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What is Grief Counseling?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Jan 29, 2024

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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon284074 — On Aug 08, 2012

I terribly miss my friend who died two months ago and I have been visiting his Facebook page over and over. Thanks for the heads up on the Evertalk application. I think I might use it to keep my memories with him.

By anon284071 — On Aug 08, 2012

I am sad to hear about your losses. I know it's painful dealing with the loss of a loved one. I just want to share something with you. Many of our loved ones who pass away leave a footprint of digital information. It's important to make sure you close their email accounts so malicious thieves won't hack into their accounts and use their identities.

Likewise, you should make sure to contact Facebook to ask them to turn off their Facebook page. I found a great application within Facebook called Evertalk where you can create a separate space within Facebook to remember them and celebrate their lives. I've been using Evertalk to accept donations to pay for hospital bills for my grandmother who recently passed. I've been able to collect $10k, which has greatly helped me and my family deal with the financial burden. Anyway, I wanted to pass along the recommendation to check out Evertalk within Facebook. Hope this helps.

By katiec22 — On Mar 18, 2012

In September 2011 I lost my mother in law to heart failure and then in december the same year, my uncle took his own life and then in february, I lost two elderly patients I look after in my job (I'm a home care assistant). Then in March, my long term partner left me.

I thought I was stronger than what I am. I just feel like I'm watching the world go by. I cry myself to sleep every night, and I'm now on antidepressants and have to go counseling -- all this at the age of 22.

I don't think I'm weak because it takes a lot for someone like me to go and ask for help and I just hope all of you are on the path to dealing with a loss of a loved one.

By anon254636 — On Mar 13, 2012

@anon11846: I have lost a child and it hurts so bad. To your question of wanting to die after losing someone you loved, I think it's normal. I still haven't figured out how to deal with loneliness. I feel like that in the inside all the time.

As for committing suicide, I couldn't do it ever, because I wouldn't want my loved ones feeling the way I feel right now about me. I also try to hold on to the thought of the afterlife and hoping to meet with her again someday. She was my dream. Motherhood was my dream and I hope to have more children. I think about her every minute. Sometimes I talk about her all the time.

I used to wonder if I thought too much, making it unhealthy but I don't care. That's what makes me go on. I love her. I'm not a professional but I am a griever myself.

By anon172011 — On May 02, 2011

@No. 10: Yes, grief often occurs prior to death, specifically in cases where the loved one is still present in body only. Many people do the majority of their grieving during this time and when the death does occur they can feel a sense of relief, so if this does occur, support your fiance and let him know that this is perfectly okay! You sound like you care and this is what he will need.

@ No. 9: Counseling may be perfectly appropriate for you and your feelings of abandonment. Some people feel that grief counseling is helpful, but "nothing works for everyone" and I always advise clients to at least try a session and see how they feel afterward.

To both: letter writing often helps relieve some feelings of tension and anxiety. Write a letter to the loved one expressing all of your feelings. It's therapeutic to "get it off your chest". I wish you both the best!

By anon149345 — On Feb 03, 2011

My Fiance's mother has been sick for a year now and the doctors have now said that there is nothing more they can do to save her.

My fiance has taken this very hard. Watching his mother just wither into nothing. The doctors don't really say how long she has and We can only pray she can make it till our wedding if not longer. Even though she is still with us and could be with us for a long time with no quality of life, would grief counseling be appropriate?

By sissa — On Jun 02, 2010

I'm thinking about going for grief counseling. I lost my sister some time ago and the hole in my chest doesn't seem to shrink. It doesn't matter how many tears I cry, it doesn't change the outcome. I'm so sad all the time and think of her accident every day. I hate having to be the one left behind. Any help?

By anon74602 — On Apr 02, 2010

Dear 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. You are all very brave. I have also lost a son at 20 years of age. He had everything going for him. He was drinking and driving when he lost his life and changed the course of mine in 2002. The funny thing is that "he was not the type of person to do that" which is what all of his friends said the night he died.

"He was always looking out for others" was another comment I heard through my haze of shock and disbelief. I laid there in my room on my bed with this indescribable pain suffocating me. "My son is dead" kept playing over and over in my head. I raised him in a good christian home with good values. Nonetheless, he died.

The anger I felt almost ate me alive and it took all of family and friends to help me find my way out of the black hole of grief. Yes I had the help of a grief counselor, family and friends, I was one of the lucky ones.

My heart goes out to all of you. As a counselor it can't be easy to listen to your patients describe their tortured pain and it certainly isn't easy sharing it, but this is why we need each other.

For those of us who don't know where we go from here, what happens now, to those of us that can help guide us through the stages of grief. Some of us have the gift of helping people get to know ourselves again without our loved one.

How do we put one step in front of the other? We are so lost, angry and hurt. All of you have amazing talents, trust me, so reach out to those closest to you. It will make a difference in this path of pain and discovery. You will not be in the black pit forever. Reach out, take a chance. We need each other.

Ana. In loving memory of my son Edward. I wish all of you peace. It's not easy to come by. We have to work at it.

By anon69469 — On Mar 08, 2010

There is a proven method for recovery from grief. I know this because i did it. For twenty eight years I tried everything I could to not feel pain when I thought of my mother who died when i was eighteen years old and nothing worked.

Then i found a system that had me read and write a series of things that resulted in an experience which caused me to not be in pain anymore when i thought of my mother.

I immediately went and learned how to do it with other people and I have been doing the work with others for over thirteen years. You can't sit by the flat tire and wait for air to get back in, you need to do curtains and then you can go along your way. If you want to know more, contact the grief recovery center of new jersey.

By anon61355 — On Jan 19, 2010

Goodness. To the grief counselor above and the commenter who responded to no. 2, why such judgment? Someone wrote to share their story and experiences of incredible loss and you react with sarcasm on the one side and assumptions and judgments on the other.

Perhaps no. 2 was critical or skeptical about the field, but that's no need to react so cruelly. I can imagine many reasons for his post, especially given that he -- like so many -- might not have had access to support. He had to carry the deaths of his mother and wife and grandmother and brother by himself, and it can't have been easy.

The commenter who lost a child I can understand, but the person who responded as a grief counselor I'd have expected more from than judgment and defensiveness.

Anyway. No. 2? I'm so sorry. That must have been terrible, and I wish I could have heard more from you.

By anon42520 — On Aug 21, 2009

I'm sorry to hear that you believe that grief counseling is a joke. If you had some, you must have had a bad experience with it. If you didn't have any, then you obviously need some or you have no idea what it is about. It sounds as though you are very angry at the rest of the world for weak feelings, and you feel the need to appear stronger than others. (That was free -- and as a counselor, I don't intend to make a buck off anyone - I'll be working in the schools.)

By anon40548 — On Aug 09, 2009

Wow, and good for you that you didn't need anybody holding your hand. Try losing a child sometime

By anon40009 — On Aug 05, 2009

Grief counseling is a joke. People get hurt. People die every day. Some of them die tragically. Many die when it is least expected. I sat with my wife while she died. I watched my mother die. I saw my grandmother dead when I was nine. My brother died at 43. I learned much from these sad experiences, and I didn't need anyone to hold my hand. All I can see in so-called grief counseling is someone making a buck off someone else's bad feelings.

By anon11846 — On Apr 24, 2008

How does one get over the feeling of loneliness, and wanting to die to be with their loved one after their death? Is this normal? What if they actually try to commit suicide?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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