At multiple points in your life, you will experience grief. Unfortunately, grief is inevitable and inescapable. Hopefully, you’re able to move through the pain to the other side of healing with relative ease over time. However, some losses hit harder than others. If you or someone you love finds themselves completely knocked down or struggling for a prolonged period, it might be a sign to seek professional help in the form of grief counseling.
Whether you’re the one impacted by grief or supporting someone grieving, it can be a heavy burden, but grief therapy is a readily available resource. It’s also important to note that grief is not limited to feelings of sadness. It can also involve tangential feelings like guilt, yearning, anger, and regret that arise from loss and trauma. Emotions are often surprising in their strength and can be confusing for someone who’s never experienced loss before. Loss also isn’t necessarily defined by death and sorrow. Someone could find themselves grieving a painful relationship that ended abruptly. Another may mourn a loved one who died from cancer and yet feel conflicting relief that the person is no longer suffering. Grief is complicated.
Grief is a reaction to any form of loss that encompasses a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger. It’s the process of adapting to a significant loss, and it can vary dramatically from one person to another. Grieving symptoms can ebb and flow as the person bounces between different thoughts trying to reconcile their sense of their loss. Feelings can range from acceptance and peace to disbelief and heartache. People in the middle of the grieving process may assign themselves varying levels of responsibility, from “There was nothing I could have done,” to “It’s all my fault.”
Grieving behaviors have a wide range. Some people need to talk it out, finding comfort in sharing their feelings with close friends and family; while others require some time to internalize their complicated feelings by engaging in silent activities like exercising or writing. These feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can be categorized into two groups: instrumental and intuitive. Most grief patients exhibit a blend of both. Instrumental grieving primarily looks like a person hyper-focused on problem-solving tasks, trying to control or minimize emotional expression. Intuitive grieving is seen as a display as a heightened emotional experience that typically includes increased sharing of feelings, exploring the lost relationship, and considering mortality more than normal.
No one way of grieving is better, or “healthier” than any other. How someone grieves is reflective of their personality, upbringing, past trauma, and how they process emotions. While some people are more emotional and dive into their feelings, others are stoic and may seek distraction from dwelling on an unchangeable fact of living. Every individual has unique needs when coping with a loss.
Grief can impact someone's life in many ways. In fact, loss isn’t always isolated; one loss can lead to another and another, creating a ripple effect that can put a drain on a person’s physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing. Physical impacts of grief include: shortness of breath; loss of appetite, crying, fatigue and sleep problems. All of these symptoms can be reduced by maintaining a healthy diet and having adequate rest, in addition to treatment.
Emotional impacts of grief could include numbness, loneliness, anger, resentment, confusion, deep and ongoing sadness. It can also lead to a loss of interest in things that used to bring pleasure. Socially, grief can also take its toll, causing a person to withdraw, become isolated, create conflict between fellow grievers, and bring up unrealistic expectations of others. And, it’s not just the victims; sometimes carers of people grieving withdraw from others in order to cope with their own grief or to avoid negative judgement. There are spiritual impacts of grief as well, including a loss of meaning and a search for new meaning; both questioning and strengthening spiritual beliefs.
In general, there are two slightly different paths to take for professional mental health solutions: grief counseling and therapy. The real difference between counseling and therapy is semantics. Both counseling and therapy approach treatment as a discussion between the client and the mental health professional to help the client address emotional, mental, or behavioral issues and solve problems.
However, the terms “counseling” and “therapy” are sometimes confused for one another. They are, in fact, slightly different in intent but similar in practice. Counseling is more often used to refer to sessions focused on assisting clients who are dealing with everyday stressors and looking for ways to cope with normal issues and problems. Therapy is more frequently used to describe sessions in which clients are battling more difficult, pervasive, and/or chronic problems, like depression, anxiety, or addiction.
So, even though grief counseling and grief therapy employ many of the same methods, “grief counseling” may refer to the counseling that any individual might receive after losing a loved one, while “grief therapy” is more likely to refer to sessions that a client engages in when they are experiencing issues outside of the normal range of responses due to their grief. For example, if a woman is simply struggling to cope with the immediate loss of her partner, she may seek grief counseling; however, if she has lost her appetite and has had trouble sleeping for weeks, it may be a more serious problem that requires grief therapy.
While grief counseling is not necessary for most people dealing with loss, there are some potential benefits for those who are struggling more than usual. If the symptoms of grief become long-term, chronic, and start to impede every everyday life, grief counseling can help restore balance and a sense of normalcy by helping deal with the loss and the emotions it triggered. In many cases, if an individual was experiencing distress before the loss they suffered, or if their grief is chronic and interferes with normal functioning, grief counseling can help him or her to address their intense emotions and move on with the healing process. This can include previously undiagnosed or diagnosed disorders like anxiety or depression. It’s also worth noting that, as with most forms of therapy, it is most effective if the individual voluntarily seeks it out.
The main benefit of grief counseling is getting the client to integrate the reality of their loss into their life going forward, and helping them to maintain a healthy bond to the loved one they lost.
There are two important first steps when starting grief counseling: processing the event story of the loss and then accessing the backstory of the relationship. Clinicians working with a bereaved client will first encourage the client to engage in a healing re-telling of the loss in a safe space for the client to open up and build trust. This helps set a foundation for when the time comes to help the client rewrite the story of their loss, they are able to communicate effectively with the clinician.
In addition to hearing about the loss event itself, the clinician will also learn about the client’s relationship with the loved one or event of loss. The clinician will guide the client through learning how to reconstruct their bond with the loved one or experience, rather than relinquishing it. Once you’ve got the basics covered, you can move on to some grief-specific techniques.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five linear stages of grief:
Kubler-Ross originally developed this model to illustrate the process of bereavement, but eventually adapted the model to account for any type of grief. Kubler-Ross noted that everyone experiences at least two of the five stages of grief, but not necessarily all five. She also acknowledged that some people may revisit certain stages over many years or throughout life.
Another model was created by psychologist J. W. Worden, which is also a stage-based model for coping with the death of a loved one. He divided the bereavement process into four tasks:
As an alternative to linear stage-based models like The Five Stages of Grief and The Four Tasks of Mourning, Margaret Stroebe and Hank Schut developed a dual process model of bereavement by identifying two processes associated with bereavement: loss-oriented activities and stressors are those directly related to the death. These include:
Restoration-oriented activities and stressors are associated with secondary losses. They may involve lifestyle, routine, and relationships. Restoration-oriented processes include:
Stroebe and Schut found most people tend to vacillate between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented activities throughout the grieving process.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, or an event that triggered the loss of a relationship or experience, will benefit from grief counseling. Both adults and children alike are prone to grief severe enough to need professional help. If you need help finding a grief counselor near you, check out Advekit’s advanced, trusted therapist matching system.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.