Grief Therapy: the role of the therapist
Therapy can often help bring about a more effective adaptation to loss and will be especially
relevant now given the high mortality from COVID-19 in the past 12 months.
Grief counselling involves helping people facilitate uncomplicated or normal grief. This
requires a healthy adaptation to the tasks of mourning within a reasonable time frame.
Historically, grieving has been facilitated through family/religious organisations/funeral
rituals/other social customs.
Back in the day it was often argued there was a risk the formal intervention of a mental
health worker may make grief seem ‘an issue’ but with skilled counselling this need not be
A major goal of grief therapy is to help the survivor adapt to the loss of a loved one, and
able to adjust to a new reality. There are four tasks of mourning which can be identified:
- increase the reality of the loss
- deal with both emotional behavioural and physical pain
- overcome various impediments to readjustment after the loss and
- find a way to maintain a bond with the deceased whilst at the same time reinvest in
Grief counselling can help us to examine coping styles. This is easily shown after a good
level of trust is developed between the client and therapist. In this case clients are more
likely to discuss their behaviour and feelings. Those who use addictive substances to help
their bereavement are at risk of not making an effective adjustment to the loss. Such
consumption can get in the way of the ‘grief work’ and can lead to depression.
Proactive ‘grief work’ tends to the most effective way to deal with problems. This includes
the use of humour, the ability to reframe or redefine a difficult situation, management of
emotions, and the ability to accept social support.
By contrast, avoidant emotional coping (or burying our emotions) tends to result in a quick
fix but does not help in the long run. The therapist can assist the client by highlighting their
coping styles and if necessary, to look for other coping avenues which may be more
The therapist also has a role in identifying issues and signpost on, as some of the bereaved
will continue to struggle and develop a type of complicated mourning such as
chronic/prolonged grief reaction. It is also important in grief counselling we recognise
cliches such as ‘you will be okay’ are not helpful and do not get us far. Far better to
acknowledge our own helplessness: ‘I don’t know what to say’ sounds more authentic.
Which is what a good grief therapist needs to be.