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The number of reasons for a person to seek therapy for grief are as varied as the nature of grief itself, a state of sorrow that morphs into something different for each and every person – and something which everyone must encounter at some point in their lives.
And moving through the grieving process after the death of a loved one is not easy, requiring several life transitions before individuals start enjoying activities and other people again. Adjusting to life without a spouse, child, or close relative or friend takes time, support, and patience.
But for some, healing and adjusting to life again does not occur. This means that grief reactions become unbearable, lasting for long periods of time – even years – and can turn into a debilitating condition or conditions.
When grief becomes long-term and the pain associated with loss worsens, it’s referred to as complicated grief, a condition that must be treated. Grief therapy is the process of receiving treatment by a qualified mental health therapist trained in grief and bereavement issues.
Normal vs. complicated grief
In many cases, even those going through the normal grieving process seek out the help of a professional through grief counseling. The process of talking through the fears, regrets, anger, and guilt with a counselor trained in how to listen without having “quick fixes” brings a great amount of comfort to many individuals.
Grief therapy, on the other hand, is a more long-term, intensive treatment required in cases where grief begins to become problematic – or complicated. Researchers are still trying to discover the underlying reasons and causes of complicated grief. They are also investigating the course of “normal” grief, studying large groups of people in bereavement to evaluate how those who recover within a reasonable time period from a death differ from those who don’t.
Because grief is a highly personal and individual process, and everyone grieves differently, the line between normal and complicated isn’t yet completely clear. However, researchers and experts on this topic have come up with some guidelines to identify complicated grief symptoms.
Symptoms of complicated grief
If several months have passed after an individual has suffered a loss, and the emotional pain is still so great that the individual can’t perform the activities of daily life, such as working productively, engaging in social situations, sleeping well, or even running errands and attending important events, then complicated grief should be investigated by a therapist.
Some other symptoms that might signal complicated grief listed on the MayoClinic.com website are the following:
- Obsessively focusing on the deceased
- Ongoing bitterness
- Extreme irritability
- A pervasive detachment or numbness
- Hopelessness and feeling a pervasive meaningless to life
- Suicidal thoughts or an individual wishing that he or she died with the loved one
Grief therapy provides a safe and understanding environment for an individual to work through any cognitive or behavioral problems associated with complicated grief. Many interventions will be the same as those for other mental health disorders. For example, individuals suffering with generalized anxiety disorder (see Generalized Anxiety Disorder) will often receive a range of cognitive-behavioral therapies designed to re-structure irrational beliefs and thoughts.
For those struggling with anxiety, most thoughts that run nonstop through their minds cause stress and mental distress, and those who have these thoughts can’t stop them without the help of a therapist.
In the same way, individuals struggling with problematic grief often have thoughts about the deceased or the death of the deceased that are irrational, or not based on accurate perceptions.
The goal of the therapist is to target these thoughts and teach individuals how to think differently about loss. Interventions used for grief therapy are often the same as those used for other disorders. However, the underlying mechanism causing the distress – in this case grief – is specifically addressed.
Also in cases of complicated grief, behaviors become dysfunctional, such as turning to alcohol or drugs to treat the emotional pain, or simply refusing to socialize or engage in enjoyable pastimes or activities.
Grief therapy addresses behavioral issues through cognitive behavioral interventions as well. These interventions often involve getting individuals to acknowledge their unhealthy coping patterns, and work toward healthier behaviors.
Mind-body research has demonstrated how exercise improves mood and overall coping. It also has shown how using distractions, such as hobbies, movies, and other activities, redirect behaviors, and provide healthy outlets for excessive grief.
Working on forgiveness issues is another important tool for healing through grief therapy. In many cases individuals blame themselves for a death, or for a contentious relationship with a deceased individual. Grief therapy teaches individuals how to forgive themselves – and others.
Death is a fact of life. Yet it’s a topic avoided more than any other. Talking about death at a party or social gathering, or bringing up the topic at a family dinner, is socially inappropriate for most people - if not extremely uncomfortable.
Yet the fact that most of us avoid this topic at all costs is what makes it so hard when we lose someone close, whatever the age or circumstances. By not talking about death, it makes it hard to process when it actually takes place.
Grief therapy lets individuals talk and process death in a safe, compassionate environment. Those who work in this field know that they can’t “fix” or “stop” the grieving process. In fact, to do so would cause severe mental distress.
And those who work in grief therapy understand the many complications that arise when an individual suffers from grief for an excessively long period of time.
If you desire to help others struggling with grief and bereavement issues, consider becoming a mental health counselor or working in the field of Mental Health. Contact schools offering degrees in mental health counseling or psychology for more information.
Grief therapy dogs
Funeral homes are often solemn, formal environments. Many people have a hard time walking into these buildings, which immediately bring on overwhelming feelings of loss, tragedy, and loneliness.
But more funeral homes now employ “man’s and woman’s best friend” to provide a type of grief therapy. They’re called grief therapy dogs, and they offer empathy and comfort to those who must confront the death of a loved one in these rarefied environments.
Mourners take the time to pet these sympathetic friends, often initiating smiles and often lessening the heaviness of the situation.
The dogs are sent through a certification program that trains them to pick up on signals of sadness and bereavement. While this seems incredible to many, those who own grief therapy dogs feel that these animals have a special sense for identifying and giving extra attention to those who are suffering the most.
Science may never be able to prove that dogs have a unique “suffering” sense. But the use of grief therapy dogs is starting to catch on across the country. Just as dog owners around the world swear by the faithfulness of their pets, so do those who have found a loving, nonjudgmental friend in an otherwise unbearable environment.