Why grief counselling is important
Grief counselling, also known as bereavement therapy, provides a supportive and effective platform to explore and clarify difficult thoughts, feelings and memories in safe and non-judgmental ways.
Bereaved individuals and families can benefit from grief counselling during one of the most difficult times in their lives. It can help the bereaved grieve in their own way and in their own time rather than conform to unhelpful cultural and societal expectations, such as “You must grieve in five stages” or “You must cry.” It also helps the bereaved to come to terms with their loss, embrace their pain, adapt and rebuild their lives
What is grief counselling?
Grief counselling is a type of specialised counselling that helps the bereaved process their painful thoughts and emotions, such as denial, rumination, sadness, anger, depression, guilt, anxiety and numbness. It also helps the bereaved develop adaptive skills and strategies to live without the deceased and create meaning and continuing bonds to celebrate the legacy of their loved ones.
While many people do not need grief counselling because grieving is a normal and natural response to losses, those who have grief counselling often find comfort, strength, support, and hope to live and rebuild a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Benefits of brief counselling
Grief counselling has helped many people navigate the pain and sorrow associated with grief. Here are five main benefits of grief counselling:
1. Hold yourself with kindness
Although grieving is a normal psychological process of coming to terms with loss, our society still struggles to discuss death and loss openly and compassionately.
Many people do not know how to best support someone grieving. Some unhelpful ideas about grief continue to pressure people to conform to specific ways of mourning rather than allow them to grieve in their unique ways.
Some unhelpful ideas about grief are “You will go through predictable and orderly stages of grief”, “If you are not crying, then you are not grieving”, “You have to express your emotions or talk about what you are going through”, and “You will stop grieving one day.”
Many people are not very good at responding to their pain and suffering with kindness and support. Therefore, the unhelpful ideas can have detrimental effects on their attitude and approach toward pain, such as “Be strong”, “Don’t be a burden to people”, and “I should be over my grief by now.” The critical and harsh self-talk and self-judgment can then complicate normal grieving.
Grief counselling can help the bereaved deal with unhelpful responses (e.g., self-blame, avoidance, fused or entangled with unhelpful thoughts) by holding themselves with kindness rather than criticisms and self-judgment.
When grieving, you experience waves of painful thoughts and emotions, and grief counselling can help you acknowledge your pain and suffering and respond with genuine kindness and care. In other words, it is about cultivating self-compassion, normalising and validating diverse experiences of grieving.
2. Drop an anchor through the storm
When a ship goes through a storm, it drops an anchor to support and stabilise the ship from being tossed away or swallowed by the tidal waves. The anchor is not meant to control or remove the storm but to secure the ship through the storm because eventually, the storm will pass, and you will see the sun again.
Grief can create waves of an emotional storm in your life. And sometimes, when the storm is so huge and terrifying, you wonder whether it will ever stop.
Grief counselling can help you drop an anchor through the rise and fall of an emotional storm. It is about defusion and expansion – psychological skills that can allow you to stop fighting the storm and make peace with it. This technique will help you pull away from flashbacks, unwanted memories, and challenging emotions to refocus your attention and engage in life.
3. Take a stand for what matters to you
Grief often triggers a sense of powerlessness. Thus, it is crucial to focus on what is in your control. For example, you can control your actions, tune into and live out your values, and become the person you want to be.
Taking a stand is about clarifying and living your values in the face of the loss. For example, what do you want to stand for in the face of this loss? Who do you want to be as you go through the loss? What values do you want to live? How do you want to treat yourself and others? It aims to empower you to respond effectively to your losses.
Grief counselling can help you clarify your values, use your values to set goals, create action plans and take actions. In other words, you can use your values for motivation, inspiration and guidance.
4. Find the treasure amid the loss
The loss often dominates everything in the initial period of the loss. Grief counselling can help you recognise that there is more to life than loss amidst the pain and sorrow. It is about noticing, appreciating, savouring, and treasuring the little aspects of life and finding meaningful, enjoyable, pleasurable, and inspiring moments.
Many people often reported they have a greater appreciation of life, a changed sense of priority, a stronger connection and empathy for other people, and a more profound sense of meaning and purpose in life after significant losses.
5. Resolve complicated grief
Complicated or unresolved grief happens when the normal grieving process and healing become derailed and disruptive—to the extent that you develop a chronic and debilitating condition that impacts and paralyses your daily functioning. Some signs and symptoms include:
- prolong and excessive difficult emotions
- constant rumination about the loss
- obsessive attempt to keep the deceased alive
- over avoidance
- clinging to anything that reminds the deceased
- continued worry about the future
- sense of impending gloom and doom
- complete withdrawal from people and daily activities
Grief counselling can help you reduce the risks of complicated grief, minimise rumination, overcome guilt and self-blame, instil hope and develop psychological flexibility to respond to your losses with greater kindness and compassion.
What type of therapy is used for grief?
There are several evidence-based therapies that are used for grief counselling. For example, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) helps you identify negative thought patterns that contribute to challenging feelings and behaviours that compromise effective grieving.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) helps you make room for difficult thoughts and feelings without being entangled or trapped by them, clarify your values in the face of the loss, develop committed actions and engage in meaningful living.
The Worden Four Tasks of Mourning focuses on helping you accept the reality of the loss, work through the pain of grief, adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing, and find an enduring connection while embarking on a new life.
Robert Neimeyer is one of the foremost authorities on bereavement and grief and the Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. His meaning reconstruction therapy has assisted many bereaved to make meaning in the loss, as bereavement can often bring about a crisis of meaning.
You can watch my interview with Professor Robert Neimeyer on ‘Demystifying Grief; Creating Meaning and Continuing Bond’ below.
As you can see, there are different approaches and models for grief counselling. Your grief counsellor will help you decide which grief therapy is the most suitable for you.
How long should you wait for grief counselling?
Grief is different for everyone, and it affects everyone differently. Therefore, there is no universal answer to the best time for grief counselling.
How long should you wait for grief counselling depends on a few factors, such as the nature, severity, impacts and duration of your grief. For example, if your grief is significantly interfering with and disrupting your health and wellbeing, you are finding it challenging to cope, and your loved ones are suggesting you seek professional help, then perhaps it is time to seek grief counselling.