The answer to the question “does therapy help grief?” depends on what you mean by “help,” so I’m going to give you two answers to the question.
In the first answer, I am going to define “help” as a clinical outcome. In other words, do people who undergo grief counseling end up in a better place than people who do not have grief counseling? With an exception I will address in a moment, the answer is a surprising “no.” As a counselor interested in grief, when I learned this, it really smarted. In general, if you look at how people are coping with grief at a particular time such as 6-months, a year, or 2-years after the loss, there isn’t any statistically significant difference between the people who received grief counseling and those who did not. There can be some benefit in the short-term, such as shortly after the loss, but as you go further out in time, that difference evaporates. Grief is a normal, albeit painful, process and much of the time, we work through it just fine on our own.
But there is one condition where grief counseling IS effective and where getting it does help people recover from their loss more than those who do not receive the counseling. This is the situation of complicated grief. Complicated grief is grief which does not seem to ever lessen, no matter how long it has been or how much you cry, grieve, talk about the loss, and so on. The loss feels as fresh and sharp as it did when it occurred. In many cases, complicated grief involves a loss which invokes a lot of contradictory feelings within you. For example, perhaps you had a parent who was generally a decent or even good parent unless they were drinking. Then, your parent became abusive. This kind of situation is, well, complicated. In this example, you would likely be torn between some rather extreme but contradictory feelings, such as love and hate, sorrow and maybe feeling like they deserved it. In a situation where your grief does not mellow over time, grief counseling can help you to reconcile the opposing emotions and memories. This allows you to gain a new perspective and allows you to make a kind of peace makes it possible for the pain to mellow. (Notice, I said “mellow” and not “disappear.” Grief over the death of loved ones is not likely to vanish completely and forever but instead becomes less sharp and occurs with less frequency and for shorter periods).
So, I mentioned that for what is called uncomplicated grief, an unfortunate name for anyone who is grieving because there is nothing simple about those feelings, grief counseling has not been shown to have long-term benefits. However, in the short-term, it can be helpful to some people. If, for example, you do not have a large support network, a therapist can be an important support and help. Some people feel a pressure to act as though their grief is reconciled long before it truly is; in these cases, people often put on a front to those around them but can find relief in openly discussing their feelings with a therapist. Some people are afraid to lean too heavily on their support network. Sadly, many people dealing with grief discover that their support network isn’t interested in being supportive for long or that talking about the dead loved one is uncomfortable to them. Our culture is very uneasy about the topics of death and dying.
In these cases, I have talked about the grief that results from the death of a loved one. I want to remind you that loss comes in many flavors and packages. It might be a chronic illness, the loss of a job, the death of a dream, the loss of physical abilities (such as hearing loss in aging), or the loss of friendships or divorce. In the example of a divorce, if it is initiated by your partner and not something you want, you may not be able to talk through your questions and your pain with your partner. In fact, in this situation, the person you typically would rely on and turn to is the very person causing you the pain. In this situation, a therapist can help. Or, as with the death of a loved one, in situations where you don’t feel you can talk about your loss as much as you need to with other people, a therapist can give you that unconditional support.
Sometimes when you want to talk about your grief, people want to jump straight to possible solutions. It’s their way of trying to help you get better and move on with your life. Oftentimes, however, what you want in this situation is just to feel heard. When people start throwing solutions at you, it doesn’t feel like they are hearing you. And sometimes those people get frustrated because their “help” really didn’t help you and they wonder why you are being so resistant to their help. Again, this can be a reason to seek out a therapist. With a therapist, you are not under pressure to “get over it” and move on quickly. You and I will take the time you need to create a new image of how your life can be fulfilling (if different than before) moving forward.
If you are struggling with loss or grief, I invite you to call me at (816) 226-4678 or contact me by email at email@example.com. (Please remember that email passes through many computers on its journey from you to me, so do not share any information that you would mind strangers knowing).