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What is Grief Counseling? - Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Grief counseling is not only for people who have lost a loved one to death. Grief counseling can help individuals with many forms of change and loss. Learn the definition of grief counseling and seven grief counseling techniques in this lesson.

Definition of Grief Counseling

Emily's husband asks for a divorce after 15 years of marriage, and there is no hope for reconciliation. After days of crying in her office's bathroom, Emily's supervisor asks what is wrong. Emily admits to her supervisor that she is distraught about losing her husband and some of her rights to see her beloved children.

Emily's supervisor suggests that Emily see a therapist for grief counseling. Grief counseling is psychotherapy intended to help people cope with loss of any form; this can include loss of a loved one to death or divorce, loss of a job, health status or home, etc. Grief counseling is not to be confused with bereavement counseling, which is psychotherapy intended to specifically help people cope with loss of a loved one to death. Hence, grief counseling encompasses a larger umbrella of counseling issues related to loss.

Techniques in Grief Counseling

We will use Emily's loss--her impending divorce-- throughout this section. For some techniques, we will reflect on how that particular method can also be applied in bereavement-related grief therapy.

Talking About the Loss

When speaking with the therapist, Emily is allowed to talk in detail about the marital problems that led up to the divorce. Until this point, Emily has suppressed her feelings regarding her troubled marriage, but she is now about to release her worries, frustrations, and sadness, which is very cathartic.

For a bereaved person, talking about the death in a safe and supportive space with the freedom to cry can be immensely healing.

Being Direct

Therapists are encouraged to use the name of the person who died and to also use words like 'death' and 'dead' when speaking about the deceased loved one. It is helpful to the bereaved for therapists to be direct instead of using euphemisms.

Discriminating between Loss and Life

When grieving the imminent divorce, loss of her husband, and loss of time with her kids, Emily is zeroed-in on loss. Emily's therapist helps shift focus from the loss to the life of her marriage, including her kids and lasting family memories. This helps Emily realize that an end to her marriage (loss) does not mean that the years of her marriage (life) were worthless.

This technique can be particularly impactful for bereaved individuals. Celebrating the life lived by the loved one as opposed to remembering the relative in the state that he or she was in when they died is helpful in the grieving process.

Coping with Guilt

The therapist works with Emily on her feelings of guilt. She evaluates if Emily's guilt is rational or irrational. Emily's guilt is rational because it comes from mistakes that she made in her marriage. Emily explains that she stopped loving her husband many years ago, and that was the reason he strayed. Emily knows that her lack of love and nurturing was the reason for the divorce. For rational guilt, therapists must work with clients on forgiving themselves, learning from mistakes, and allowing themselves to move forward.

Irrational guilt stems from unrealistic expectations. A bereaved mother may say, 'If only I was right under the tree, I could have been there to catch Elizabeth when she fell.' A therapist would help this mother realize her guilt was senseless, irrational, and unhealthy.

Taking Care of Unfinished Business

Although Emily still has a lot to say to her husband, he refuses to listen. Emily's therapist utilizes the empty chair technique and asks Emily to pretend the chair is her husband. Emily is now able to express her feelings and thoughts as though she is speaking to her husband.

This technique can prove very helpful with bereaved individuals who feel like they still have things that they wanted to say to their loved one before they died, and perhaps were too scared or not able to do so before the death.

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