Bereavement Counselling

Is Bereavement Counselling Really Necessary?

Not always. Death, and losing loved ones, is a constant in life. People have been grieving for as long as there have been people. Most people can process the loss and come to terms with it without needing any additional help. People talk to friends & family, who are often involved in a similar process, and this connection helps to process.

Feeling overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, deeply sad, bewildered, unable to concentrate, or unable to deal with bad news are all normal reactions to bereavement. Jamie Anderson says “Grief is just love with nowhere to go”. Put simply, it’s meant to hurt.

Grief is just love with nowhere to go.
Jamie Anderson

What Does Healthy Grieving Look Like?

I’m not sure if there’s a straightforward answer to this. All journeys are different but there are many common issues. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross worked with the terminally ill and published “On Death and Dying” in 1969. She found five stages of processing were common: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Elizabeth also added that the stages might not neatly proceed in sequence and there can be a lot of movement between them. Of course this work was about people coming to terms with their own pending death, not the death of a loved one, but it does have some useful insights.

What is useful is that we might all have experiences from those stages. For example, denial is a protective mechanism to shield us from something that is too big to process. We can pretend someone is still there, or we can refuse to accept the news of a death at first. This can happen on many levels and we might accept something in our head but not in our heart.

Healthy grieving takes as long as it takes. You don’t arrive at a place where you’ve forgotten the one who died, you might never get to the point where you are no longer sad. But the sadness is containable and you have learned to live with it; you can enjoy happy memories more often without being triggered into upset.

Is time a great healer? Not time itself but processing – which takes different people a different amount of time. Stroebe and Schut (1999) researched bereavement, advising that you cannot avoid it and you do need to ‘do the work’. However, a mix of grieving activities and ‘moving on’ activities are healthy; it can be useful to have to organise a funeral and all the admin – being kept busy some of the time can be helpful.

Do I Need to Let Time Pass Before Seeking Help?

This is a tricky one because going through bereavement is a normal process and most people get better on their own, without the need for additional support. Paying a counsellor each week to sit with you while you work though feelings, getting worse before you get better might not be a good use of your money. For this reason, some counsellors won’t take on clients until at least six months have passed since the death. However, sometimes you need some company on that journey; if you aren’t able to talk to friends or family then you are missing a vital avenue to help you process your grief. Counselling can help you to process your feelings but probably can’t prevent you from feeling bad when it’s an entirely normal response in those early months.

I’ve worked with people less than a year since the death, about a decade on and much longer than that. Sometimes our world is shrunk after a death, particularly if a lot of time revolved around caring for the dying. The loss is so much a part of the client’s world that the work becomes about growth; the grief might not shrink but the person grows around it (Tonkin, 1996).

Why Would I Need a Counsellor?

My personal view from clinical experience is that sometimes the grieving process gets ‘snagged’ on something. If you’re at a point when you feel you should be getting better, then a counsellor can help to un-snag it.

Sometimes it’s about helping the bereaved person to find strength to bear the weight of processing – not all people have a childhood where they are allowed to experience and process disappointment and/or they might have avoided grief because it’s too painful. Avoidance comes in many forms: keeping busy all the time, using drugs or alcohol to cope, or ‘shutting it out’ by refusing to think about it.

Some people need to reminisce but doing so makes them upset and they don’t feel it’s OK to be upset around other people. Similarly, their friends and family can avoid mentioning the dead person for ‘fear of upsetting them’. This is such a shame as it can reinforce the view that your feelings aren’t appropriate or welcome. The benefit of a counsellor is that you don’t owe them any protection from your feelings – you are free to reminisce with all the happy and sad tears it brings. This is an important part of processing.

When ‘too much’ time has passed, people feel that they have had their opportunity to grieve and they no longer think they can talk to friends or family about how they are feeling. Self-criticism emerges and they think ‘I should be over this now’. This can mean that the work doesn’t get done, compounded by the negative effects of self-criticism on mental health.

Controversial, to some, but people don’t become saints just because they’ve died. I’ve helped clients to express anger at the deceased when it feels taboo to do so. For example someone may have lied about their health before they died in order to ‘protect’ family from being upset but it just denies them a chance to prepare and process. Sometimes the relationship is not a good one and there are mixed feelings over the death but this causes guilt so they can be denied. Sometimes bad people die.

The Role of Guilt

Guilt is a common blocker; there can be a sense of relief when death comes either because it was a horrible illness or the burden of caring for someone was really hard to bear and they were glad when it ended. It is possible to hold both points of view: “I’m glad they died as it was a release” as well as “I wish they hadn’t died”.

Another common experience is guilt for moving on, or for being happy. Some people feel it dishonours the dead and their memory unless they are sad all the time. Sometimes it’s worth asking what the dead would have wanted the people left behind to do.

Guilt can be valid sometimes. It’s not always rational and people may try to dismiss it as an unhelpful emotion but some clients have a need to process it. I have helped people to express and process complicated feelings when those around them may try to help by being dismissive.

Sometimes there is inadequate support from family for a child’s experience of bereavement. The focus could be on a bereaved parent instead, or people might underestimate a child’s need for processing. These feelings can be carried into adulthood with the understanding of a child. It’s often not before people say something out loud, and see it land on another adult, before they process it as an adult themselves.

Summary

While death is an inevitable part of life, people’s response to it can be overwhelming and complex. Bereavement counselling is not always needed but there are a number of times where it does help.

References

  • Anderson, J. (2014) As the Lights Wink Out. All My Loose Ends, 25th March 2014. [Online]. Available from: <https://web.archive.org/web/20150327161122/http://allmylooseends.com:80/2014/03/lights-wink>
  • Tonkin, L. (1996) Growing Around Grief – Another Way of Looking at Grief and Recovery. Bereavement Care, 15(1), p.10.
  • Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth (1969) On Death and Dying. New York: MacMillan.
  • Stroebe, M. and Schut, H (1999) The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: Rationale and Description. Death Studies, 23(3), pp. 197-224.
Scroll to Top