Grief Counseling

Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

Losing a loved one or something you care deeply about is hard and painful. You may feel like the sadness you're experiencing will never go away. While the grieving process is different for everyone, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain and to move on.

What is grief?

Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature of the loss. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief. The loss of a loved one is without a doubt one of life's most painful experiences, but in fact any loss can cause grief, such as:

  • ending of an important relationship (marriage, friendship, love relationship)
  • job loss
  • loss of financial stability or safety
  • loss through theft
  • loss of health or independence through disability
  • miscarriage
  • retirement
  • a loved one’s serious illness
  • loss of a pet
  • selling of the family home

What is the mourning process?

The process of grieving varies from person to person and is influenced by many factors, including personality type, the individual`s coping style, life experience, and the nature of the loss. Mourning can last for months or years. Healing takes time and happens gradually. There is no normal way for grieving.

The five stages of grief

The “five stages of grief” was introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The five stages are a part of a framework that serves as a tool to help identify the different feelings connected to grief. But they are not stops on a linear timeline. The stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order either. At times, people in grief will often report more stages too.

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.” Denial helps us to survive the loss when the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming and life makes no sense. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. It is a natural way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As we start to accept the reality of the loss all the feelings we were denying begin to surface. And the healing process begins.
  • Anger:“Why is this happening? Who is to blame?” Anger can extend without limits to friends, the doctors, family, ourselves and even to the loved one who died. Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Unfortunately we usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it, but it is crucial for us to be willing to face and feel our anger, even though it may seem endless. Anger can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss until it passes.
  • Bargaining:“Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.” Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. After the loss we want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time to change the thing that led to the loss. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently.
  • Depression:“I’m too sad to do anything.” After bargaining, our attention moves straight to the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. Although grief and depression may share many symptoms, there is an important difference: grief can be a like roller coaster involving a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. In case of clinical depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
  • Acceptance:“I’m at peace with what happened.” Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. Some will never like this reality, but eventually will accept it and learn to live with it.

What are the symptoms of grief?

However the grieving process differs in each person, there are common symptoms that most bereaved experience. The common symptoms of grief may include:

  • Shock or feelings of numbness
  • Denial or disbelief
  • Sadness: emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness
  • Emotional instability
  • Crying
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Fear, anxiety, worry, even panic attacks
  • Helplessness, insecurity
  • Physical symptoms –including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.

Dealing with grief

Every person follows different paths through the mourning process, cycling through several different emotions, including numbness, sadness, anxiety, guilt or anger. However, some people may never experience all of these emotions and some may experience others. The length of the grieving process is also different in every person. This is perfectly normal. Gradually these feelings ease, and it's possible to accept loss and move forward.

However, if you're unable to move through one or more of the above stages after a considerable amount of time, or your feelings are so overwhelming that they stop you from day to day functioning, you may have complicated grief. During the first few months, many signs and symptoms of normal grief are the same as those of complicated grief. But while normal grief symptoms gradually start to fade over time, those of complicated grief linger or get worse.

Symptoms of complicated grief may include:

  • Problems accepting the death (denial of the death or sense of disbelief)
  • Intense focus on your loved one's death or excessive avoidance of reminders
  • Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one (e. g. imagining that your loved one is alive, or searching for the person in familiar places)
  • Intense sorrow and pain at the thought of your loved one
  • Intense longing and yearning for the deceased
  • Numbness, bitterness or detachment
  • Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life

Left untreated, complicated grief can lead to significant emotional damage, depression, life-threatening health problems, substance abuse, and even suicide. If you recognize any of the above symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression or if you're uncertain about whether your grieving process is normal, consult a mental health professional right away. Especially if you are experiencing the following symptoms. Treatment can help you get better.

  • Have trouble carrying out normal routines
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Experience depression or deep sadness
  • Have thoughts of guilt or self-blame
  • Have lost your sense of purpose in life
  • Wish you had died along with your loved one
  • Suicidal thoughts

Grief counseling: what to expect

Complicated grief is sometimes treated with a type of psychological counseling (psychotherapy) called complicated grief therapy. It's similar to psychotherapy techniques used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but other counseling approaches may also be effective. During therapy, you may:

  • Explore such topics as grief reactions, grief symptoms, and your connections to the deceased
  • Explore and process emotions
  • Reduce feelings of blame and guilt
  • Improve coping skills and techniques
  • Learn how to adjust to your loss and redefine your life's goals

During therapy you may explore deep, intense emotions such as guilt, or anger. This is normal and emotional outbursts such as crying and yelling should not be censored. The length of the bereavement counseling will most likely be decided between the counsellor and the bereaved. Asking for professional help after the loss of a loved one is not a sign of weakness, but much rather an admission of the strength to seek help when it is needed.

Coping with grief and loss

Besides therapy there are things you can do yourself which can help you in how to deal with losing a family member.

  • Talk to friends and family members: The most important step towards healing is having a strong support system of other family members and friends. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. Sharing your loss and connecting to others will help you carry the burden of grief easier. Do not grieve alone.
  • Reach out to your faith community. If you follow religious practices or traditions, you may gain comfort from rituals or guidance from a spiritual leader.
  • Take care of yourself: When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly use up your energy and emotional reserves. Get enough rest, eat healthy and take time to relax. Don't turn to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief. Physical exercise helps relieve depression, stress and anxiety.
  • Join a grief support group – Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.
  • Plan ahead for special dates or anniversaries: Anniversaries, holidays, and special occasions can reawaken painful memories and feelings. It can be helpful if you prepare for strong emotions in advance. If you’re sharing a holiday event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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