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The loss of a loved one is one of the most harrowing things a human can experience. While it’s perfectly natural to feel overwhelmingly intense emotion following bereavement, it can be beneficial to share the pain you’re feeling with a counsellor. This is particularly true if grief is affecting you so much that you’re finding it difficult to function. A good bereavement counsellor can help you to process your loss and learn to live without your loved one.
HOW DOES GRIEF AFFECT PEOPLE?
As a highly social species, we humans need one another more than we realise. We’re attuned to one another, and rely on one another for both physical and emotional support. When someone close to us dies, we feel anguish on every level. Many people are astonished by just how powerful and overwhelming grief can be.
The modern world doesn’t always prepare us as well as it could for the experience of grief. We’ve distanced our culture from death and loss so, when these things affect us, we are often shocked by the sheer force and complexity of our emotions. The bereaved are likely to feel shock, anger, numbness, guilt, exhaustion, sadness, even euphoria – sometimes all at once.
Bereavement and grief affect everyone differently. It’s a mistake to expect anyone’s grief to follow a set pattern. Almost the only constant is that grief is an unpleasant experience.
Researchers in Australia and the USA have established that the emotional pain of grief and loss is far deeper, longer lasting, and even more debilitating than the pain of injuries or illness. It’s actually not uncommon for grief to even produce physical pain alongside emotional distress. Many bereaved people describe a physical ache in their chests or stomachs in the months following the loss of their loved one. We use terms like ‘heartache’ for very good reason.
ARE THERE REALLY ‘PHASES’ OF GRIEF?
While most experts agree that there are fairly generalised phases to the experience of grief, these are by no means set in stone. These phases rarely (if ever!) progress in an even, equable manner. They manifest very differently for different people. Many will find themselves cycling through ‘phases’ again and again, or experiencing them out of order, or being hit with renewed feelings of loss just when they feel like they’re getting better.
Very generally, the ‘phases of grief’ are:
• Accepting the reality of the loss.
• Experiencing the emotional pain of bereavement.
• Adjusting to life without the deceased.
• ‘Moving on’.
There is no ‘correct’ way to grieve, so if your grief is not following this pattern, you shouldn’t worry. Nor should you try and force your grief into a shape which is not natural to you. However, grief can act like an emotional bulldozer, flattening every other aspect of the bereaved person’s life. If you think that your grief is seriously affecting your life in a lastingly negative way, or if you simply want to work through what you’re feeling with someone sympathetic, it may be time to find a bereavement counsellor.
HOW DOES BEREAVEMENT COUNSELLING WORK?
Grief and bereavement counselling is not about ‘curing’ the pain. While many bereaved people long to be free of the agonies of loss, plenty would take issue with the idea of being ‘cured’ of grief. For many of us, grieving is an important part of how we honour our deceased loved ones.
So, if they’re not going to ‘cure’ your grief, what can a bereavement counsellor do for you?
Bereavement counsellors differ in their practice and methods but, in general, a bereavement counsellor will provide a safe, judgement-free space for you to work through your feelings. If you feel like you’re drowning in grief, and it’s really affecting your life, this can help more than you’d imagine.
Talking with the bereaved about their loss is something with which many of us struggle in this day and age. Friends and family may be unsure of how to or even if to discuss the deceased with you, for fear of being insensitive or upsetting you. In turn, the bereaved may shy away from bringing up their grief in conversation, for fear of being a ‘downer’ or of making others uncomfortable. This is not the case in a counselling session, during which you will be free to talk about your deceased loved one, remember them, and work through your feelings about them as much or as little as feels helpful.
If other aspects of your life (your relationships, for example, or your career) are sliding due to your grief, a counsellor may be able to teach you damage-limitation strategies. These won’t involve denying or suppressing your grief, but they will help you to operate around the grief, so you can hold the rest of your life together until you adjust.
There’s a lot of variety in the therapies a bereavement counsellor may recommend to you. Mindfulness, creative expression, CBT, or just simple talking – all of these can be incredibly helpful. However, different people find different things helpful, so, if something isn’t working for you, talk to your counsellor about trying something else. Time is undoubtedly the best healer in these circumstances, but therapeutic activities (including talking!) can help you to deal with it in the moment.
Most importantly, a bereavement counsellor will enable you to come to terms with a life in which your loved one is not physically present. This may involve processing old conflicts, honouring the memory of the deceased, and perhaps coming to a greater understanding of yourself. In time, you’ll be able to move forward with your life, and remember your loved one with a smile rather than a pang.
‘Moving on’ is often described as the ‘end’ of grief. This isn’t quite accurate, as nobody ever stops grieving the loss of someone they loved. However, grief does cease to be such a terrible and all-consuming emotion. ‘Moving on’ does not involve forgetting your loved one, or suppressing the emotions you felt when they died. Instead, it means coming to terms with the loss of them, and learning to live without them. ‘Moving on’ does not mean that you will no longer miss your loved one, but it does mean that you won’t miss them in agony every moment of the day. Grief is a process which needs to run its course, and moving on will occur naturally when you’re emotionally ready for it...but a good counsellor can help you out in the meantime.