling is like letter writing, but the intended audience is you. You remind yourself of good times, reason out problems, write poems to express your feelings, draw pictures that remind you of your loved one, or include mementos of happy times you shared. It's a place to say whatever you want, just as you can with your therapist. It's also a habit that can serve you well after your grief counseling ends.
- Reading Assignments. Reading about grief helps you understand the process. It also reminds you that what you're going through is not only common but perfectly acceptable as well. In short, it normalizes grief. Your grief counselor might suggest specific books for you to read between sessions.
- Creating a Memory Book. Creating a memory book is a craft project you can do to help you remember your loved one in a helpful way. You can make it alone or ask family members and friends to contribute to it. This is one of the grief techniques that is not only emotionally healthy, but it can be enjoyable as well.
- Art Therapy. Expressive art therapy, of course, is a wonderful way to show how you feel about your loved one who has passed. A counselor who has certification in art therapy can guide you in creating artistic works that are full of emotion and meaning. When you finish the art, you can hang it in a special place, give it away, sell it, or simply set it aside for your remembrance ritual.
- Imagining a Resolution of Unfinished Business. Grief is hard for anyone, but it can be especially difficult to move on from a relationship that was in crisis when your loved one died. Perhaps you have an issue you can't forget because it feels unfinished. There's no way for that problem to be resolved in real life now. However, you can imagine what would happen if you were able to resolve it. This grief counseling technique helps you put your relationship into perspective. If you imagine a positive resolution, it can give you amazing peace.
- The Empty Chair Technique. The empty chair technique is one that is used in several types of therapy. All you do is face an empty chair, imagine another person is sitting in it, and speak to them. In the case of grief counseling, you would imagine the deceased were alive and sitting in that chair. You can say anything you want to them. You can show them feelings that range from bitterness to love. The empty chair technique is another way to find a resolution to unfinished business, and it can be quite cathartic.
- Role-Playing New Situations. Role-playing is a technique you might have used in family counseling or couples therapy. Your grief counselor might also use it to help you find your way through new life situations. You can be yourself while the counselor plays the part of an employer, a friend, or a community leader, for example. Or, you can reverse roles. Then, you can play out a situation you've never had to deal with before.
- Creating Remembrance Rituals. Sometimes, the only way to move on is to give yourself a specific time and activity to help you remember your loved one. As a part of your grief therapy, you can come up with a ritual that you do once every month at first and eventually do only once a year. This might involve looking at photos and/or videos of your loved one, for example. You put these reminders away for most of the time, but you take them out at a specific time to pay honor to the deceased.
Is Grief Counseling Right for You?
Grief counseling provides many benefits. It helps you navigate one of the hardest parts of your life. It helps you develop new skills and learn more about yourself and about life. It can help you grow stronger even as you face a devastating loss. Grief counseling can help anyone who is going through a major loss, but for some it's crucial to get help. If your pain is overwhelmingly intense, lasts for over a year, or is affecting the way you function in your daily life, grief counseling is one of the best ways to deal with the loss and find your way forward.
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How BetterHelp can Help
When you feel you're at the end of your rope and there's nowhere to turn, BetterHelp is truly there for you. BetterHelp is an online platform where you can match with a qualified grief counselor that cares and understands what you're going through. The worst thing you could do during this dark time in your life is to try to go it alone. Let someone come to your corner and lift you up.
We all get knocked down in life at one time or another. Some place a stigma on mental health, but don't let that stop you. Throw out a line when you need it, and you can live a happier life. Read below for some reviews from BetterHelp clients who have gotten help for similar issues.
"Collen has been my rock in dealing with my parents deaths. I lost both parents within seven months of each other and was literally on the brink when I found Colleen. She has taught me that grief has no timeline or rhyme or reason, and I can talk to her after all my friends and family have moved on and don't really get it. She offers very solid advice on coping skills and just a great sounding board when I just want to talk about my parents. I highly recommend her."
"Jack helped me through the most difficult time in my life. I started seeing Jack to cope with a marital separation. As that progressed into divorce, I also experienced the death of a loved one and some other distressing events. Jack not only helped me through the grieving process, but gave me a variety of life lessons and tools to help cope with stress and anxiety through all areas in my life. I am so very grateful for his guidance, and highly recommend him to anyone going through a stressful or confusing time. Thank you, Jack!!"
If you are struggling with the death of a loved one, grief counseling could be right for you. With BetterHelp, you have the tools you need right in front of you to reach out and grab the better life you deserve. Take the first step.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)
What are the seven stages of grief?
The seven stages of grief based on the dual process model theory are as follows:
Why do counselors work?
Counselors work with individuals to help find treatment for a wide range of mental health and social work related issues. Working with a grief counselor can help individuals find treatment for a wide range of complicated grief issues and help with issues like managing loss trauma, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and more.
How long does grief last?
Grief can last for varying periods of time and is dependent on your individual circumstances. Attending grief counseling sessions can accelerate the process as you engage in dual process model therapy with a professional that teaches you how to cope with loss trauma. The Center for Loss and Renewal is one of the agencies that supports work with individuals using the dual process model for dealing with loss trauma.
Can counseling help?
In most cases counseling sessions with a grief counselor or mental health professional who specializes in social work can help alleviate the symptoms of loss trauma and prevent complicated grief from setting in which can lead to alcohol and drug abuse. (Find treatment immediately if you find yourself falling into the patterns of complicated grief.)
Can you die from grief?
This is a highly debated topic as mental health professionals who work with individuals who have experienced a loss trauma report an increase in physical symptoms for grieving patients related to mental health issues and cardiovascular health. Some studies have reported an increase in cardiovascular symptoms related to grief that can eventually lead to death.
What does grief do to the body?
Grief can increase the physical symptoms of stress and cause an increase in anxiety symptoms that relate to heart health and cause an increase in mental health related and cardiovascular symptoms. Extreme or prolonged grief can wreak havoc on the body systems - if left untreated. Find treatment for dealing with the symptoms of grief early on to prevent physical complications.
Does the pain of loss ever go away?
Certified mental health professionals who work with individuals to provide grief therapy will advise you that the pain of loss may be with you for a lifetime. However the degree of loss that you experience is dependent on the person and will lessen over time.
Is it normal to laugh at death?
Everyone responds to the loss of a loved one in their own way. If you're describing a pleasant memory, then this is an appropriate response. However, if laughter is used in place of acknowledging real feelings in conversations related to the death of a loved one, you may need to find treatment to learn new coping skills.
Can grief cause heart problems?
Yes. Prolonged grief can cause issues with heart health and increase the risk of heart related conditions like atrial fibrillation due to prolonged stress on the body.
Can grief make you gain weight?
Yes. Just like grief can cause issues with heart health, prolonged grief can affect other body systems and cause you to gain weight as aggravated symptoms of depression and anxiety present themselves.
Can grief affect your job?
Yes. People who are experiencing grief may have trouble concentrating at work or may have other issues as a result of experiencing complicated grief like substance abuse.
What causes complicated grief?
According to the Center for Loss Renewal complicated grief occurs when the grieving process is interrupted or incomplete. If you believe that you or a loved one is experiencing complicated grief, you can find treatment with an online grief counselor at BetterHelp.com
What are the symptoms of delayed grief?
Symptoms of delayed grief may be triggered later in life by unrelated events and include spontaneous emotional reactions like crying, yelling, laughing, screaming and others that appear to have come out of the blue with no explanation.
Get help today by reaching out to a BetterHelp.com licensed grief counselor for grief support.