How Therapists Can Help With Grief

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Grief is an inevitable part of life. Each of us has lost friends, loved ones, pets, or significant others. Tragedies, illnesses and accidents are often unavoidable. What matters is how we choose to respond to that grief, and how we process it so we can let it go and eventually move on with our lives.

Despite increased acceptance in popular culture, there is still often a stigma to therapy that might discourage some people from seeking it out, even when it comes to getting help with something as difficult and life-altering as grief. But despite that stigma, therapy can be a powerful tool for healing and processing even the worst of misfortunes.

The Stages of Grief

Although the “seven stages of grief” are often talked about in popular media, everyone may not be familiar with exactly what they mean. Although these steps are common for people suffering from grief, they don’t always take place in this precise order; everyone processes grief differently and at different rates. There is no one “correct” way to experience grief.

The seven stages of grief are as follows:

Shock

The first reaction to a loss is most often a feeling of shock and disbelief. This can be particularly true for the death of someone important, which can leave a person feeling numb and disconnected. This is a kind of emotional protection, and may not occur right away — it may even happen during events like funeral preparations.

Denial

The shock stage of grief often brings up feelings of doubt, which can lead straight to denial of the reality of loss. While denial can be a refusal to accept the loss itself, it can also take the form of denying its impact; a person might claim to be “fine.” As with shock, this is a kind of self-protection.

Guilt & Pain

After the loss of a loved one, a person might feel not only deep emotional pain, but remorse over not having spent more time with the loved one, not taking more steps to help them, or grieve over what might have been. This is one of the most difficult phases and can be very challenging to get through.

Bargaining

Bargaining is an attempt by the mind to get emotional release from pain; it’s a process of trying to make sense of the loss or even appealing to higher powers to undo something like a terminal illness.

Anger

Grief places incredible strain on individuals and relationships, and the feelings of helplessness caused by grief can lead to lashing out at others. This can be one of the most destructive stages.

Depression

Depression can be an all-consuming stage that entails feelings of despair, emptiness, and loneliness. Although it may not seem like it, depression is a period of recovery and reflection and a necessary step on the road to recovery.

Acceptance

As time goes on (and with some help and support) the person grieving may slowly begin to adjust to life without their loved one. This means slowly restructuring their life, seeking out old relationships and friendships, or beginning a new project or hobby. While acceptance is not happiness, it does mean the person’s life is resuming and the grief — although still present — has been processed and dealt with.

Signs You May Need a Therapist

While everyone is affected by grief, there are some specific signs that may indicate you might need (or benefit from) a therapist:

  • Addictive behaviors such as problem drinking or gambling
  • Avoiding people or places that remind you of the loved one
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings that life is meaningless
  • Going to familiar places hoping to see your loved one
  • Intensified longing for your loved one
  • Irritability and anger
  • Loss of appetite
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Trouble completing daily tasks
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Unrelenting depression

How Therapists Can Help

Just as with experiencing grief, recovering from grief is also a deeply personal and unique process for each person. A therapist can and will tailor the therapy to the patient’s specific needs to help them work through their grief in the best manner possible.

For example, while some therapists may sit down and talk with their patients about their feelings, others may suggest more active forms of recovery, such as art therapy, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more. Many therapists often teach self-regulation skills to help ensure the patient can continue to recover after they’re done with therapy.

A therapist may help a person maintain their connection to their lost loved one by reflecting on positive memories, without becoming overly attached.

Also, in a therapy session, a person can share their feelings without stigma or judgment, the way they might not be able to in the world at large. This can be very helpful to working through guilt and regrets.

Grief is not an easy process to work through. It can be isolating and all-consuming — which is all the more reason a good therapist can help in processing it.

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