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What is grief counseling, and how can it help?

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The loss of a loved one can wreak havoc on our emotions. The sense of loss can ebb and flow, and we might feel like ourselves one day and be utterly unable to function the next. Grief is a many-pronged emotion; while you might think it is an abiding sadness, in truth it is often accompanied by confusing feelings like anger, frustration, and even guilt. 

You may be able to work through your grief on your own. But sometimes you need a little assistance — like an expert who can guide you through the stages of grief and help you emerge on the other side. But what is grief counseling, and how does it help? 

What is grief counseling?

When you attend grief counseling or grief therapy, you’re sitting down with a therapist who is specially trained to help you work through your feelings of loss. Over time, you’ll learn how to manage your feelings about the loss of your loved one. 

When you first meet with your grief counselor, they’ll spend time getting to know you and learning about the kind of relationship you had with the person who passed. You will likely mourn a spouse differently than you would a parent, for example. From there, your counselor will help you explore, cope with, and live with your grief. 

We want to stress that grief counselors won’t try to stop or “cure” your grief. If you lose someone who meant a great deal to you, you may mourn them for a lifetime. Grief counseling is not about forgetting a person or putting a stop to your sorrow. Instead, it teaches you how to feel your grief in a healthy way and move through the grieving process so that it doesn’t consume your entire life.

What is the grieving process?

Because grief counseling is often structured around helping you through the grieving process, it’s helpful to know what that process is

The Kubler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief” are as follows:

  • Denial: In this stage, you don’t fully believe your loved one is gone; you may be thinking about calling them up, for example, or pushing away those who try to comfort you. 
  • Anger: You may be surprised by how angry or frustrated you are by your loved one’s death; you may find yourself lashing out at others or unable to control your temper.
  • Bargaining: This is your brain’s effort to try controlling the situation. For instance, “If I do X, will Y happen?” If you’re religious, you might ask God to spare your loved one.
  • Depression: This is not always clinical depression, but rather an intense sorrow that can weigh you down. You may be unable to enjoy the things that previously made you happy, or you may feel fatigued all the time.
  • Acceptance: The final stage is when you understand that your loved one is gone, and nothing can bring them back. You may still grieve, but your grief doesn’t have to overpower all the other good things in your life. 

Generally speaking, a person may go from one stage to another on their own. But you may feel like you’re stuck in one particular stage and don’t know how to move forward. This may be due to the type of relationship you had with your loved one or the way they passed. If you didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, for example, you may be lodged between denial and anger. You may feel constantly guilty about things you didn’t say to or do for this person. 

A good grief counselor can help you address and come to terms with these unresolved regrets. If you didn’t get to say goodbye to someone, for instance, they may suggest a way for you to bid your loved one farewell in your own way. By recognizing that grief is the root of your feelings and addressing it, you can start to heal.

What is grief counseling like?

The actual experience of grief counseling will look different for everyone. The goal is to help you mourn your loved one in a healthy way while continuing to live your life, but how long it takes and the methods used to help you feel better will depend on your counselor. 

You may talk a lot about the past and fully explore the impact your lost loved one had on your life. This can be particularly meaningful if you haven’t been able to talk about them with other friends and family who may also be grieving. You’ll learn to address how you feel in the present, and why you feel the way you do. By the end of grief counseling, you will look toward the future without your loved one. 

At first, you may find it difficult to talk about your loved one and the impact they had on your life. We are often taught to push our feelings down and just carry on, no matter how sad, angry, or frustrated we are. Grief counseling encourages us to uncork those feelings and work through them. By acknowledging them and feeling them, we can start to let go of the ones that don’t serve us, like guilt and anger. 

You may need grief counseling if…

The decision to obtain grief counseling is a highly personal one. Everyone handles grief and its armada of accompanying emotions differently. But if your feelings of anger and guilt are distracting you from your job, or if thoughts of your loved one won’t recede long enough for you to read a book or cook dinner for your family, then you may benefit from grief counseling.

While nothing can bring back the person you lost, learning to understand and process your feelings can help you honor their memory instead of dwelling on their absence.

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