If you’re coping with grief, counseling can help you to process the feelings of shock, pain, and anger that can accompany bereavement.
Grief is one of the few truly universal human experiences. Everyone will experience loss at some point in their life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to prepare for.
Just as no two deaths are quite the same, the experience of grief can vary from one person to the next. There’s no timeline, and no clear blueprint to follow.
Some people may find that they’re able to find ways to cope with a loss relatively quickly, while for other people, grief will go on for a prolonged period, and it may start to interfere with their daily life.
Many factors can affect how a person grieves. Processing a sudden or violent death might look different than processing a death that was expected. On the other hand, losing a loved one to a terminal condition comes with its own unique and painful emotions.
No matter the circumstances, there’s no real way to prepare yourself for bereavement, but there are options to help you cope. You’re not alone.
Grief therapy is often referred to as grief counseling or bereavement counseling. It’s a type of psychotherapy that’s specifically designed to help you to cope with:
- the loss of a loved one or pet
- job transitions
- moving-related loss
- changes in romantic relationships, such as divorce or breakups.
Anyone may benefit from grief therapy, but it may be especially helpful if the grief you’re experiencing:
- affects your day-to-day life or relationships
- causes you excessive guilt
- has prompted symptoms of depression that don’t seem to be improving over time
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by emotions after a significant loss. But if your grief feels like too much to handle, or it’s beginning to affect your ability to function, grief therapy could be a helpful option.
Like all forms of therapy, grief therapy can provide a safe space for you to process complex emotions, thoughts, and memories. In the context of grief, in particular, it can also give you permission to express things that you may not want to say to your family or friends — particularly if they’re also grieving.
In a grief therapy session, you can speak openly about the person or relationship you’ve lost or the life circumstance that’s changed, and develop coping mechanisms and strategies to cope with your grief.
Grief can take all kinds of different forms, and there are several distinct types that a person may experience. Grief therapy can be particularly helpful in these cases.
This form of grief may occur in response to a sudden, unexpected, or unnatural loss, such as a death caused by an accident or violence, a death by suicide, or the premature death of a child.
Alongside all the usual effects of bereavement, it can also cause symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including:
- feelings of anger
- feelings of excessive guilt
- emotional numbness
This condition, which is also sometimes called prolonged grief, involves:
- Intense and ongoing emotions about the death.
- Excessive rumination about the circumstances or consequences of the death.
- Excessive avoidance of any reminders of the death or the lost loved one.
- Feeling emotionally numb or detached from others.
2020 research indicates that people are more likely to develop complicated grief disorder if the circumstances are traumatic in some way. Traumatic and complicated grief can also co-occur.
Anticipatory grief can be especially difficult for some people to talk about and can create a lot of internal conflicts. For example, you may want to enjoy the time you have left with your loved one, but it may be difficult to enjoy that time if you experience natural feelings of anticipatory grief.
This concept describes a situation where a loss occurs with no possibility for closure or a full understanding of what happened. The term is often used in missing person cases — the person’s loved ones have to try and process their emotions about their loss, without ever knowing what happened to them.
Ambiguous loss can also occur in cases where a person is “lost” but physically alive, such as a patient with Alzheimer’s disease who has no memory of their family or their life. For their loved ones, this can create a sense of deep grief, even while the person is technically still alive.
Any form of talk therapy can be effective for bereavement because it creates a safe, non-judgmental space for a person to express any emotions they’re experiencing. In some cases, there are specific techniques that a therapist may use to treat grief.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a model that aims to help people manage their distress by focusing on the thought patterns that may be causing it. By becoming aware of negative and distorted thinking habits, a person may be able to adapt their mindset and manage overwhelming emotions.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is based on the idea that negative emotions come not just from our experiences, but from our reluctance to accept those experiences. Resisting or trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings can create more distress, whereas ACT teaches you to accept the stress, discomfort, and negative emotions, in order to work through them.
A 2021 review showed some evidence that ACT may be effective for bereaved people, as did a 2017
Complicated grief therapy (CGT)
Complicated grief therapy (CGT) is a 16-session evidence-based program for treating the symptoms of prolonged grief disorder. CGT incorporates several different treatment approaches, including attachment theory and CBT.
During a CGT program, you will focus on accepting the reality of your loss and how that reality has changed things for you. You will also work on developing goals for the future that do not involve the person you lost.
Overall, CGT programs are based on several core themes, including:
- understanding and accepting grief
- managing your pain
- thinking about the future
- reconnecting with others
- telling the story of the death
- learning to live with reminders
- connecting with memories
Bereavement is one of the most challenging experiences anyone can go through. No matter the circumstances, a significant loss always brings an onslaught of emotions that can feel overwhelming. But grief looks different for everyone.
In many cases, people are able to work through grief without counseling. But in some situations, particularly when a loss is sudden or unnatural, grief can become more chronic. In these cases, grief therapy can be a worthwhile option.
If you’ve recently experienced a loss, try not to put any pressure on yourself to grieve in a particular way, or on a particular timeline. It’s natural to feel intense sadness and pain, and also to feel emotionally numb at times. These aren’t necessarily signs that you need to seek professional help.
But if your feelings feel impossible to handle or they’re affecting your life and relationships, consider reaching out to a therapist. They can help you to take care of yourself, and give you the space you need to process your loss.