Grief counseling is a form of therapy which may be used for an individual or in groups, that focuses on someone’s intense feelings of loss. It may be undertaken after a loved one dies, or also after other grief-provoking situations, such as the break up of a marriage, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of a fatal illness, or a myriad of other reasons. In all cases, grief counseling attempts to deal with a person’s intense feelings after a loss.
Counseling for grief is quite common in group settings. This is because peer counseling and relationships with others who can empathize with one’s loss reduce feelings of isolation caused by grief. Group therapy may be led by the group, or may be led and moderated by a mental health professional, or a grief counselor. Many people who are not therapists are trained by organizations like Hospice to help conduct grief therapy groups.
The principal goals of grief counseling are not quite the same as for therapy where one wants or needs to change behavior. Instead, the goal of the counselor is to be “present” for the bereaved. This is sometimes called compassioning. Most frequently, the grief counselor helps the person by simply listening in an active manner and by demonstrating empathy.
Grief counselors recognize that grief is a process that cannot be rushed. Thus one attempts to be “right there” in whatever stage of grief the person is currently experiencing. Counselors may also work to remind the person that most of the feelings they have or choices they make while grieved are quite natural and normal.
When a person loses a loved one, for example, he or she may first receive lots of kind attention from friends and family. Yet most friends and family will often want to move on after a few weeks, especially when the loss has no direct effect on them personally. The grieving person on the other hand, may not be ready to “move on.” This tends to be when grief counseling becomes most effective. It gives the person a way to continue to process their loss and receive compassion that may not be available from society or even close friends or family.
Much of grief therapy theory today is based on the fundamental work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who identified several stages of grief. Kubler-Ross’ work has become a springboard for other theories that expand on her work. For many, prior to Kubler-Ross’ work, there existed little understanding that grief is a non-linear process that can take a great deal of time.
Thus in grief counseling, the therapist works with the client to be a compassionate witness of the process, but not to speed it up. Understanding that grief is felt and expressed differently by people is also important. For example, some couples seek out grief therapy after the loss of a child. Most likely, part of the difficulty for the couple is that each partner will grieve differently, and may not grieve in a fashion that seems as intense as his or her partner.
Learning that grieving can be done in many ways often saves couples from accusing each other of grieving too much or too little. Grief counseling in couples therapy can allow for each partner to learn to respect the unique process of grief undergone by each person. This can, in turn, promote empathy and a greater degree of intimacy between partners.