Can Grief Counseling Really Help? What It Is And How It Works
By Julia Thomas
Updated June 12, 2019
Reviewer Martha Furman, LPC, CAC
Grief counseling has made it into the world of role-playing games. In Guild Wars 2, there's a character who has an existential crisis. If you choose to "emote" at that moment, you win the GW2 Grief Counseling Achievement. It's fun, and there's a grain of truth in it. Grief counselors do empathize with the pain and loss you're experiencing when you've lost a loved one.
Yet, this type of therapy is so much more life-altering than any game. Your counselor leads you through what might be a very dark period in your life by sharing their knowledge and skills, and by letting you share your personal story. If that sounds appealing to you, you might wonder, "Can grief counseling help me?" Before you decide, take some time to find out what it is and how it works, so you can decide if it's right for you.
What Grief Counseling Isn't
Grief counseling can be a powerful thing. Yet, it won't solve every problem you ever had. Although your time in grief counseling may have far-reaching effects, there are certain things it should never do.
- It won't make you totally forget the deceased
- It won't allow you to bypass the pain of loss
- It won't change the core of who you are
- It doesn't erase the difficulty of moving on
So, What Is Grief Counseling?
Grief counseling is a type of therapy that is designed to help people who have experienced a loss, usually in the recent past. Grief counselors study the stages of grief and learn techniques for helping people accomplish the tasks of grief. Grief can be addressed in individual counseling, group therapy, or family grief therapy. 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 or a sense of numbness after a major loss. You may go on as if nothing has happened, not fully realizing or accepting what has happened. Even if you feel overwhelmed by emotion, you may feel disconnected from the reason you feel that way. So, the first task of grief, 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 can get to the grief process, 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 sense 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 get past them and on to the task of grieving.
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 your grief. On the other hand, if you're grieving in a fishbowl with friends and family judging your every move, you may need someone like your counselor with whom you can share your personal feelings without worry of saying the wrong thing. Talking freely about your feelings and sharing thoughts and feelings about your relationship with your loved one can be a tremendous relief.
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 from others. Others feel a jumble of emotions so intensely they can't make sense of them. One of the goals of grief counseling is to express those emotions in whatever way works best for you.
Guilt, in most cases, is not a healthy emotion to hang onto. Yet, 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 important to identify those guilt feelings. Your grief counselor can help you see the futility of burying yourself in should-haves and shouldn't-haves. They can help you find more constructive ways to deal with the reality that no relationship is absolutely perfect.
Coping With Life Changes
When you lose someone who's been close to you, your life necessarily changes. At the least, you won't be able to share happy times with them again. At the most, your entire daily life will be in a state of upheaval because you shared almost every waking moment. Without them, 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.
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. What often happens when a spouse dies is that you now have to do the tasks that you once relied on your spouse to do. You may now have to file insurance papers, manage a budget, or do the cooking and housekeeping chores that 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 to help you experience, understand, and move through the grief process. The following grief counseling techniques are just a few of the ones your therapist might use.
Talking Privately In A Quiet Place
Trying to deal with death in a rushed, noisy atmosphere is extremely unproductive. It's too hard to get down to the serious emotions and challenges that are a part of grief. Of course, most counseling does happen in a quiet, private place. Yet, you may feel hurried to get to your appointment and rushed once you get there. If so, you can set up online grief counseling through BetterHelp.com so you can talk in private wherever you feel most comfortable.
Describing The Moment Of Loss
The moment of loss may have been quiet or traumatic. Describing that moment completely, using sense words like "I heard" or "I saw" allows you to re-experience the loss. As you do, your counselor can put it into perspective while giving you support for feeling the emotions that come up for you 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 truth is that the funeral or memorial service that you and/or others set up to honor your loved one is an important event in the grieving process. As you talk about it, you can express your feelings about this last farewell and what you want it to be like. 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
If you pay attention to what your counselor says to you, you might notice that one of their grief counseling 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. They'll say their name frequently. They'll also use words that may be very hard for you to hear at first, such as forms of the word "to die."
Checking For Signs Of Depression
Each time you see your grief counselor, they'll probably ask you at least a few questions to make sure you aren't falling into a deep depression. They may ask how you're sleeping and how much you're eating. They may ask whether you feel unexplained physical pain. They might cover different depression symptoms at different appointments with you to ensure they aren't missing anything.
Talking About Past Losses
One technique counselors often use is to prompt you to talk about similar situations from the past and how you dealt with them. In the case of grief, your counselor might ask you to remember how you coped when you faced death earlier in your life. Then, they can support you in repeating the things that helped before, and teach you new ways of coping to replace old methods that made things worse.
Boosting Self Esteem
Your self-esteem is the way you feel about yourself, but it may be tied up with what you perceived that 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. However, 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 towards 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 that 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 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 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.
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. Then, when you finish with 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 that 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 tell them what you want to say 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 resolution to unfinished business, but it can also 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 what it would be like to be in 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. However, in some cases, 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 death and find your way forward.
How Do I Find Grief Counseling Near Me?
Are you ready to take a chance that grief counseling will help? If so, you might be thinking "How do I find grief counseling near me?" You can talk to therapists or counseling centers in your area. Another option is to join a grief support group. Online grief counseling is usually the most convenient and relaxed way to get help. BetterHelp.com has licensed counselors who have studied grief and are qualified to help people deal in times of loss. Getting help now may help you have a much better life later.