What Is Grief Counselling? | Everything You Need To Know About Grief Therapy
Takeaway: Grief and loss are common experiences. However, many people are unfamiliar with grief counselling. In this post, we’ll address many of the commonly asked questions about grief therapy: what it is, what a grief counsellor does, and whether grief counselling works.
What is grief?
Nearly everyone experiences grief at some point throughout their life-it's a reaction to loss. While we commonly associate grief with the loss of a loved one, it can happen after any kind of loss: job loss, a breakup, or losing the future we had envisioned for ourselves.
Grief is a natural human response, though it can look different from person to person. According to this grief counseling resource guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, a grieving person may experience some or all of the following grief reactions:
Shock or disbelief
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Physical symptoms like changes in appetite, stomach problems, or even physical pain
There is no "right" or "wrong" way to express your grief, so don't worry if your experience looks or feels different. People cope in their own way, and your experience is valid no matter what. Some people even feel totally numb after a loss, and that's okay. Each person processes grief and loss differently.
Types of grief
Like any other emotional experience, your grief doesn't necessarily fit neatly into a box. At the same time some people find it helpful to know that other people have had similar experiences of grief and loss. Here are a few of the common types of grief.
As the name suggests, anticipatory grief comes when a person is anticipating a loss. For example, a loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness might evoke anticipatory grief. In this situation, you know that the illness will eventually take your loved one's life, but you may not know when or how.
This is also common with degenerative diseases. One study showed that caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease reported high levels of anticipatory grief.
You might also experience anticipatory grief if you were diagnosed with a chronic illness yourself. With chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), you know that your health will worsen over time. This knowledge, along with the uncertainty that comes along with chronic health issues, can cause you to experience grief even before major changes take place.
Complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder
All grief experiences can be complex. However, complicated grief is something else entirely. While there isn't a standard formula or timeline for a "normal" grieving process, some people can resume life after loss more quickly or easily than others.
For most people, the symptoms of grief are most intense directly after the loss. However, with complicated grief, people experience the same intensity of these emotions for a significantly longer period of time. If left untreated, it can impact their ability to function in day-to-day life.
After several studies and review, complicated grief (now called prolonged grief disorder or PGD) has been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Qualified mental health professionals use this manual to identify and diagnose mental health issues.
Some common symptoms of prolonged grief disorder include:
Disbelief about the death of a loved one
Avoiding reminders that their loved one has passed away
Difficulty reintegrating back into life following the loss
Feeling like life has no meaning
Intense emotional pain and loneliness
Unlike prolonged grief disorder, traumatic grief isn't a mental disorder. Rather, it refers to the kind of grief that people might experience after a traumatic loss. While all forms of loss could be considered a traumatic event, traumatic grief most often occurs when the loss was sudden or unexpected.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, people can experience symptoms of grief and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the same time.
It can be difficult to determine whether you're experiencing grief, trauma, or both. Grief counselling can help you navigate your experience of loss, whatever that looks like for you.
Theories to understand a grief reaction
While everyone moves through grief differently, there are some common frameworks to help us understand the grieving process. Remember, these are just theories-they're not meant to serve as procedures for how you "should" grieve. Find what resonates with you and leave the rest.
Stages of grief
Many people are familiar with the idea that there are five stages of grief. However, the original research from psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross actually identifies these as stages of dying-not grief. Her work was focused on supporting people with their own terminal illness.
Regardless, some people still find this framework helpful when making sense of their grief experiences. The five stages are:
Though it's often viewed as a linear model, people can move back and forth between different stages of grief. The model was designed to help understand people's experiences rather than create a formula for the grief process.
Cycle of grief
At Myriame Lyons Counselling & Consulting, our grief counselling framework centers on the cycle of grief. While the stages can be helpful for some people, we find that people tend to have a multitude of different experiences while grieving, including:
Panic and fear
As people begin to heal, they can also find new relationships, a new identity, and even hope for the future. However, there are often triggers that can cause emotional pain to resurface. The birthday of a family member who has passed or an annual follow-up with the doctor who diagnosed your chronic illness can open up those old wounds.
It is normal to swing between states in a given day, week or year. This ideal comes from the Dual Process Model of Grief which helps illuminate the range of emotions (hope to fear) around grief.
Grief therapy 101
Grief counselling, also known as bereavement counselling, is a type of therapy that's meant to help people work through the emotions associated with loss. Grief counselling services can be provided individually, through family therapy, or in a group therapy setting. Some people also engage in support groups that are run by a qualified mental health practitioner.
Grief therapy is typically customized to a person's individual needs, grief response, and goals. If a person experiences numbness after loss, grief counselling can help them tap into the emotions that are under the surface, and learn to move forward with the grief experience.
On the other hand, if someone is struggling with intense, overwhelming emotions, they might learn coping skills to help manage these feelings. Your grief counsellor will work with you to make a treatment plan that's right for you.
People also seek grief counselling at different points in their grieving process. Some people may want support right after the loss when feelings can be most intense. Other people might not feel ready to talk about their loss until more time has passed. Time spent in grief counselling also varies from person to person.
What is a grief counsellor?
A grief counsellor is a type of therapist that has special training or experience in helping people process grief. In order to become a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) or Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC), a person must have completed a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology and become registered with their provincial association or college.
To get registered or certified, Registered Clinical Counsellors (and CCCs) must also have direct client experience while overseen by a qualified supervisor. From here, therapists will need to pass an exam and submit references in order to get their certification.
While all Canadian Certified Counsellors (and RCCs) need to meet these same standards, all have different experiences and specialized training. When choosing a grief counsellor, it's important to ask about their specific background and the methods they used to help people with grief.
What do grief counsellors do?
Grief counsellors use different therapeutic approaches to help people move through their bereavement experience. Remember, each therapist is different and each person seeking therapy is unique. With that being said, here are some of the common goals that grief counsellors help people with:
Have a safe space to talk about the difficult feelings that come with loss
Learn healthy coping mechanisms to manage emotions
Rekindle existing relationships with family members and friends, as well as find new ways to get support
Identify negative thought patterns and find a new perspective
Learn grounding skills to stay in the present moment
Find ways to feel connected to the deceased person or other loss
Get support finding a new daily routine following loss
These are just a few examples of how grief therapists help people. It's okay if you don't resonate with any of the goals listed here. You and your grief counsellor will work together to personalize your therapy experience to your needs.
What are the different grief counselling techniques?
There are several different therapeutic methods used in grief counselling. Here are some common ones, including methods we use in our grief counselling practice.
Accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP)
AEDP is an emotions-focused approach to grief counselling. In this approach, as with many similar types of counselling, both the therapeutic relationship and making space for core emotions are seen as the basis for healing. By creating a strong, trusting relationship, the therapist and client establish a safe space to support the emotional expression of the painful process of grieving.
Beyond helping clients process complex emotions, a main goal of AEDP is reminding clients that they are not alone in their experience. Through this approach, clients can feel empowered, connected, and compassionate toward themselves and others.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
EMDR is a form of therapy that was originally designed to treat trauma. However, studies suggest that it is effective in helping people process grief as well.
Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR uses a method called bilateral stimulation to help people reprocess distressing memories. Bilateral stimulation is meant to engage both sides of your brain and body.
These methods include following a light with your eyes, holding vibrating devices in each hand, and tapping alternating sides of your body-all while being guided by a therapist.
In EMDR therapy, therapist and client will build a target plan that effectively identifies the stuck thoughts and feelings around the grief, and reprocess these targets (aka memories or experiences) with bilateral stimulation to change the stuck points.
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
Everyone has different parts. For example, there might be part of you that really wants to find a new job while another part of you feels compelled to stay in your current job. Having conflicting feelings is a normal part of the human experience.
Internal family systems (IFS) therapy is centered around the idea of our inner parts. It views the parts of the mind as a family, each with their own role. This approach seeks to bring our parts into harmony to help us find balance and inner peace.
Other forms of bereavement counseling
There are many other therapeutic approaches that can be used to help people process loss. Here are a few other methods that grief therapists use:
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Emotionally focused therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Does grief counselling work?
Many people associate talk therapy with mental health issues or substance abuse. While grief isn't a mental illness or addiction, counseling can still be highly effective to help people process loss.
Several studies suggest that grief counselling is effective, and can even have long-term benefits. Grief counselling may be especially beneficial for people experiencing prolonged or traumatic grief, as these types of grief tend to impact a person's functioning the most.
While more research is needed to determine exactly who can benefit from grief counselling, remember that you know yourself best. If you think that grief counselling can help, it's worth exploring it.
Grief counselling can help you move through the grieving process in a healthy manner
If you're grieving and need support, our team is here to help. We offer grief and loss counselling in Vancouver, and we're passionate about helping people manage grief in a healthy manner and learn how to live with their bereavement experience. Reach out today to get started.
Founder and Counsellor