What Is Bereavement Therapy?

Man in grief counseling.

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What Is Bereavement Therapy?

Bereavement therapy, also known as grief counseling, refers to therapy offered to those who have suffered the loss of a loved one and are going through the grieving process.

The process of grieving can involve a host of different emotions including sadness, anger, guilt, and regret, and it can be helpful to have a professional there with you through the stages of this process. 

A bereavement therapist can help with things like adapting to life without your loved one, working through guilt about things you wish had gone differently, and sharing feelings that you otherwise might not have anyone with whom to share.

The process of grief can be a confusing time; the goal of bereavement therapy is to help you cope and make sense of it all.

This article discusses how bereavement therapy works and the benefits of this type of treatment. It also covers different types of bereavement counseling you might encounter and how to find a bereavement therapist.

Techniques

If you are considering bereavement counseling, you might be wondering what to expect. Below are some of the different aspects of bereavement counseling that you may work through with your therapist, to help you better understand the process.

Getting in Touch With Your Feelings

A bereavement therapist can help you to get in touch with your emotions and express them in a safe space. Having a therapist can be particularly helpful if you don’t have anyone to talk with or don’t feel comfortable expressing those feelings to friends or family.

A therapist can listen without offering advice and help you to feel as though your feelings are valid.

Accepting the Loss

If you are feeling disconnected or numb, bereavement therapy can help you to work towards accepting the reality of the loss of your loved one. This process can be particularly important if you tend to shut off your emotions or deal with the situation by not thinking about it at all.

Working Through Trauma

If you witnessed your loved one’s death or there was some other traumatic aspect of the loss, bereavement counseling can help you to process the trauma.

During therapy, you would describe what you witnessed, discuss how it made you feel, and learn how to move forward with the support of your therapist. It can be helpful to process trauma in the presence of a therapist who can offer empathy and support.

Working Through Guilt

Guilt is a common feeling after the death of a loved one. This guilt may be marked by self-blame and regret, which can make coping with the loss more complicated.

If you have feelings of guilt about things that you should have done or how things could have gone differently, then a bereavement therapist can help you to work through these feelings.

A therapist could help you to see that living your best life is more important than holding onto guilt about things that you can’t change.

Dealing With Daily Life

If your daily life is in upheaval because you lost someone who was there with you every day, then a bereavement therapist can help you to reorganize your life and find new ways to function to address these issues.

For example, if your lost your spouse and it was your spouse who managed the budget or did all of the cooking or cleaning, then you will need to find a new way to get those things done. A therapist can help you to make these plans.

Building a Support System

A bereavement therapist can help you to build a support system by connecting you to community resources or support groups that will offer you support.

Building a support system is particularly important if you don't know where to turn for help or aren’t sure what support services are available to you.

Making Funeral Arrangements

If your loss is fairly recent, your bereavement therapist might also be able to help you think through the process of making funeral arrangements. Having support during this process can help make sure that your loved one is remembered in a way that feels right to you at a time when you might not be able to think clearly or make decisions easily.

If a loss is imminent, you might also have the opportunity to begin the therapy process prior to the actual death.

Checking for Depression

Grief can play a role in triggering the onset of depression. A bereavement therapist will also ask you questions to determine whether you might be living with potentially treatable symptoms of a depressive disorder.

Depression may also sometimes be a symptom of complicated grief, a condition that occurs in about 10% of all bereaved people.

Journaling and Writing Exercises

Your bereavement therapist can give you tools that will last you long after you finish therapy, such as journaling about your emotions and daily struggles, writing about memories, and working through problems by writing.

Your therapist may also guide you through writing exercises such as writing a letter to your deceased loved one to tell them how you feel about losing them or what your life is like now that they are gone.

In one study looking at the effect of a writing treatment for traumatic bereavement, the results suggested that writing was an effective intervention for bereaved children and teens.

Book Recommendations

A bereavement therapist can also recommend books to read about the grieving process so that you can learn about what to expect, get validation, and confirm that your feelings are normal.

For example, you might receive a recommendation to read a book about moving past guilt if this is the specific issue that you are dealing with.

Art Therapy

Some bereavement therapists also practice art therapy. Art therapy for grief might include creating a memory book, doing a craft project, or making other art to remember your loved one.

A 2018 study found that the use of visual art treatment strategies was associated with positive changes in bereaved adults. Art therapy was linked to helping people feel a stronger bond to their deceased loved one and find meaning in the experience.

Art therapy is also a way to practice soothing yourself, which can be helpful if you are also experiencing anxiety after the loss of your loved one.

Unresolved Issues

Do you feel as though you have unresolved issues related to your loved one’s death? For example, perhaps you were in the middle of an argument at the point of their death.

Bereavement therapy can provide you with the chance to resolve these issues through exercises such as the empty chair technique and other role-playing scenarios.

Remembrance Rituals

A grief therapist could also help you to arrange "remembrance rituals" as a way of honoring your loved one. They may help you devise a specific activity (e.g., an art therapy project) or set aside a particular time of the month or year when you will spend time remembering.

Setting aside time to remember your loved one with intention is better than pushing aside memories when they pop up because you are afraid of becoming overwhelmed by emotions.

Recap

In short, bereavement therapy can help you cope with grief by helping you with accepting your feelings, caring for yourself, finding support, and remembering your loved one.

Types of Bereavement Therapy

Complicated grief therapy is a specific type of bereavement counseling aimed at those experiencing complicated grief.

This type of therapy is based on other techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), and attachment theory.

Some of the specific techniques used in complicated grief therapy include telling the story of the death, separating grief from trauma, organizing grief, dealing with guilt, and honoring your loved one.

Benefits of Bereavement Therapy

There are a number of benefits associated with bereavement therapy. Below are some reasons to consider this type of therapy if you are struggling with your grief:

  • Learn coping skills. Bereavement therapy can help you through one of the worst times of your life by learning new ways of coping and growing your mental strength in the face of adversity.
  • Express your emotions. Whether you are experiencing an immediate loss or one that is years old, bereavement counseling can help you to express your emotions and feel better even long after the original trauma.
  • Understand your grief. This type of therapy helps you to understand your grief and what to expect as you move through various stages of the grieving process (e.g., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).
  • Regain your sense of self. Bereavement therapy can help you to develop a new identity without your loved one, by shifting your focus to other areas of your life or other roles that you play (e.g., a widower might focus on getting together with friends if he used to spend every day with his spouse).
  • Deal with difficult emotions. If you are in the throes of grief, bereavement counseling can help you to work through the pain and emotions that you are experiencing in the moment.
  • Remember your loved one in a healthy way. This type of therapy can help you to maintain your connection to your loved one while still moving on with your life, which is an important step towards feeling good about the way that you remember that person.
  • Life management skills. Bereavement therapy can help you manage changes in your routine and adapt to your new life without your loved one. During this tumultuous time, having someone to help you through these changes can be important.

A 2017 study found that bereavement counseling was linked to long-term beneficial effects and reductions in symptoms of grief.

What Happens During Bereavement Therapy

During bereavement therapy, you can expect to be involved in some or any of the following therapeutic exercises. Your therapist might also guide you through others depending on your specific situation.

  • Describing your loved one’s death and your feelings and emotions about the event
  • Talking about any guilt that you have related to the death or events surrounding the death
  • Making sense of your situation and how to move forward with your life
  • Making a plan for your daily life if it has been greatly altered by the death of your loved one
  • Learning about tools and techniques that you can use to start to feel better in the moment
  • Speaking to your therapist in a private space where you can fully express yourself and not worry about being judged

Who Will Benefit Most From Bereavement Therapy?

You might be a particularly good candidate for bereavement counseling if any of the following are true for you:

  • You are struggling with processing the death of your loved one and your feelings have lasted longer than a year.
  • The death of your loved one has greatly altered your daily habits or how you live your life.
  • You do not have other support systems or anyone that you can talk to about the death.
  • You are interested in exploring your thoughts and emotions and learning strategies to cope better.
  • You are ready to move on with your life but also feel guilty about moving on.
  • You want to spend time remembering your loved one but find emotions overwhelming when you do.
  • You experienced trauma related to the loss of your loved one and have not adequately processed your feelings.

How to Find Bereavement Therapy

If you are in the middle of grieving, you might not be thinking clearly. It may be helpful to enlist someone close to you to help you look for bereavement therapists in your area or make an appointment with your family doctor to ask for a referral.

You may also wish to access a bereavement support group in place of or in addition to therapy if you would like to talk with other people who have been through the same things as you.

A Word From Verywell

Are you struggling to get over the death of a loved one? If so, you might want to consider bereavement therapy.

This form of therapy is ideal for anyone experiencing grief related to the loss of a loved one. While it isn’t necessary to enter therapy right away, the sooner you get help in facing the challenging emotions involved in grief, the better you will be in the long run.

It's also important to remember that wanting to "feel better" might bring up some feelings of guilt. However, this is all part of the grieving process and something that a therapist can help you with.

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