Mental Health
What is Grief Therapy?

What is Grief Therapy?

5 min read


Megan Caligiuri

Grief is a universal human experience, yet it's an intensely personal journey. When we lose someone or something dear to us, we often grapple with complex emotions, confusion, and a profound sense of emptiness. In such times, grief therapy can provide invaluable support and guidance. Before we dive into the specifics of grief therapy, it's essential to understand the grieving process itself. Grief isn't a linear path with distinct stages; rather, it's a complex and individualized experience. People may cycle through a range of emotions, including:

  1. Denial and shock
  2. Anger and guilt
  3. Depression and sadness
  4. Bargaining and regret
  5. Acceptance and meaning-making

Grief therapy acknowledges this dynamic process and provides a supportive space for individuals to explore their emotions and find their unique way of coping.

What is Grief Therapy?

Grief therapy, also known as grief counseling or bereavement therapy, is a specialized form of psychotherapy designed to assist individuals in coping with the emotional and psychological aftermath of a significant loss. While it's most commonly associated with the death of a loved one, grief therapy extends its reach to various forms of loss, including the loss of relationships, jobs, health, or a sense of self.

Here's how it works

  1. Creating a Safe Space: The therapist establishes a safe, empathetic, and non-judgmental environment where clients can express their thoughts, feelings, and memories related to the loss.
  2. Emotional Expression: Clients are encouraged to share their emotions, even the most challenging ones. Talking about the loss and expressing grief is a crucial step in the healing process.
  3. Understanding the Unique Experience: Therapists recognize that each person's grief journey is unique. They work with clients to understand their specific challenges, emotions, and needs.
  4. Exploration and Coping: Therapy sessions may involve exploring the practical aspects of grief, such as how to manage daily life, make decisions, and find moments of relief amidst the pain.
  5. Meaning-Making: Grief therapy helps individuals make sense of the loss and its impact on their lives. This often involves exploring existential and spiritual questions about the meaning of life and death.
  6. Building Coping Skills: Therapists provide clients with coping strategies and tools to manage the practical challenges that accompany grief, including self-care and stress management techniques.
  7. Honoring the Memory: Grief therapy encourages clients to honor and remember their loved ones or the source of their loss in meaningful ways, preserving memories and creating rituals.

Primary Loss

Primary loss is that profound, often unexpected, and life-altering event that sets the stage for the complex journey of grief. It's the moment when our world takes an unexpected turn, leaving us in a state of shock, sadness, and uncertainty. But it's essential to remember that primary loss is an integral part of the human experience, and understanding it can help us navigate these challenging times with greater compassion and grace.

At its heart, primary loss encompasses those pivotal moments that redefine our lives. It could be the loss of a cherished loved one, a serious illness diagnosis, the end of a significant relationship, a natural disaster, job loss, or even the experience of trauma or abuse. These are the events that leave us reeling, wondering how we'll ever find our footing again.

Secondary Loss

Secondary loss is like a ripple effect that follows the initial splash of a primary loss. When you drop a pebble into a pond, it creates a big splash. That initial splash is the primary loss – the significant, life-altering event like the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, or a major life change. After that initial splash, you see those ripples spreading out in all directions. Those ripples represent secondary losses. They're the other losses or changes that come as a result of the primary one.

Secondary losses are like the aftershocks of an earthquake, and they remind us that healing and adaptation take time.

Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is when grieving someone’s death is invalidated or not well understood. This would include the death of a distant loved one, someone you’ve had a difficult history with, or a dynamic that is socially frowned upon for whatever reason. For example, if someone’s spouse dies, the person they had a secret relationship would likely not receive much sympathy from the deceased’s family, or even be invited to the memorialization, especially if they were not aware of the dynamic or if it caused pain for the family. This person still may have lost the most important person in their life, though feel ashamed to process the loss due to feelings of guilt or feeling like it’s not their place.

Not being able to express and ventilate one’s feelings around such a loss can lead to feelings of isolation, shame, depression and low self-esteem. Even if it feels “silly," I bet your therapist will feel differently. As Ms. Hill taught us, everything is everything, and this unturned stone could have valuable insights hidden underneath. Experiencing a new loss can re-open old losses from the past, leading to either beautiful corrective healing emotional experiences OR what is known as cumulative grief or bereavement overload. The latter is when you haven’t had sufficient time, energy or resource to process each loss, leading to overwhelm and feeling disconnected from hope and confidence that healing is possible. This unbearable feeling has become unfortunately common due to health crises, being in later stages of life and not allowing yourself to slow down enough to feel and heal the valid heartbreak that often comes with loss.

Collective Grief

Collective grief is when a group or culture grieve a particular loss together or multiples lives lost. Unlike individual grief, which is a personal response to a specific loss, collective grief is a shared experience that transcends individual boundaries and affects communities, societies, or even entire nations. Examples of collective grief include: natural disasters, acts of terrorism or violence, pandemics, and cultural or historical trauma.

Inhibited Grief

Inhibited grief or masked grief is when we are intentionally or unintentionally avoiding processing the loss or distracting from it, trying to minimize its impact on our life. Snoozing or trying to avoid the necessary steps of grieving will likely keep you stuck in this phase for a longer period of time, sometimes, causing you to forget where this sad heaviness came from in the first place. The good news is that it’s never too late to work these feelings out. If you feel judged or invalidated by a therapist while disclosing your loss, you may want to share that with them, or find a therapist who might be a better match for you.

Grief therapy is a compassionate and effective way to navigate the complex emotions and challenges that accompany loss. It offers individuals a safe space to express their grief, understand their unique journey, and find ways to heal and honor the memory of what has been lost. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, consider reaching out to a qualified grief therapist to embark on a journey toward healing and hope. Remember, you don't have to navigate the path of grief alone.

Suggested reads: 4 Little Known Ripple Effects of Grief and Loss

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About the author

Megan 'Cali' Caligiuri is the Senior Growth Marketing Manager at MyWellBeing. As a seasoned marketing and creative leader with a passion for mental health, Cali is committed to reducing the stigma of therapy, easing the stress of connecting with the right practitioner, and empowering every individual to develop a more loving, healthy relationship with themselves and those around them.

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