Here's what to expect during grief counseling sessions.

By Madeleine Burry
June 16, 2021
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Grief can easily overcome someone. The experience is intense, often long-lasting and pervasive, taking over dreams and waking moments. For anyone feeling wrecked or overwhelmed in the wake of a loss, grief counseling can help navigate this challenging process.

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There are a number of grief counseling options available, and one might be more appropriate for you depending on your personality and the emotions you feel around your loss. Here's more on how therapy for grief can help, along with the different options to choose from.

What is grief counseling?

"Grief counseling is designed to help people better understand a loss they've experienced, discuss the impact of that loss on their mental health, and find ways to cope in a healthy manner," Helen Pridgen, MSW, LMSW, vice president of programming at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), tells Health.

Typically, a person in grief counseling will focus on four things, according to Kaiser Permanente: finding out more about the grieving process, expressing feelings around the loss, building new relationships, and developing a sense of self post-loss.

Types of counseling

These are the main types of grief counseling that are available, and depending on the counselor, they can be done in person, online, or via telehealth:

Individual therapy

As the name indicates, this is one-on-one counseling. The goal: "Creating a therapeutic relationship that helps to develop strengths and skills so an individual can live beyond their loss," Pridgen says.

Group therapy

Here you'll meet a group of people who are all united as they go through the grieving process. These group meetings are led by a licensed therapist, Pridgen says.

In group therapy, you'll learn more about grief-by hearing about others' experiences with it-and also discover coping mechanisms, she says.

Group therapy sessions styles can vary. "It can be unsettling for some people to share their experience and emotions in a group setting," Pridgen says. You may find that in the beginning, you're most comfortable listening to others share their emotions and processing. "As time goes on you may become more comfortable sharing your perspective with others," she notes.

Family therapy

During family therapy, you'll meet with a professional-a licensed psychologist, therapist, or social worker-along with your family. "Family" might mean you and a partner, you and your siblings, you and a partner and your children, or any combination of family members who want to participate, Pridgen says.

"Family therapy is usually short-term, but frequency and the number of sessions are dependent upon your family's unique situation and the recommended treatment plan," Pridgen notes.

With this type of therapy, the aim is for your family to deepen their connections and cope together as you accept the loss and attempt to move past it, Pridgen says.

What form of grief therapy is right for you?

There's no right answer when it comes to which type of therapy to choose. "Every individual's experience is different, and someone may benefit from one type of counseling more than another," Pridgen says. You may find that one type of counseling suits your needs at first, and then another is more helpful as you move through the grieving process.

When looking for grief counseling, you'll probably want to find a therapist who has experience treating grief and loss. "It can be helpful to search for a counselor who is knowledgeable about a number of different methods and can help determine the type of counseling that is best suited for you," Pridgen recommends.

Think of counseling as a relationship, and seek out someone whose style is a good match for you. "What matters most is how well you get along with your counselor and that their approach and techniques align with your needs," Pridgen says.

When to seek help

Processing a loss can lead to many emotions, from sadness to anger, despair, and guilt, Pridgen says. Grief is a full-body experience, affecting both mental and physical health. It's not uncommon to experience changes in your sleep and appetite, fatigue, and anxiety, she says.

While everyone's experience with grief is unique, people will experience the five stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance-in their own way and at their own pace. At any point in the process, grief counseling might be a good option.

"If you feel you are struggling with your mental health following a profound loss, consider seeking help from a mental health professional to help you with your grief and self-care," Pridgen recommends. Some signs you may benefit from professional help, according to Pridgen, include:

  • A long-lasting, unrelenting bad mood or feelings of irritability, worthlessness, anger, guilt, or depression
  • Lack of interest in everyday pursuits
  • An inability to handle daily life
  • Increased use of alcohol or other substances
  • Changes to your physical health
  • Thoughts of suicide

How to get help

A quick online search may turn up many therapists in your area. How can you narrow the list and find someone who's the right fit for you? First, think through what you're seeking counseling.

"Once you've identified your needs, this will help you find the type of counseling and specialized counselor that's right for you," Pridgen says.

Then, ask around. Your doctor can often make a referral, and you can also ask friends and family either for a specific therapist recommendation or for a therapy method they found helpful, Pridgen suggests.

"If there is no one in your personal network who can provide recommendations, additional mental health professionals may be found in hospitals, clinics, community centers, and private practices," she says.

Helpful places to browse for providers include:

"For those who have lost a loved one to suicide, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) provides a listing of clinicians who have participated in our Suicide Bereavement Clinician Training Program," Pridgen notes. You can also find a list of suicide bereavement support groups for survivors through AFSP, she notes.

During your initial visit with a therapist, ask about their experience treating people with grief, about their fees (and if they can work on a sliding scale, if need be), if they accept insurance, and details on their professional background, advises the American Psychological Association. Posing these questions will help you get a sense of the counselor's background and credentials, which can lead to a better, more supportive experience for you.

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