A person in a tan shirt who is struggling with grief and loss gets a hug from a person in a white shirt who is supporting him and encouraging him to attend grief counseling.

Coping with Grief and Loss: A Guide to Grief Counseling

June 29, 2023

10 min.

Coping with grief and loss can be incredibly challenging, but it is not something you have to do alone. Learn more about grief counseling, grief support groups, and how to cope with grief attacks here.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions after losing a loved one—sadness, sorrow, anger, guilt, confusion, and longing are some, but not all, of the feelings someone might go through while coping with loss. People may also experience physical changes after losing a loved one, such as fatigue, appetite changes, or sleep disturbances. All of these emotions and physical sensations are part of the complex experience we call grief.

Coping with grief can be incredibly challenging, but it is not something you have to do alone. Grief counseling, also known as grief therapy, is a form of therapy specifically designed to support people who are experiencing grief and loss. It provides a safe and supportive environment where people can express their emotions, process their grief, and work through the challenges associated with loss. Keep reading to learn about what happens during grief counseling, how it can help, and signs that it might be right for you. 

What happens during grief counseling?

During a grief counseling session, people get therapeutic support from a grief counselor or grief therapist to help them deal with grief and heal from loss. Grief counseling is often part of individual therapy, but it can also be integrated into family therapy for people to process the death of a family member, or it can be a part of grief-specific group therapy (more on that later in this article). Here are some common grief counseling techniques that may be part of individual, family, or group grief counseling.

Emotional expression

During a grief counseling session, a grief counselor provides a safe and non-judgmental space for people to express their feelings about the loss. This usually involves talking about their feelings, sharing memories of the person they lost, or engaging in activities that promote emotional expressions, such as writing or art therapy.

Support and validation

The grief counselor offers empathy, active listening, and validation of the individual’s experiences and emotions. They provide a compassionate presence and help the person feel understood and supported throughout their grieving process.

Education and guidance

Grief counselors may provide education about the normal grieving process, helping individuals understand the various stages and emotional reactions they may experience. They may also offer guidance on coping strategies, self-care practices, and healthy ways to navigate grief.

Coping skills development

Grief counseling often involves teaching people practical coping skills to manage their grief-related challenges. These may include relaxation techniques, stress management strategies, mindfulness exercises, or breathing exercises that can help people regulate their emotions and find moments of calm while dealing with grief.

Exploring meaning and finding hope

Grief counselors may help people explore the meaning of their loss and support them in finding hope and purpose in their lives after the loss. They may help individuals identify and integrate new roles or identities as they adapt to life without their loved one.

Resolving unfinished business

Grief counseling can provide an opportunity to address any unresolved issues or conflicts related to the loss. This may involve exploring feelings of guilt, forgiveness, or unresolved emotions that may be hindering the healing process.

Memorialization and rituals

Grief counselors may encourage people to engage in rituals or create meaningful ways to honor and remember their loved ones. This can be done through memorial services, creating memory books, or participating in activities that commemorate the life of the person who has passed away.

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How does grief counseling help?

If grief is left unprocessed, it can significantly impact a person’s well-being. Failing to process grief can harm someone’s mental health, contributing to the development or worsening of conditions like depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and substance abuse. The toll of unprocessed grief can also manifest in negative physical health symptoms, like disrupted sleep patterns and a weakened immune system. Unprocessed grief can also lead to complicated grief, or prolonged grief, a condition characterized by persistent and intense mourning, difficulty accepting the loss, and impaired functioning in daily life. 

By participating in grief counseling, though, people can process their grief and gain valuable tools and support to navigate grief’s complex emotions and challenges. As a result, many people find themselves better equipped to heal from their grief and adapt to life after their loss with grief counseling. 

Healing from grief is not linear. Some people find that grief gradually lessens over time, while others may experience waves of grief and sadness intermittently, even years after the loss. It is never too late to seek grief counseling and support.

A person in a red sweater dealing with grief and loss attends a grief group session on her laptop.

What does a grief support group involve?

A grief support group provides a space for people who have experienced a significant loss to come together and receive support from one another. In these groups, which a grief counselor facilitates, participants can process grief and get support from others coping with grief. Here are some common techniques used during grief support groups: 

Sharing circles

Participants have the opportunity to share their personal experiences, stories, and emotions related to their grief. This can help create a sense of connection and validation among group members.

Guided discussions

Facilitators may lead guided discussions on specific topics related to grief, such as managing grief triggers, navigating anniversaries, or finding meaning after loss. These discussions encourage reflection and shared insights among group members.

Group exercises

Group exercises, such as role-playing scenarios, may be incorporated into grief group counseling to enhance group dynamics, promote bonding, and foster a sense of trust among participants.

Psychoeducation

Grief support groups often include educational components where participants learn about the grieving process, common reactions to loss, and strategies for coping with grief. This information helps individuals gain a deeper understanding of their own experiences and normalize their feelings.

Grief support groups are a form of grief counseling that may appeal to some people more than individual grief counseling. The connections formed within the grief support group foster a sense of community, understanding, and healing as individuals journey through their grief together. This sense of mutual support may appeal to some people and make them feel like they are not alone in their grief.

Is grief counseling right for you?

There are many factors to consider when deciding if grief counseling is right for you, and the decision to seek grief counseling — and which kind of grief counseling to seek — is ultimately personal. While every individual’s grief journey is unique, certain signs may indicate the need for grief counseling. Here are 13 signs you should seek grief counseling: 

  1. Prolonged grief: If your grief feels overwhelming and persists for an extended period, hindering your ability to function or find enjoyment in life, you might want to seek grief counseling.
  2. Isolation and withdrawal: If you find yourself withdrawing from social activities, isolating yourself, or feeling disconnected from others due to your grief, counseling may be right for you.
  3. Difficulty in daily functioning: Grief counseling might be beneficial if your grief makes it challenging to carry out routine tasks, such as going to work or taking care of personal responsibilities.
  4. Persistent intrusive thoughts: If you are constantly preoccupied with thoughts of your lost loved one or experience intrusive memories that interfere with your daily life you might want to seek grief counseling. 
  5. Trouble accepting the loss: You might benefit from grief counseling if you find it difficult to accept the reality of the loss or struggle to come to terms with it emotionally.
  6. Avoidance of reminders: If you actively avoid people, places, or activities that remind you of the deceased, preventing you from engaging fully in life, grief counseling might be helpful for you.
  7. Intense guilt or self-blame: If you experience overwhelming guilt or constantly blame yourself for the loss, even if it was beyond your control, you might want to seek grief counseling. 
  8. Severe changes in appetite or sleep patterns: Grief counseling could benefit you if you experience significant disruptions in your eating or sleeping habits, such as loss of appetite or insomnia, after grief. 
  9. Physical symptoms: Similarly, grief counseling might be helpful if your grief manifests in symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or other unexplained health issues.
  10. Substance abuse: If you turn to alcohol, drugs, or other substances to cope with your grief or numb your emotions, grief counseling might benefit you. 
  11. Relationship difficulties: You might find grief counseling helpful if your grief is straining your relationships with family, friends, or significant others, causing conflict or distance.
  12. Unresolved conflicts or unfinished business: If unresolved issues, conflicts, or unexpressed emotions related to the loss impact your ability to find closure and move forward, you might want to process those feelings in grief counseling.
  13. Feeling stuck in your grief: If you feel trapped in your grief, unable to make progress or find a sense of meaning and purpose in your life after the loss you might want to seek grief counseling.

Understanding and coping with grief attacks

Many people seek grief counseling if they are coping with grief attacks—sudden and intense surges of grief that can be overwhelming. Grief attacks, also known as a grief wave or a grief trigger, can be triggered by various factors, such as anniversaries, holidays, familiar places, specific memories, or even unexpected reminders of a lost loved one. These attacks can occur even after a significant amount of time has passed since the loss and may be unpredictable in their frequency and intensity. 

Here are some common ways to cope with grief attacks, all of which can be further explored in grief counseling: 

  • Acknowledge and validate the emotions that arise during a grief attack, allowing yourself to feel without judgment.
  • Use grounding techniques, such as deep breathing and mindfulness, to anchor you in the present and reduce the intensity of the emotions during a grief attack.
  • Engage in self-care activities, such as getting enough rest, maintaining a routine, and nourishing your body after a grief attack.
  • Be patient with yourself and practice self-compassion. Healing from grief takes time, and each person’s journey is unique. 

How do grief and trauma relate to each other?

Grief and trauma are terms used to describe strong emotions that arise in response to the loss of a loved one (in the case of grief) or a distressing event (in the case of trauma). Grief and trauma can intersect and influence one another in various ways, but not all grief involves trauma, and not all trauma involves grief. Here are some examples of how grief and trauma may intersect: 

Traumatic loss

Trauma can catalyze grief when someone experiences the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one, like death resulting from a violent accident. In such cases, the grieving process may be complicated by the traumatic nature of the event, which can intensify emotional reactions and make it more challenging to process the loss.

Complicated grief

Trauma can contribute to complicated grief, also known as prolonged or unresolved grief. When a person has experienced a traumatic event alongside the loss, it can complicate the grieving process, leading to persistent and intense grief symptoms that significantly interfere with daily functioning and well-being. Consider a person who has experienced a traumatic event, such as surviving a natural disaster, and subsequently loses a family member. The trauma of the disaster can complicate the grieving process, leading to prolonged or complicated grief symptoms.

Re-traumatization

Grief can sometimes trigger or reawaken traumatic memories. The experience of grief may evoke feelings of vulnerability, fear, or helplessness associated with previous traumatic experiences, amplifying the emotional impact and complicating the grieving process. For instance, if somebody was subject to childhood abuse, the grief they feel from a loss may trigger feelings that awaken their past trauma, leading to a complex interplay between the two.

Overlapping symptoms

Trauma and grief can share similar symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts, emotional distress, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating. These overlapping symptoms can make it challenging to distinguish between the effects of trauma and grief, requiring a nuanced understanding to provide appropriate support.

Trauma-informed approach to grief support

Recognizing the potential intersection between trauma and grief, a trauma-informed approach to grief support acknowledges and addresses the impact of trauma on the grieving process. This approach—which a grief counselor can use in individual, family, or group therapy—ensures that people receive sensitive and supportive care that acknowledges their unique experiences and helps navigate the grief and trauma aspects of their healing journey.

Grief counseling at Charlie Health

If you’re struggling to cope with grief, you may want to seek help. Charlie Health’s compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan. 

Our personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers individual, group, and family therapy where teens, young adults, and families can receive support for various challenges, including grief. Charlie Health also provides a suicide survivors support group designed for the loved ones of folks who have completed suicide. Get started today.

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