Grieving the loss of a loved one can be a challenging experience. While it's natural to grieve following a significant loss, there are plenty of cases where healing from grief is too difficult for someone to do alone.
Thankfully, working with a therapist who specializes in grief can give you a safe space to talk about difficult emotions and start to heal from a loss. Below, we’ll take a look at what the grieving process normally includes and seven techniques of grief therapy that can help you maintain your mental health while navigating this process.
Understanding the grieving process
Understanding grief and the grieving process is an important part of healing from a loss; when you understand the feelings you’re experiencing and realize they’re normal, painful emotions become a little easier to cope with.
In fact, helping people understand the grieving process is often one of the primary goals of a therapist. With that in mind, here is what you should know about the stages, common experiences, and types of grief:
Stages of grief
Different people experience grief differently. However, it's been found that many people experience grief in five stages:
- Denial: Denial is a common first reaction to a loss and is a coping mechanism for reducing the shock of the situation. Immediately following the loss of a loved one, it may take a little while to accept the situation as reality.
- Anger: Some people feel angry following a major loss. This anger often isn't directed at any one person or thing, but it’s common for bereaved people to become angry with themselves, other family members, or even angry at their lost loved one for leaving them behind.
- Bargaining: It’s common for people to attempt to negotiate or make deals to regain what they’ve lost or to find a way to cope with their emotions.
- Depression: Once you're over the initial shock and have accepted the reality of your loss, feelings of sadness or despair can be intense and may last for several weeks or months.
- Acceptance: Acceptance doesn't mean that you are okay with your loss or that you've healed from it completely. It simply means that you've acknowledged and learned to live with the loss.
These five stages of grief were first popularized by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. While not everyone experiences these exact stages in this exact order, breaking the grieving process down into these five common stages helps many people understand their own grieving process.
Common reactions and experiences during grief
In addition to the common stages above, other common reactions to a loss can include physical symptoms such as indigestion and trouble sleeping, and cognitive symptoms like confusion, difficulty concentrating, becoming obsessed with loss and death, mood swings, and searching for purpose or understanding.
It's important to note that while these experiences can be challenging, they are all normal and understandable. Grief may certainly take a toll on your mental health, but painful emotions or difficult experiences following a loss don’t mean something is wrong with you. It simply means you’re coping with something especially challenging in the best way you know how.
Types of grief
There are several different forms of grief that a person might experience. Some types of grief are severe enough to be classified as grief disorders, while others are more common and less intense.
Here are the most common types of grief that a person may experience following a significant loss:
- Delayed grief: Delayed grief occurs when a person suppresses feelings of grief following a loss and doesn't feel their full impact until a later time.
- Normal grief: Normal grief is the typical and expected response to a significant loss and usually follows the five stages of grief we outlined earlier.
- Cumulative grief: Cumulative grief occurs when a person experiences multiple losses in a relatively short period of time, with each new loss compounding feelings of grief and making the grieving process increasingly more intense.
- Prolonged grief: Also known as "complicated grief," prolonged grief is defined as persistent feelings of intense grief that don't get better with time. Prolonged grief tends to significantly impair a person's ability to function and adapt to life after a loss and is classified as a grief disorder.
- Anticipatory grief: Anticipatory grief occurs before a loved one actually passes. People who know their loved one will pass away soon commonly experience anticipatory grief.
- Chronic grief: Chronic grief is defined as feelings of grief that persist for years (or even a lifetime) following a loss. Chronic grief is commonly the result of an especially deep attachment to a lost loved one or a lack of social support from friends and family.
- Distorted grief: Also known as abnormal grief, distorted grief is a term that covers a range of abnormal grief responses. Continuing to deny the reality of your loss, persistent guilt or self-blame, and self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse are a few examples of distorted grief.
6 powerful grief therapy techniques proven to heal
Everyone has to work through grief in their own way and on their own time. When grief becomes too much for you to cope with on your own, however, grief therapy may be an effective intervention.
Therapists who understand or specialize in grief use several different forms of therapy to help people through the grief process. Here are seven of the most powerful grief therapy techniques that have been proven to help and heal:
1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most popular forms of therapy. This therapeutic technique focuses on helping people identify and reframe negative thoughts and thought patterns that contribute to unwanted feelings and behaviors.
CBT is commonly used to treat a range of mental health conditions, but it can be used to help grievers as well. In some cases, your thoughts and beliefs regarding the loss of a loved one may be what prevents you from healing. By reframing negative thought patterns, CBT can help grieving people adopt a mindset better suited for acceptance and healing.
2. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
ACT is a therapeutic technique that takes a dual-pronged approach to helping people heal from grief. The first part of this approach is encouraging people to accept their loss and embrace their feelings rather than avoiding them. This allows people who are grieving to process the emotions they are feeling in healthier ways instead of keeping those emotions suppressed.
The second part of ACT is committing to actions that align with your goals and values. A therapist using ACT will encourage their clients to commit to actions and lifestyle changes that promote personal growth and healing.
3. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach that helps individuals process and heal from traumatic experiences. It involves the use of bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements, taps, or sounds, to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain while focusing on distressing memories or emotions. This process aims to reprocess traumatic memories and reduce their emotional impact, leading to resolution and relief.
EMDR is particularly helpful in traumatic grief therapy due to its unique features. Traumatic grief often involves a complex interplay of traumatic experiences and intense grief reactions, which can make the healing process challenging.
For example, someone involved in a car crash that they survived but a loved one did not, may be a candidate for traumatic grief therapy. EMDR's ability to target and process both the traumatic memories and the associated grief enables individuals to work through their grief in a comprehensive way.
4. Complicated grief therapy (CGT)
CGT is a targeted type of grief therapy designed to treat prolonged or complicated grief. It’s ideal for people whose intense and debilitating feelings of grief aren’t getting better with time.
CGT comprises of seven fundamental procedures, which include:
- Providing education about complicated grief (CG) and the therapeutic approach (CGT)
- Engaging in self-assessment and self-regulation
- Focusing on setting aspirational goals
- Rebuilding interpersonal connections
- Revisiting and exploring the narrative surrounding the loss
- Revisiting the transformed world following the loss
- Addressing memories and nurturing continuing bonds
CGT commonly takes a gradual approach to treating complicated grief, encouraging people to confront and process their painful emotions slowly. Therapists practicing CGT will also work to provide support, validation, and education throughout the healing process.
5. Mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness based cognitive therapy is a therapeutic practice that involves helping cultivate a sense of present-moment awareness. It focuses heavily on relaxation, self-awareness, and being mindful of the present moment.
A therapist using mindfulness based cognitive therapy practices will commonly help their client engage in meditation, breathing exercises, and body scans. These mindfulness exercises are designed to promote a sense of relaxation and present-moment awareness that can help cope with feelings of grief.
6. Play therapy
It’s estimated that 6 million children in the U.S. will experience the loss of a parent before they turn 18. Treating children coping with intense grief often requires a different approach than treating adults, which is where play therapy comes into the picture.
Play therapy involves having children engage in different types of play, storytelling, and creative activities under the guidance of a child therapist who specializes in grief. These activities are designed to provide children with a comfortable and natural medium for expressing their feelings.
Looking for a therapist who can help with grief? Try SonderMind today
Working with a therapist can be a powerful way to heal from the loss of a loved one. If you could benefit from grief therapy, finding the right provider for you is the next step.
At SonderMind, we use an insightful questionnaire to help match you with a therapist who suits your needs and personal preferences.
Get started with SonderMind today to match with a therapist and see why many people see results in as little as six weeks.