For many years, mental health practitioners labored under the assumption that grief was a relatively short-lived process that people navigated in an orderly and predictable fashion until they reached “closure” — the point at which the bereaved would move on and put the person they had been grieving in the past. Despite the continued prominence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “five stages” in the public lexicon, experts now know that grief does not move smoothly and predictably through a series of predetermined stages. In reality, it is a process that follows a different course for each individual.
Furthermore, the experiencing of grief isn’t exclusive to the loss of a loved one through death. As American Counseling Association member Kenneth Doka explains, grief is a reaction to the loss of anyone or anything an individual is attached to deeply. Although society expects people to grieve the death of a family member, people also mourn events such as the passing of a pet, a divorce or the loss of a job, Doka says.
Licensed mental health counselor Beverly Mustaine, a private practitioner and an associate professor of counseling at Argosy University in Sarasota, Florida, has taught graduate-level courses in loss and grief for 20 years. She notes that she has helped clients cope with grief connected to experiences as varied as moving, losing contact with a friend, retiring and aging.
“Counselors are going to be working with grief and loss really in some regard with every client they see,” asserts Elizabeth Horn, an assistant professor of counseling at Idaho State University’s Meridian Health Science Center.
Doka, Mustaine and Horn agree that counselors who do not work regularly with issues of loss may need to rethink their concepts of grief.
“There’s so much outdated information about how we conceptualize grief and loss,” Horn says. “We’ve gone beyond the idea of ‘stages.’ We really see grief as a unique process for each individual.”
Regardless of the nature of the loss, Horn says she approaches grief work with the same goal in mind: to help clients experience and express their grief in a way that is natural for them.
“People react to loss in all kinds of ways,” says Doka, who has written numerous books on grief and loss, including his latest, Grief Is a Journey: Finding Your Path Through Loss, published earlier this year. Clients grieving a loss may feel sadness, yearning, guilt, anger or loneliness, but some may also feel a certain sense of relief or emancipation, particularly if they had a problematic relationship with the deceased, he explains. Whatever clients are experiencing, it is important for counselors to provide a safe place and to validate their losses, Doka says.
“We [counselors] have to communicate that we’re safe — that other people may not want to hear about this [loss] anymore, but we do,” says Mustaine, a member of ACA.
She likes to use Rogerian methods when helping clients process their grief. “I’m reflecting feelings, repeating, setting up a ‘holding’ environment where it’s OK to say the unsayable or mention the unmentionable, like ‘I hated my father, I’m glad he’s dead,’” she says. In addition to talk therapy, Mustaine often uses nonverbal tools such as sand trays or music to help clients evoke and express their emotions.
Horn, whose research focuses on grief and loss, says it is important for counselors to recognize that people have different coping styles when it comes to processing losses. Some people process loss affectively, which means they tend to express their grief verbally; others are more likely to process the loss cognitively, which means they rely more on thinking than feelings to work through their grief and tend to give expression to their grief through physical activity. In general, men are more likely to use cognitive coping styles and women affective coping styles, Horn says, but she cautions that this is not always the case.
Horn also warns that counselors shouldn’t label either coping style as the “right” way or the “wrong” way to process loss. “Within our field, we frequently have an affective or an emotional bias,” she says. “We are trained to elicit emotion and focus on emotion, and that’s great for people who grieve that way. But sometimes if we have someone who grieves in a more cognitive way, we might say that they are in denial … but that’s how they’re dealing.” She also notes that most people aren’t exclusively affective or cognitive while experiencing grief; instead, they use a mix of both coping styles.
That is one of the reasons that Horn is a proponent of helping clients design rituals, whether they involve holding a memorial ceremony or simply lighting candles in a counselor’s office, that will be meaningful and beneficial to them in processing their grief. Rituals can offer opportunities for both cognitive and affective grieving, she explains. For example, someone who copes cognitively might take charge of making all the practical arrangements, whereas someone with a more affective style might arrange for speakers or even speak himself or herself at the ceremony, Horn says.
The importance of rituals
“The ritual aspect is really important,” Horn explains further, “because frequently we have funerals, and for some folks that’s great for providing an outlet for mourning a loved one. On the other hand, it often happens so soon after [a person’s] death that there’s not a chance to really make it meaningful.”
Rituals can provide a very personal and ongoing way for family and friends to remember the deceased in a meaningful way. Horn shares a ritual that she describes as her favorite.
The son of one of Horn’s friends had died from an overdose. Although his family and friends remembered him with fondness, they felt it was important to also honor his ornery personality, so they developed a ritual based on an actual incident. At one point, the son had been asked to get his younger siblings some food from McDonald’s, but he didn’t want to. The task left him so agitated that when he returned home, he threw a cheeseburger at the wall in a fit of pique. So every year, a group of his family members and friends pick a date to get together, buy cheeseburgers from McDonald’s and throw them against the wall.
Doka tells the story of a good friend who died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Before the ALS rendered him incapable of physical activity, Doka’s friend — who described himself as “an engineer by vocation but a bluegrass musician by avocation” — played with a band at various outdoors venues, which made the performances dependent on the weather. As a nod to this reality, the band always opened its sets with a song titled “Singing in the Sunshine.” When Doka’s friend was diagnosed with ALS, the band started opening instead with “Singing in the Rain” and telling the audience about their missing band mate. When he died, the band played the song at his memorial service.
Doka believes that when a child or teenager dies, it is important to get his or her friends and classmates involved in the memorial service. For instance, Doka, a Lutheran minister, presided over the funeral of a 13-year-old girl, and her family asked her friends and classmates to help design the service. The friends suggested having her school choir sing at her service. “It let the kids feel involved and was also very powerful for the family,” Doka says.
Children’s friends and classmates are the people who really know them best, says Judy Green, whose work as a private practitioner and school counselor in the Jacksonville, North Carolina, area has focused on grief and loss. She encourages children and adolescents to reach out to the families of friends or classmates who have died to share their memories. In her experience, Green says, families often find this helpful in mourning their child’s death. Both Green and Doka say it can also help the child’s friends and classmates better deal with the death.
Horn says it is important for counselors to talk to their clients about their cultural backgrounds and discuss any rituals that they might find helpful in grieving the loss of a loved one. Some rituals can even affect how clients verbalize their grief, she says. For instance, in certain Native American cultures, a person who has died is believed to be on the “spirit road,” which is an essential journey. Speaking a person’s name after death will take the deceased off the road, Horn notes.
Horn emphasizes that whatever a client’s background, grief is still very individual, so rituals should take whatever form is comfortable for the client. “We are all so very unique in the way that we interact with our culture, ethnicity and personal traditions,” she concludes.
Adjusting to the new normal
Rituals can also help grieving clients move on to what counselors call the “new normal,” a world in which the person, relationship or other object of loss is no longer with them, yet they continue to make a place in their lives for that connection. Counselors can assist clients in coming up with rituals that recognize the progression but also honor the relationship to the loss, Doka says.
As Doka explains, these might include a ritual of continuity, such as lighting a candle on the person’s birthday; a ritual of transition, such as a ceremony for a widow removing her wedding ring; a ritual of reconciliation, in which the client says, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you”; or a ritual of affirmation, in which the bereaved says, “Thank you.”
“Creating a memory box with mementos from the loved one or creating a figure out of molding clay can be helpful to capture the grief and shift the sadness,” says Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, a licensed professional counselor in Littleton, Colorado, whose practice specializes in grief and loss. “Sometimes clients write letters, poetry, songs, or draw pictures to their loved ones that they either save or we burn or shred together. Sometimes clients write letters to their future selves as an attempt of encouragement that the future will be different and they will be all right. I have also helped create a ritual, usually around the anniversary of the death, using candles, burning items, shredding old papers or burying artifacts like a time capsule.”
Sheehan-Zeidler encourages clients who desire a longer-lasting remembrance to volunteer or join a group that is connected to their loved one or to create an annual event in honor of the person.
Says Green, “When people realize that their relationship with the deceased did not end when the death occurred, but that the relationship will always be part of them, they will be well on their way to healing from the loss.” At the same time, Green urges counselors to let their clients know that grief isn’t linear. Months or even years after the loss originally happened, they might wake up and hear a song on the radio that reminds them of their loved one. And that experience might trigger a brief wave of grief, she says.
Green says many people do most of their active grieving within the first six to eight months of the loss. But she adds that grief cannot fully be processed until the client has lived at least a year without the loved one and gone through events such as birthdays, anniversaries and any holidays that were significant in their relationship.
Complicated grief occurs when people become so debilitated by grief that they are unable to return to their daily activities, even after an extended period of time. The symptoms are similar to those of “uncomplicated” grief, but more intense and debilitating, and longer lasting, Green says.
“There is no specific time frame for grief to end,” she adds. “Everyone is different, so our reactions to loss will be unique to every individual. As a general rule, however, people usually work through their grief and can get back to their life tasks within six months of the loss.”
A variety of factors can contribute to the presence of complicated grief, Green says. These include the death of a child, the perception that the death was avoidable, an unhealthy or dependent attachment to the deceased, death following a prolonged illness, a client’s prior history of loss and a lack of social support.
Clients who are experiencing mental health issues at the time of the loss — or have experienced them in the past — are also at greater risk of being confronted with complicated grief, Doka says.
“Each of these factors can result in interrupting [the ability] or prolonging the grieving person’s inability to cope with the death,” Green says.
“Complicated grief can be likened to a wound that will not heal,” she continues. “In addition to emotional problems, a person who is experiencing complicated grief becomes at risk for health-related issues such as lack of adequate sleep, severe depression, suicidal ideation or behavior, substance abuse, suppressed immune system and stress that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.”
As for treating complicated grief in clients? “I have found that group counseling is one of the most healing methods for people suffering from complicated grief,” Green says. “Being able to share with others who have suffered a similar loss lets people know that they are not alone. By sharing a similar loss, people come to realize that there is hope for them even though they might be experiencing deep despair. By sharing experiences with others who have suffered similar losses, people learn that in allowing themselves to experience the pain of their loss, eventually the pain lessens as they learn to adjust to life without the deceased and begin to invest in their future without the loved one present.”
“This does not mean that they lose the connection with their deceased loved one,” Green explains. “Rather, they learn that their emotional connection with the deceased will go on forever; they learn how to embrace that and move on.”
An important consideration is that these groups be made up of people who have experienced the same kinds of losses, Green emphasizes. For example, a group for those who have lost a child, a group for those struggling with the aftermath of a loved one’s completed suicide and a group for those who have lost someone to a sudden and unexpected death.
Green finds group counseling so helpful for these clients that she often recommends they stay or rejoin another group once they have processed, or are well on their way to processing, their grief. “Their experiences can help others and they continue to heal further [themselves],” she says. “In fact, I have had many people ask to rejoin a new group or take training to lead the groups because they have found how therapeutic this modality is.”
She acknowledges that these groups aren’t offered as widely as they need to be. “However, my suggestion is that counselors build a network wherever they are so they know where grieving people might attend such groups,” she says. “First, I [would] begin with hospitals. Many run groups for the families of cancer victims, cancer patients themselves and parents who have lost babies through miscarriage or stillbirth, for example. Another great resource is local funeral homes. Many have a social worker or trained person on the staff who runs such groups, [which are] usually open to anyone, not just those who have used the services of that particular funeral home.”
In addition, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can be very beneficial for those who are struggling with complicated grief, Green says. It helps them “think about their situations from different points of view, thus altering how they feel and behave when thinking about the deceased,” she explains. “The structure provided using CBT techniques can help grieving individuals deal with their loss and provide a means to measure how much progress is being made each week.”
Green assigns her clients homework, such as journaling about feelings and memories connected to their loved one or developing lists (e.g., five things the client misses about the deceased). “These activities help clients focus on their relationship with the deceased rather than on the loss itself,” she says. “For example, having them make a list of things they enjoyed sharing with the deceased or writing a goodbye letter to the deceased, which is then shared with the counselor, is both cathartic and healing. This also helps clients begin the process of experiencing the pain of the loss that might otherwise remain unattended to. Stuffing down one’s thoughts and feelings is detrimental, so these activities help gently to bring the thoughts and feelings to the surface where they can be dealt with.”
Counselors should also help grieving clients work through any unfinished business, Green says, such as not having been able to say goodbye to the deceased or feeling guilty about something related to the deceased.
Doka has clients write letters to the deceased or engage in role-play to have conversations with the deceased. He gives the example of a boy who had carried guilt over the death of his father. When the boy and his family visited his father as he lay dying in the hospital, the father would always ask the boy for a hug before he left. The final time that the family visited, the boy didn’t want to give his father a goodbye hug before leaving because he had already hugged him earlier in the visit.
During a counseling session, Doka had the boy role-play with him and apologize to his father. He then asked the boy to move to the “father’s chair” to better imagine what his father might say to him. Doka says that as soon as the boy inhabited his father’s chair, he could imagine his father saying, “That’s what you’ve been worried about, sport?”
The boy realized his father would have been surprised that the incident was such a source of guilt to his son. What happened would not have stood out as a source of hurt for the father or been something that he held against his son.
Sheehan-Zeidler uses a similar method, asking clients to imagine what they would say or want to hear if they could talk to their deceased loved ones. But certain types of death, such as suicides, horrific accidents, murders or even sudden and unexpected losses, can be traumatizing to clients. In such cases, Sheehan-Zeidler has found that the use of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can be helpful.
All losses can be complicated
A loved one’s death is not the only type of loss that can result in complicated grief. Mustaine once counseled a woman who had been divorced for five years yet still fully expected her ex-husband to return, even though he had remarried and had children with his second wife.
In cases such as these, clients may not even have begun to grieve because they have not identified (or cannot identify) the loss and associated feelings that it engenders. Mustaine doesn’t dive into grief work right away with clients who are experiencing complicated grief. Instead, she focuses on establishing the therapeutic bond and giving the client time to accept the counseling office as a safe space. Later, she asks these clients — such as the woman who couldn’t accept her divorce — how they feel about their loss and starts to tease out any underlying feelings. For instance, “I hear you saying that you have not experienced any anger over your divorce, but a lot of people would feel angry.”
Mustaine waits to see if the client takes her statement as a cue to express anger. If the client doesn’t, Mustaine will circle back and say something such as, “You really don’t feel anger?”
In these instances, it is not uncommon for clients to respond that they don’t feel anything because they are numb, Mustaine says. So she sometimes asks them to imagine what they might feel if they weren’t numb. She then explores the reasons behind their inability to truly express their emotions. “What were you taught about having feelings?” Mustaine asks. “Maybe that it’s not OK to express your feelings?”
“You give them permission to have their defenses,” Mustaine continues, “but broach the idea of emotion: ‘What’s so scary about thinking about even having a feeling?’”
Some clients grew up in environments in which it wasn’t safe to express emotions, Mustaine says, such as having a father who would say, “You don’t have anything to cry about. I’ll give you something to cry about!” In such cases, Mustaine says there might be a need to switch from grief work to traditional psychotherapy.
All of the sources Counseling Today spoke to for this article cautioned that in order for counselors to avoid their own complications, they should engage in their own grief work before working with clients on grief and loss issues.
To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, take advantage of the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Books, etc. (counseling.org/bookstore)
- Counseling Strategies for Loss and Grief by Keren M. Humphrey
- Good Grief (therapeutic card sets) and Dinosaur Game Board, Bradley Erford
- Counseling Older People: Opportunities and Challenges by Charlene M. Kampfe
- “When Grief Becomes Complicated” with Antonietta Corvasce
- “Remembering Lives: Conversations With the Dying and Bereaved” with John Winslade and Lorraine Hedtke
VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas)
- “A Shift in the Conceptual Understanding of Grief: Using Meaning-Oriented Therapies With Bereaved Clients” by Jodi M. Flesner
- “Current Trends in Grief Counseling” by Elizabeth A. Doughty, Adriana Wissel and Cyndia Glorfield
- “Frequency and Importance of Grief Counselor Activities” by Darlene Daneker
- “The Anniversary of the Death of a Loved One” by Rebecca M. Dedmond, Annie K. Smith and Sania Frei-Harper
- “Understanding Grief and Loss in Children” by Jody J. Fiorini and Jodi A. Mullen
Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)
- “Death and Dying Issues” by Kathryn Layman & Jessica Swenson
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.