What Is Grief Counseling?

Author Lisa Batten
Updated on December 8, 2021

Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that was important to you. Although grief is an inevitable part of life, there is no real way to prepare for its impact on your life. Grief is often associated with an array of emotions and physical symptoms that can sometimes feel unbearable.

grieving woman being consoled

Understanding Grief Counseling

Grief counseling, also known as bereavement counseling, is a form of therapy specifically designed to help people deal with loss and learn new ways to cope. It’s usually provided by a professional counselor who has had special training to help people better manage symptoms of grieving and loss.

During counseling sessions, the therapist serves as a support system to help you work through symptoms in a safe space. Grief counseling can help with the emotional aspects of dealing with grief as well as providing guidance while you begin to prepare for life after loss.

How Grief Counseling Works

A grief counselor will typically tailor a program for your specific needs and teach you tools for management of symptoms. Common therapy modalities used in grief counseling include:[1]

  • Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) – A type of psychotherapy that encourages you to accept negative feelings with the help of mindfulness and acceptance strategies.
  • Humanistic Therapy – A therapeutic approach emphasizing an individual’s uniqueness, with a holistic focus on your positive traits to help you grow and overcome challenges.
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy – A type of talk therapy that explores unconscious thoughts and feelings to increase your self-awareness and help you develop skills to address your mental health issues.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – A solution-oriented form of psychotherapy focused on managing and alleviating negative thoughts and feelings.

Many of the ways we interpret events and deal with our problems can be unhelpful or even harmful to our well-being. For instance, it is common for people who are grieving to ignore their thoughts or feelings, which can make things worse. In counseling, you will learn to apply tools and coping mechanisms that will allow you to sit with your pain and release it, which can be crucial for healing.

Benefits of Grief Counseling

Grief counseling can offer you several benefits, including:

  • A reduction in physical and emotional symptoms
  • Teaching you skills to manage your new reality more effectively
  • Deeper self-awareness and reflection
  • Acceptance of your loss
  • Feeling free to move forward while honoring a memory or previous relationship
  • A safe space to feel understood
  • Assistance with navigating events like funerals, memorials, birthdays, and more

While most people experiencing grief turn to friends and family members to express their emotions, studies have shown that people who participated in bereavement counseling felt that it was easier to talk to someone who wasn’t a friend or family member about their loss.[2]

How Grief Counseling Is Applied

Grief counselors understand that everyone uniquely expresses grief based on their intrinsic beliefs, background, and environment. The purpose of sessions with your grief counselor is to help you navigate through the pain. Each session will involve working on effectively dealing with your feelings, symptoms, and expectations. You will also learn relaxation techniques and tools for managing your feelings of loss and loneliness.

Counselors will use a variety of techniques based on your individual needs to help you find the best outcome for your situation. The number of sessions needed will vary depending on your individual needs and desired outcomes. For some people, just a few sessions are enough to get them where they want to be while others may attend ongoing therapy to help them cope.

Is Grief Counseling Effective?

A grief counselor will assist you in developing strategies and coping mechanisms for managing the difficult symptoms associated with grieving. Sessions with a grief counselor can be especially helpful for easing your adjustment to your new reality and coping with the feelings of loss you experience. Research shows that grief counseling can help significantly reduce both the short-term and long-term symptoms of grief.[3]

Counseling may be especially effective for people who experience grief where their mourning feels restricted. For instance, people who lose pets may not get the same sympathy as someone who has lost a human relative. However, the feelings of loss from the death of a pet can be comparable to those of losing a person you love.[4]

Grief counseling is also helpful for people who are experiencing anticipatory grief. This unconventional form of grief occurs in response to anticipating a loss. People experiencing anticipatory grief may find it socially unacceptable to share their pain with friends because the loss hasn’t happened yet. Because of this, seeking counseling in advance of your loss can help with finding closure and managing pain.

Overall, grief counseling is an effective way to help ease pain, effectively move through grief, and get the understanding and support you need during a difficult period in your life.

What Does Grief Feel Like?

There is no “right” way to grieve. Grieving is a very individual process that can vary from person to person. Some people may feel better after a few weeks, and others may experience a grieving process that takes years to ease in intensity.

It’s common to refer to grieving in terms of “stages of grief,” but most experts agree that a stages model is not applicable to everyone, and the concept has been used less in recent years.[5]

Grief is generally characterized by intense and painful feelings of loss, decreased interest in ongoing activities, and frequent thoughts about what has been lost.[6]

Some people experience severe grief symptoms for prolonged periods of time, impairing their daily functioning. This may be indicative of a mental health condition known as complicated grief.

Common signs and symptoms of complicated grief may include:

  • Intense sorrow, pain and rumination over your loss
  • Avoiding reminders of your loved one or extreme focus on reminders
  • Intense and persistent longing for lost person or situation
  • Problems accepting the loss
  • Anger or denial
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Bitterness about loss
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Loss of pleasure or joy in life
  • Fatigue, aches, and pains

While normal grief wanes over time, complicated grief may linger or get worse. In some cases, it may turn into situational depression.

What Causes Grief?

The most commonly associated loss that causes grief is the death of a loved one. However, any loss can cause grief. Common causes of grief include:

  • Divorce or breakup
  • Health problems or difficult diagnoses
  • Job or financial loss
  • A miscarriage or abortion
  • Retirement
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a dream or hobby
  • A loved one’s serious illness
  • Loss of a friendship
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Moving or leaving home

Will My Grief Go Away if I Don’t Seek Help?

For many people, grief will subside as time passes. When grief lingers, it can lead to depressive episodes, substance abuse, and physical illness. There is no exact cut-off for when you should start to feel better after a difficult loss.

Many people try to ignore reminders and memories and “get on with life.” While this may feel temporarily effective, ignoring the grief will not make it go away. Seeking counseling can help you begin to move forward while effectively working through your pain. Therapy can help you better manage difficult symptoms at any stage.

Seeking Help

Experiencing a loss can lead to overwhelming pain and major disruptions to your quality of life. Seeking the help of a professional counselor can ease this burden. You should especially consider seeking help if your grief is disrupting your daily life, interfering with your relationships, or causing you to isolate yourself from others.


References

  1. Giblin, N.J. (1984). Three Theoretical Frameworks for Grief Counseling of a Bereaved Spouse: Psychoanalytic, Humanistic, and Behavioristic.
  2. Simonsen G, Cooper M. Helpful aspects of bereavement counselling: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research. 2015;15(2):119-127. doi:10.1002/capr.12000
  3. Newsom, C., Schut, H., Stroebe, M. S., Wilson, S., Birrell, J., Moerbeek, M., & Eisma, M. C. (2017). Effectiveness of bereavement counselling through a community-based organization: A naturalistic, controlled trial. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 24(6), O1512–O1523. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2113
  4. Cleary, M., West, S., Thapa, D. K., Westman, M., Vesk, K., & Kornhaber, R. (2021). Grieving the loss of a pet: A qualitative systematic review. Death Studies, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2021.1901799
  5. Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Boerner, K. (2017). Cautioning Health-Care Professionals: Bereaved Persons Are Misguided Through the Stages of Grief. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 74(4), 455–473. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222817691870
  6. Shear, M. K., Ghesquiere, A., & Glickman, K. (2013). Bereavement and complicated grief. Current psychiatry reports, 15(11), 406. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-013-0406-z
Author Lisa Batten

Dr. Lisa Batten has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. She has over a decade of experience in clinical research and specializes in writing about mental health, wellness, nutrition, and fitness.