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How Does Grief Counseling Work?

Dealing with grief is something that every person must face at some point in their life. Although grief is also sometimes used to describe the process of coming to terms with other forms of loss, traditionally it refers to the emotional progression a person experiences when mourning the death of someone they cared about.

You are likely familiar with the theory that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Another theory breaks down the grief process into stages of numbness (shock), disorganization (anger, regret, loss) and re-organization (recovery, healing). However, most modern grieving-process structures also acknowledge that different people experience grief in different ways, and may even experience its stages in different orders.

Regardless of its theoretical framework, the grieving process can take a long time, but if it becomes more than you feel you can work through with the support of your friends and family, then a grief counselor can help you to acknowledge your feelings as you transition from one stage to the next, and to understand that this process is completely normal.

Non-Medical Options for Grief Counseling

Find a Grief Counselor

Psychology Today Therapist Directory: Canadian and American listings. Choose your geographical area, and under Refine Your Search/Issues (if available), select Loss or Grief.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Bereavement counseling for the immediate family members of those who die during military duty.

Canadian Mental Health Association: Listings of CMHA branches by province/territory. Contact your local office for help in finding a grief counselor or bereavement group in your area.

Common types of grief counseling that people turn to during times of bereavement are:

  • Faith-based counseling. Some people turn to their religious faith, and to speaking with a trusted member of the clergy or other religious leader, to help them with their grief management.
  • Peer-based counseling. Grief support groups can be an excellent emotional, social and informational resource. Grieving can feel very isolating, and many people benefit from meeting with others who are experiencing similar kinds of bereavement.
  • Certified grief counseling. Grief counselors are trained to help you through the normal process of grieving, and to assess whether the severity and duration of your symptoms might mean you are suffering from complicated grief and require additional professional help from a psychotherapist to begin feeling more like yourself again.

Signs of Complicated Grief

Complicated grief is defined as grieving that has a significant and long-term impact on a person’s emotional and physical health, and on their ability to function normally in their life. Not surprisingly, complicated grief shares some of its symptoms with depression. Signs that you or someone you know might be suffering from complicated grief include:

  • Seemingly single-minded focus on the deceased person and mementos that serve as reminders of them
  • Persistent longing for the deceased person; refusing to accept the reality of their death or expressing the desire to be with them, i.e., to be dead as well
  • Numbness and detachment from their own life: emotionally and physically withdrawing from social interaction and showing lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities; inability to maintain normal routines
  • Extreme sadness, irritability

Psychotherapy for Grief Management

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a common treatment strategy to help people effectively cope with grief when their mental and emotional condition is not improving over time and is having detrimental long-term effects on their health and/or normal day-to-day functioning. Using CBT, the psychotherapist helps the patient to identify their negative and debilitating thought structures and actively replace them with more positive, constructive ones.

The road to grief recovery is sometimes a long one, but seeking out others who can help you along the way, including your friends and family, a grief counselor and/or a professional therapist, can make the journey not only shorter but less difficult.

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