Tragic and traumatic experiences often bring clients to professional mental health counselors. Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one or a deeply personal and affecting event can be difficult. Navigating grief is a complex task, one not everyone is equipped to handle on their own. Clinical mental health counselors can help clients process these emotions by devising counseling strategies for loss and grief.
Grief is a common theme in professional counseling. Not only can clinical mental health counselors specialize in grief therapy and become professional bereavement counselors, but grief also can be a dominant subject in client interactions of any kind. Whether you’re a crisis counselor working with victims of traumatic events or a marriage counselor guiding clients through complex emotions stemming from divorce, grief is ever-present in counseling.
That reality makes it important for professional counselors to develop skills to help clients manage and process grief. Having the clinical background to objectively approach loss and then guide clients through their own experiences is important for professional counselors to reach positive outcomes. To build that background, many consider earning a master’s degree in counseling.
What Is Grief Counseling?
Few feelings stir such personal anguish and distress as grief. So it’s not surprising that clients may seek out the professional services of a counselor in trying to cope with death or otherwise make sense of grief and move on from it. Grief counseling is the application of various techniques designed to help clients overcome grief in the many different ways it manifests.
The overarching role of grief in mental health issues requires that counselors understand it and possess the counseling skills to approach it with clients. There are two commonly identified forms of grief:
- Instrumental grieving: This process can be seen in clients who strive to control grief and their surroundings, sometimes in an effort to mask pain, but other times as a means to cope and move on. Instrumental grieving often involves cogent decision-making and logical rationalization.
- Intuitive grieving: At the other end of the grief spectrum lies intuitive grieving, or the intense emotional swings and moods that clients may experience after a loss, particularly when confronted by loss or trauma in media portrayals. Intuitive grievers may be more inclined to share emotions and thoughts because they encounter incredible difficulty in coping.
Grief can be present in a range of client situations and can produce a wide variety of behaviors and emotions. For instance, while often typified by intense sadness, expressions of grief may also come in the form of guilt, rage, or confused relief. The range is reminiscent of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Indeed, family counselors may find themselves in group sessions where one family member can’t be consoled over a death and another exhibits little emotion at all, even though both are impacted. Each person’s reaction to a loss will be different. However, it’s a counselor’s responsibility to effectively guide all clients through each stage, imparting valuable advice and coping strategies along the way.
Grief Counseling Techniques
Learning grief counseling techniques can benefit clinical mental health counselors, whether they practice with general populations or specialize in areas such as substance abuse, school, or marriage counseling. Grief can play a role in all manner of client interactions, so being prepared with strategies and methods for addressing the subject during consultations is essential.
These five counseling strategies for loss and grief illustrate the range of approaches counselors can take when helping clients overcome a tragic loss.
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This approach to grief counseling focuses on helping the client identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive thoughts. Some negative thought patterns can make it difficult for a person to process their grief. They may also prevent a client from realizing how those negative thoughts affect their behavior. CBT techniques include reframing and restructuring, targeting behaviors, and developing a new narrative about the loss.
2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
The underlying premise of this technique is that people can begin to move past their grief by mindfully embracing it rather than fighting it. ACT relies on six different tools for clients to use:
- Focus on their own values
- Commit to action and achieve goals
- Accept difficult emotions without judging them or how they are experienced
- Be more aware of and present in daily activities
- Create space between themselves and their thoughts (cognitive defusion)
- Develop the “observing self,” or self-as-context, to describe their thoughts and feelings dispassionately
3. Traumatic Grief Therapy
Traumatic grief occurs in response to a sudden and unexpected loss. The shock of the event can cause physical and mental effects such as intrusive and preoccupying thoughts, sleep problems, anxiety, and loss of appetite. Therapy for traumatic grief emphasizes establishing a routine to help regulate emotions and soothe the nervous system. The person is encouraged to express themselves and to understand that what they’re feeling is normal.
4. Complicated Grief Therapy
Complicated grief often arises from traumatic grief. It is characterized by a preoccupation with the loss and a strong yearning for the deceased person’s return. In 2021, the American Psychiatric Association recognized prolonged grief disorder (PGD) as an official diagnosis. People suffering from PGD may be extremely sad, lonely, bitter or angry, or emotionally numb. They may feel a loss of identity or that a part of themselves has died. They often avoid any reminders of the loss or simply fail to accept it. Complicated grief counseling techniques often involve a mixture of other forms of therapy, including ACT and CBT. Counselors can help grievers work through memories of the deceased and develop healthier ways to remember them, while strengthening their coping skills.
5. Interpersonal Therapy
Rather than exploring issues from a person’s past, interpersonal therapy focuses on their current situation and relationships. This therapeutic approach was originally developed to treat major depression, but it has been adapted to many other mental health treatments, including grief counseling. There are two basic types of interpersonal therapy:
- Metacognitive interpersonal therapy (MIT) helps people identify and express their emotions.
- Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) uses psychodynamics and mentalization to give people a clearer understanding of their thoughts and emotions.
Grief Counseling Skills
While grief is a subject commonly explored and discussed in any counseling education, its overall importance often begs greater knowledge and methodologies. Professional counselors may be able to shape their grief counseling skills through dealing with grief in real-life client situations. However, many turn to continued education as a way to further improve their competencies related to helping clients cope and express emotions due to grief.
Some of the skills that may inform counseling strategies for loss and grief include:
- Working on empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and dispassionately appreciate what a client is going through. Whereas sympathy is mutual grief, empathy can be characterized more as a shoulder to cry on. Projecting empathy is not simple, as grief is personal and deep. But counselors who build empathetic skills and practice body language that conveys the same can do well in helping grieving clients.
- Employing creative methods: Sometimes it can be hard to penetrate grief with conventional tools. In such circumstances, counselors may have to try innovative strategies for promoting healthy and productive emotional expression. One way to attempt this is by facilitating a “conversation” between the client and the recently deceased. This isn’t so much role-playing as it is giving clients an outlet for their thoughts that may encourage closure and understanding.
Get Your Online MAC from Bradley University
A Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) is designed to prepare students with the skills to provide grief therapy in client settings. Individuals can learn more about counseling strategies for loss and grief, as well as gain experience with beliefs about loss, blockers to emotional expression, and proven counseling interventions to produce desired outcomes. Students may also be exposed to theories on how gender and culture play a role in grief.
Finding the right school to build your counselor qualifications and skills is important to more effectively dealing with grief and aiding clients. Bradley University offers a 100% online MAC degree designed to let professional counselors complete coursework on their own time and make the most of their lessons by applying them to real-world client experiences. Contact an enrollment adviser today to learn more about the online MAC graduate degree, program curriculum, and admissions requirements.
How to Become a Grief Counselor
How Do You Get into Rehabilitation Counseling?
Managing Traumatic Grief and Coping After National Crises
Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, Bereavement
Cedars-Sinai, “Coping With Complicated Grief”
Hers, “Grief Therapy: Techniques & Activities”
Ineffable Living, “ACT for Grief and Loss: 6 Powerful Tools and Worksheets to Help You Move Forward With Grief — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)”
PositivePsychology.com, “3 Grief Counseling Therapy Techniques & Interventions”
Psych Central, “What Is Traumatic Grief?”
Talkspace, “7 Grief Therapy Techniques for Coping”