Grief is a word that we can sometimes use lightly (“good grief,” “I wanted to avoid unnecessary grief,” etc.) to signify aggravation. But when you’re talking about losing a loved one, whether it be a spouse, child, another family member, or friend, the word grief has a much deeper meaning.
Death eventually affects all of us, and grief is a natural and healthy response—but that doesn’t make it feel normal when you’re going through it. The pain of grief and the shock of loss can throw your entire life into upheaval.
The grieving process can be hard to understand, whether it’s you or someone else going through it. The first time anyone has a significant loss, the sadness itself can feel foreign and earth-shattering.
Let’s discuss what normal grief looks like and how grief counseling can help.
What is Grief?
In the past and sometimes still today, grieving was also called “mourning,” and it can include many different elements, such as:
- Physical sensations such as sighing, shortness of breath, a tight chest, hollow stomach, muscle weakness, dry mouth, malaise or fatigue, and restlessness
- Derealization or depersonalization
- Dreams of the lost loved one
- Withdrawal or isolation, including a loss of interest in relationships or the outside world
- Insomnia or sleep disturbances
- Avoidance of memories of the lost loved one
- Memory problems, trouble focusing, or absent-mindedness
- Change in appetite, whether under-eating (more common) or overeating
- Numbness (usually early on), which is a protective response to overwhelming emotions
Do I Need Grief Counseling?
If the grieving process is normal and inevitable, why not just let it run its course? What purpose does counseling serve?
Mourning the loss of a loved one is natural, but this doesn’t mean it always happens constructively. Everyone processes grief differently. Sometimes the grieving process doesn’t proceed in a way that leads to healing.
A person who is emotionally stable and healthy before a loss will have the advantage of that inner strength as they grieve. Others may have more complicated responses through no fault of their own, whether due to an adverse experience in childhood, current life struggles, or other issues. Professional help can be of great assistance for complicated grief.
Sometimes, friends or family of the bereaved may attempt to help but end up doing more harm than good. Rather than facilitating the healthy grieving process, they might inadvertently interfere with the usual steps of healing.
This often happens when people are uncomfortable with grief or don’t understand that everyone’s timeline for healing is different.
For example, an adult child might try to encourage their bereaved parent by saying that the deceased wouldn’t want their widow to grieve so deeply for them. In effect, the child is denying their parent the freedom to work through the grief at their own pace by making them feel guilty for their sadness.
Well-meaning friends or family sometimes try to help the bereaved stop crying, saying it only makes the situation worse, when in reality tears can be healing.
Either of these situations or other environments that aren’t conducive to a healthy grieving process can call for professional counseling to give the survivor freedom and support to grieve in their own way.
Grief is technically termed “complicated” when it has progressed beyond the bounds of a healthy recovery and has become stagnant or destructive, such as in a major depressive episode. A grief counselor provides professional parameters for understanding the process and helping differentiate between major depression and uncomplicated grief. No matter which condition it is, the counselor can provide treatment.
How Will a Counselor Help with Grief?
Healing from loss looks different for everyone, but some aspects of grief need to be present for recovery to take place over time. If the survivor has trouble moving through these stages (which do not have to be linear) or does not have a helpful environment, counseling can provide help and support.
Most of us are familiar with the role of denial in the initial loss of a loved one. Coming to terms with the reality of the loss is a crucial step in the grieving process. Denial is an almost involuntary reaction to the intense pain of loss, but eventually, the truth must be accepted for the survivor to function.
Acceptance of the loss must be both emotional and intellectual, happening both in the heart and the mind. The survivor has to acknowledge that their loved one will never come back. This is incredibly painful and heart-rending.
Counseling is a safe, gentle environment in which to work on acceptance, or actualizing the loss. Talk therapy will approach the loss from various angles, including where and how it happened, the experience of the memorial service, and more.
Consciously revisiting the loss helps the survivor to accept its reality. Counseling helps the survivor by providing a private and protected setting for these conversations, which other family members or friends may not want to have.
Experiencing pain is part of acceptance, but it’s also a significant part of the grieving process on its own. Feeling the emotional pain of a loss can be terrifying. In the immediate sense, it might seem more comfortable to stuff it down and pretend it’s not there. But this response usually leads to a much deeper, ongoing pain that is harder to handle.
Ignoring pain doesn’t make it go away; in a sense, the emotions bide their time. A professional counselor provides an empathetic, non-judgmental, and contained setting for the survivor to release their pain.
Grief isn’t a single emotion; it can be complicated by guilt, fear, anger, and other feelings. Survivors often have trouble identifying their other feelings because the pain of the loss is so all-consuming. A grief counselor will help to identify other emotions and work through them, especially if the bereaved person feels ashamed of them in any way.
Eventually, the survivor will need to consider how they can live well without their lost loved one. This can be incredibly difficult not just emotionally, but practically as well, if the loved one was involved in managing details of daily life that are now the responsibility of the survivor.
Now the lost one’s love, friendship, and support are gone, and all these new duties are looming over the survivor.
When a spouse is widowed, they are often left without much of an idea of how to manage the finances if their spouse was the one who did that. They may not even know where or what the bills are, or what kind of budget was operating.
In another case, a spouse may have depended on the lost one to do the grocery shopping, cooking, and laundry. Adding those tasks into daily life while dealing with grief can seem overwhelming.
Grief counselors are prepared to address all of these details that can make a loss seem even more impossible to handle. Problem-solving and practical support can both be a part of the therapy process.
There are numerous practical issues brought on by the death of a loved one, and one overarching problem is the new identity of the survivor. Reality has shifted, and the bereaved one’s sense of themselves has been permanently altered. A mother whose world revolves around her daughter will feel like a different person when her daughter passes away.
The daily care that the mother was providing for her daughter is no longer necessary. Vast swaths of time open up that used to be filled with the relationship, both for essential tasks and the enjoyment of the other person. In counseling, a bereaved parent, spouse, child, sibling, or friend can grapple with issues of identity and learn to align their inner person with their new reality.
Emotional withdrawal from the lost loved one must also happen for healing to take place. If the survivor remains attached as if the person is still alive, they will be unable to move forward and function in daily life. Their happiness will always be stifled by their ongoing attachment to the deceased. They will be unable to invest in relationships or healthily process their pain.
It can be difficult to discern whether someone is moving through the typical stages of grief, or has an unhealthy lingering attachment to the deceased. A counselor can help the survivor understand the difference. Is it healthy to leave the lost loved one’s room exactly as it was for several years, or for the survivor to speak to their loved one’s picture every day as if they were still alive?
Queen Victoria was notoriously unwilling to withdraw from her deceased husband, Prince Albert. For years following his death, she requested that his clothes and shaving implements be prepared for his daily use, even though he was gone. This is an example of an unhealthy emotional attachment that prevents the survivor from fully accepting the reality of the loss.
Other Ways Grief Counseling Can Help
As we’ve discussed, although grief itself is a natural response to loss, it doesn’t feel normal when you’re the one experiencing it. Pain can take over your life and completely engross your attention. It can make you feel like a different person because your feelings are so foreign to you.
Counseling can provide perspective on the grieving process, and the reassure to the survivor that they are coping healthily and their feelings are normal. Knowing they’re not crazy provides a sense of reassurance and can reduce the anxiety of the bereaved person.
In addition to helping a survivor work through the necessary tasks for recovery, a counselor for grief and loss can also identify any maladaptive coping styles that arise.
When someone is dealing with a significant loss, it’s common to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. The use of illicit substances is an obvious example, but less obvious destructive ways of coping can creep in. A counselor can help identify these issues before they become strongholds or addictions, and then support the survivor by assisting them to find healthy coping styles instead.
According to Dictionary.com, grief is defined as, “Keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret,” though no definition suffices to describe the pain and sadness of losing someone we love. No one should be ashamed of reaching out for help during a time of grief.
A loss is multifaceted, and so is the grieving process. The tasks needed for recovery can be hard to accomplish on your own, especially if you’re facing complications in your grief response. Walking through the grieving process healthily takes courage and hard work. If you are struggling to heal on your own, be kind to yourself and consider reaching out to a grief counselor. We’re here to help.
“Sad Man Thinking”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Rio Surat”, Courstey of Spencer Dahl, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sadness”, Courtesy of 809499, Pixabay.com; CC0 License; “We Are Small”, Courtesy of Benjamin Davies, Unsplash.com, CC0 License