A Guide to Grief Therapy and Bereavement Counselling

How grief counselling and therapy works, plus an overview of different types of therapy

Last updated: 25 May 2017

If you have lost a loved one and are coping with grief, you may be interested in trying grief therapy, sometimes known as bereavement therapy or grief counselling, to help you come to terms with your loved one’s death.

What is therapy?

The word ‘therapy’ can be used to describe a treatment designed to improve or cure a certain condition. Physical therapy, for example, can help treat injuries and prevent future problems. Often, however, the word ‘therapy’ refers to psychotherapy, counselling or other mental health therapies. These are designed to help you on an emotional and mental level. It may be recommended when you have experienced a traumatic incident in your life, or are suffering from depression.

The aim of therapy is to help you work through any problems you are having in a safe, supportive space. A trained professional, known as a therapist or counsellor, will guide you through therapy and help you understand your thoughts and emotions in greater depth. They may ask you questions, get you to participate in therapeutic activities, such as drawing or writing, or may even use other techniques such as hypnotherapy and mindfulness.

There are many different types of therapy (see below). Therapists and counsellors may use elements of many different therapy types, choosing which techniques they think will suit you best.

Why have bereavement counselling or grief therapy?

The death of a loved one is among the most traumatic experiences you can endure in your life. For many people, it means that their life is changed forever, sometimes in dramatic ways. The emotional turmoil of bereavement can be hard to face alone. A trained therapist or counsellor may be able to help.

It’s vital to understand that no therapist or counsellor can take away your grief. Therapy is not a ‘cure’ for the pain of bereavement. What it can do, however, is help you come to understand your own thoughts and feelings with greater clarity. You may be able to work through difficult emotions and find emotional support when you are feeling vulnerable.

Even at a basic level, sharing your thoughts with someone who is trained to be helping and non-judgmental can be a helpful way of coping with grief.

Bereavement therapy is for anyone – your loss doesn’t have to be recent, nor does your grief have to be connected with a person who was a family member. If someone’s death has affected you, you could benefit from grief counselling.

Different types of therapy

There are many different types of therapy, each with a slightly different approach to helping you cope with grief. Grief therapists may specialise in one particular type of therapy, or draw on several different therapies, depending on the needs of the client.

This is a brief overview of some common types of therapy. Bear in mind that these are just a few of the possible therapy techniques your therapist might use. A good therapist should be able to explain any techniques they are using in more detail.

  • Counselling: Usually a one-on-one setting between client and counsellor. You and the counsellor will discuss any personal and psychological problems you are experiencing, which may not be necessarily directly related to the bereavement. Through talking and exploring your problems, the aim is to better understand why you feel a certain way and how to cope with these feelings. Counselling may be slightly less structured and more flexible than psychotherapy. Some bereavement charities offer counselling via phone, online or in face-to-face sessions.

  • Eclectic counselling: A type of counselling which may draw on several different other types of therapy. The counsellor may change their techniques to best match the needs of the client.

  • Psychotherapy: Involves talking to a trained mental health professional, either one-on-one or in a group, to discuss your feelings and behaviour in order to resolve problems. Psychotherapists may teach you coping strategies to help you deal with painful emotions or stressful situations. This type of therapy is often used to treat mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy which aims to change the way you think and behave in order to improve your wellbeing. It is based on the idea that negative thoughts can trap you in a cycle of negative feelings and behaviours. It is commonly used to treat depression, anxiety and eating disorders, but can be used for a wide range of mental health conditions and personal problems.

  • Mindfulness: A technique that encourages greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations in the present moment. Activities like meditation are a form of mindfulness, aiming to make you more aware and more accepting of the many complex emotions you are experiencing in order to better understand them.

  • Art therapy: Drawing, painting, sculpting and other craft activities as a form of therapy. Art therapy is thought to encourage self-expression. Often the supervising therapist will ask you to explain what you’ve drawn and your thinking behind it. Used to treat a wide range of issues, from learning disabilities and Alzheimer’s, to grief and emotional trauma.

  • Pet therapy: Interacting with animals as a form of therapy. Certified dogs, cats, horses and other pets can offer comfort and company. Their owner or trained handler will usually be present. Used to for a wide variety of therapeutic purposes, such as helping children with learning difficulties or comforting mourners in funeral homes.

  • Family therapy: A type of therapy involving many or all members of the family. Family therapy may be particularly useful when there is conflict or trauma within a family group. The therapist will guide everyone through the process and act as a neutral support, allowing everyone to speak and discuss their feelings.

  • Support groups: Support groups are regular meetings, usually for people who have experienced a similar problem or illness. A trained counsellor or therapist may oversee the group and invite people to take turns at sharing their stories. Groups may also have a social element, where members can get to know each other on a personal level and make friends, if they wish.

To find a therapist or counsellor near you, contact a bereavement support organisation or speak to your GP for a referral or recommendation.