Grief Counseling: What It Is, What To Expect From It, And Why You Might Need It
How have you been holding up these days?
More and more people are coming to the realization that the pandemic isn't just a problem for our physical health. The COVID crisis has also thrown our mental and emotional well-being off-balance, and this is especially true for individuals who have experienced the worst of the crisis—losses of loved ones, unexpected illnesses and passings, difficulty moving on in life after a death, needing to care for the sick, or even witnessing firsthand the last breath a person takes.
Some will even argue that the mental and emotional anguish brought on by experiences like these weighs more on our shoulders than any bodily affliction. Specifically, a disproportionate amount of people may be experiencing grief during this time. Grief is deep sorrow combined most often felt after a major loss ("loss" in this context can be the death of a loved one, losing the life one might have had before COVID, or generally having to permanently let go of someone or something that was of great importance).
Grief is a normal and expected reaction to loss. It is definitely not an overreaction or an exaggeration of your feelings. More so, people go through the grieving process in their own way and at their own pace but eventually, the grief becomes less severe over time, and those grieving can begin to heal.
However, for whatever reason, those grieving might feel that the process is "taking longer" than it should. They—you—might feel that you've been "sad for too long" and perhaps you're in an emotional pit you can't quite climb out of on your own.
If this is how you feel about where you're at right now, emotionally speaking, perhaps grief counseling is something you might want to learn more about.
What is grief counseling?
Grief counseling is a form of psychotherapy. (Psychotherapy is pretty much just the formal name for "talk therapy," where clients like you come to see a therapist to talk about your concerns). There are many kinds of psychotherapy, but grief therapy focuses on helping clients manage the feelings from a big loss that we described above.
To be more technical about it, grief counseling can can over the sadness felt from any type of loss, be it the break down of a relationship, loss of a job or home, or even saying goodbye to a beloved pet. But when we're dealing with the loss from the death of a loved one, some psychologists might zero in on bereavement counseling, which is specifically designed to provide a safe, comforting, and helpful space for people to process this experience. (Hence, grief counseling for people who have experienced losses of loved ones during the COVID crisis might be in need of bereavement, rather than more general grief, counseling. The techniques used in both types of counseling are comparable, however, and what sets them apart is simply the focus on a specific kind of loss).
What do you do in grief counseling?
Most forms of psychotherapy follow one-on-one formats, so if this is something you want to go through with family, that's something you need to discuss with your counselor in your very first session. Regardless of who you go through grief counseling with, whether it's on your own, with a spouse, or a larger group, the core activities stay the same.
There is no chronological process to grief counseling. That is, you do not go through your first, second, or third sessions with a fixed set of to-do lists. Instead, you'll be encouraged to explore your feelings of grief in detail, and how this unfolds is all up to your level of comfort in sharing. A counselor will likely ask you about your relationship with the person who has just passed away, how you feel about their passing, and how their absence has impacted your life. You'll also learn how grief is not just an emotional experience; perhaps you will discover how your grief has influenced the way you think, the way you behave, your outlook on your future, the quality of your other relationships, and other important domains of your life.
Generally, the expectation is for you to be open and trusting of the process. You are not expected to be "strong" and unaffected. Without you having to explain yourself, your grief counselor knows that you are going through something difficult, perhaps even something traumatic, which means they are there to support you as you put any painful feelings into words.
If you weren't already aware of it, something you might want to learn about are the stages of grieving as your counselor might use these as a guide for how to help you better understand, and heal from, your experience of loss. Again, even though they are called "stages," don't think they are counseling milestones you need to achieve in order to get better. Sometimes, people can even go back and forth stages and that's perfectly okay. Grief is a tough thing to get through, and experiencing it is a highly individualized process, so don't be tough on yourself.
In the end, grief counseling's goal is not to help you forget about your loved one who has passed away. It is intended to help you design a new beginning for yourself where you are happy and fulfilled in life, as you've learned to accept a loved one's passing and go on despite them no longer being physically around.
Do I need grief counseling?
The answer here is, only you can tell.
The rule of thumb when it comes to counseling is, you don't need to be in shambles before you seek it out. Counseling is just like talking to someone when you need an understanding, non-judgmental ear to listen to you. After all, when you talk to a friend or a trusted family member, it's likely that you don't wait until you are feeling your worst to strike up a conversation; you could just give them a ring or send a message to update them about your day, something that happened or something you read, a concern you've been thinking a lot about lately, or or anything, really.
Counseling follows the same mechanics. You can give it a try even though you might be feeling alright, overall.
When it comes to grief counseling, don't make the mistake of thinking you "need" to be depressed, anxious, and emotionally broken to qualify for it. There are no rules for who and who does not qualify for counseling. You shouldn't think twice about your grief not being "heavy enough" for you to need counseling. If you just want someone to speak to about your difficult experiences and losses during this abnormal time we're all living in, that's enough reason to go for counseling.
On the other hand, one telltale sign you might need professional help to process your feelings of grief is if they interrupt life as you once knew it. If you're unable to enjoy activities you normally love, have trouble sleeping or can't eat the way you used to, if you find it hard to connect with loved ones, if you find it hard to focus on tasks, if you feel "zoned out" and detached from your day to day activities, and if you've tried to help yourself but were unsuccessful, perhaps your grief might be weighing you down more than you realize and counseling is a good option for you.
How do I find a grief counselor?
There are many stand-alone psychological clinics/private practices and in-hospital clinics that you can ring to inquire about grief counseling. Grief counseling is a service normally offered by psychologists, so it might simply be a matter of finding a clinic close to you or recommended by a trusted source.
But, now that in-person appointments are tough to come by because of quarantine restrictions, you might have to make several phone calls to find a clinic or psychologist that provides telephone or virtual counseling sessions. When you do, they'll be able to explain the limitations of telephone/virtual sessions to help you manage your expectations.
And after you've selected a psychologist, you'll go on to talk about your schedules and session rate (and don't forget to bring up any questions about family grief counseling, if that's what you're interested in). Next, you'll have your first session, and it will be Step One to get you on your way to lasting, meaningful healing.
We'd also like to point out how professional counseling or therapy is not the same as joining as support group for those grieving a loved one's loss. There are clear differences between the two: counseling/therapy is a structured context facilitated by a professional with a clear goal of helping you heal. Meanwhile, a grief support group is composed of different kinds of people and there is not necessarily a mental health professional leading the way. The purpose of a support group is to provide comfort and company—to make you feel that you are not alone in your experiences—but it does not outright help you make the changes in your life for you to move forward from your grief.
It is not an issue to undergo grief counseling and be part of a support group at the same time. Your counselor can better guide you on how to navigate both as you progress in your sessions.
Remember, grief is difficult, but it is a universal experience—but so is wanting help when we need it.
If you feel that it's time to seek out professional help, do so! There are many counselors and therapists ready to listen to you and help you back on your feet so you can stand even taller than you did before.
Opening images from Pexels and Unsplash