Do Grief Counseling Techniques Work?
By Danni Peck
Updated January 29, 2019
Reviewer Lauren Fawley
Despite seminal research on the five stages of grief, current researchers agree there is no roadmap to grief recovery. Grief is an experience that is distinct to individuals. How it is expressed, how it is felt, and recovery is not something that can be choreographed in a neat timeline with distinct stages that are true for all people. While most associate grief with the loss of a loved one to death, other life events result in grievings, such as divorce or the news of lost health or a major mental health diagnosis. There are often losses that accompany any major change, even changes that we see as positive. For example, becoming a parent for the first time can result in a feeling of a loss of pre-parenthood identity. Moving to a new job means saying good-bye to coworkers from your old workplace. Many agree on how individuals adapt to these changes is dependent upon that person's personality and resilience.
Grief related to the death of a loved one or other significant loss can be complicated by other factors that disrupt the grieving process. For example, the loss of a spouse resulting in the loss of a home, the loss of friends, etc., the grieving process becomes more complex in that there are several losses involved. The individual going through multiple losses related to the primary loss may find him or herself also experiencing depression, anxiety, and physiological symptoms that need addressing. Techniques used by therapists and counselors to help individuals move through the grieving process should be implemented based upon the situation and the type of grief.
In many cultures, grieving is respected as a process, and it is commonly a public process. Individuals in mourning wear an article of clothing that symbolizes this period so that others who may be unaware can show respect. In American culture, there typically are no such outward symbols of grief (aside from the day of one's funeral or memorial service). In most cultures, the family is a source of comfort in the grieving process. For some peoples, loved ones are not expected to make an immediate recovery and go on with life, back to work, or to consider dating. In American culture, it can seem a deceased spouse is barely cold before well-meaning relatives and friends begin their match-making schemes. Ideas such as this (the myth to replace the loss so that you can feel better) introduced too soon to the bereft can further complicate matters, as it causes them to feel the time they need to grieve is abnormal. The grieving process is personal, there is no real "right" or "wrong" way to grieve, which is perhaps why the suggestions of well-meaning others often fall empty to the griever. Some common emotional reactions experienced with the grief-process are ones you may be familiarized with from the 5-stage model: sadness, anger, disbelief or denial, bargaining (thinking things like "maybe he would still be here if I had only been better"), guilt, and acceptance. However, grievers can feel many of those things in one day, and some individuals in grief may not feel one or more of those emotional reactions at all. They are still grieving.
For some who are going through the grieving process, it may be helpful to seek therapy. Therapy can be helpful if you do not have a support system that allows being open about your grief or if you feel like the ways that you have been trying to cope just are not helping. It is possible to get stuck in the process of grieving longer than what is considered natural, and this is referred to as complicated grief. There are several different techniques employed by therapists to help clients through the process.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help those individuals who dwell too much on the loss and may be stuck in self-defeating behaviors. Current research also supports that Internet-based CBT is highly effective in persons with complicated grief, due to the ability to remain in steady contact with a therapist.
- Bibliotherapy is a technique in which the bereft document their life before the loss with the idea in mind that focusing on time had with the loved one can help them move on from the loss.
- Expressive techniques are used especially with children and clients who are creative by nature. Children may be asked to "draw their feelings" and adults may be asked to journal their feelings or write a letter to a specific person involved in the loss. The key with this technique is an expression. It is important to accept your feelings instead of feeling like you "should" feel differently about the amount of grief you are having or how you are grieving. The expression can help with acceptance of how we feel, as can getting those feelings validated by someone who understands the process of grief.
The aim of grief counseling techniques should be to help in the process, not rush it along.
While medication can and does help with depression, it can also impede the process of grieving by masking emotions. Overuse of alcohol or drugs or other types of distraction can also serve the temporary purpose of not feeling our feelings. But by disconnecting from our true feelings, we do not get to heal from them and move forward. It is important that those experiencing grief must feel their pain, and to express their pain. It is also important for those who have experienced loss to understand there is no scripted way to healing. Grief cannot be quantified, and it cannot be placed on a timeline. There are other, unhelpful, myths about coping appropriately with grief in our society. One myth is that you have to grieve alone, as in privately. Contrarily, we know that getting support for grief is necessary. Therapists, family members, friends, and co-workers must be sympathetic to the process. All who are a part of the individual's life can support, can offer an ear, a shoulder, and a presence when able to, and it is very appropriate to ask for help during such a difficult time.
Another myth is that grievers have to be strong for others who are grieving, mostly by shoving their feelings aside so that another person has room for pain. Pain doesn't work like that; there is no collective quota. When we share our pain with others, that is where healing can happen.
If you are feeling unequipped to deal with the reactions to loss that you are experiencing, there are licensed mental health professional available to help you at Betterhelp.com. Time does not heal all wounds if you are not healthily coping with grief. If you are using the time effectively by getting the right kind support you need and taking the right actions to grieve, you may find that you start to feel more at peace with your loss.