Grief Therapy Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Mar 25, 2024

Experiencing the loss of a loved one can look very different for everyone. Grief is a reaction to any form of loss, including of a pet, a marriage, or a dissolving friendship. It can create a range of feelings from sadness to anger to regret and severity of the emotions can range from person-to-person.

For many, the emotional toll of grief can be surprisingly hard. We’re often not prepared for this part of life, even though it’s an inevitability. 

Grief counselling or therapy that focuses on grief can help you navigate these thoughts and learn how to cope with these new emotions.

How does grief progress?

Many people are familiar with some form of “the grieving process” including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (the Kübler-Ross model). Now over fifty years old, this model has been reexamined and debunked, except that it can provide some guidance during an otherwise tumultuous period in someone’s life, and an understanding that the feelings are in flux and that moving on is possible. 

Some experts have added other elements to a staged approach (which is often not linear) including shock, reconstruction, and hope. You may experience or relate to some or all or none of any “phases” of grief, and that’s okay. Symptoms of grief can actually take many shapes and forms, including:

  • Crying
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • Guilt
  • Feeling detached
  • Worry
  • Changes in appetite
  • Stress
  • Frustration
  • Self-destructive behaviour
  • Relief
  • Confusion
  • Regret
  • Procrastination/low motivation 
  • Lack of life purpose

Some of these symptoms could indicate bigger mental health conditions are at play, like depression or anxiety.

When to see a therapist for grief

Talking to a licensed and trained psychologist, psychotherapist or social worker can be helpful at any point in time, especially when you’re experiencing a new and uncharted experience in life. 

After losing a loved one, if the symptoms of grief are interrupting your life to the point where you feel you can no longer manage daily responsibilities, it might be a good time to seek some help. 

There is a term called “complicated grief” which refers to the intensity of grief not decreasing months after a loss. This occurs if the symptoms associated with loss are intense and debilitating past 12 months. 

Other common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges that could be associated with loss and grief include:

  • Suicidal thoughts or prolonged and/or severe symptoms of depression
  • You’re having angry outbursts or panic attacks
  • Your habits are changing in negative ways, including substance abuse or addictive behaviours (including shopping or gambling)
  • You’re unable to join regular social events, or are actively avoiding friends and family
  • You don’t have a healthy support system around you or you feel like you can’t talk to anyone
  • Those around you have “moved on” and you’re no longer getting the support you need from friends and family
  • You have experienced a more traumatic loss, or multiple losses in a short period of time
  • You’re having intrusive thoughts, including replaying the life or loss of your loved one
  • You’re having frequent nightmares 
  • Others have expressed concern for you

Techniques and methods for grief therapy

Grief counselling can take a few forms. You might seek individual grief therapy, group therapy or family therapy, depending on your situation and what you’re most comfortable with. For example, if your family is experiencing some disruptions or dysfunctions following the loss of someone close to you, you may want family therapy to address coping mechanisms to better communicate and work together as a unit.

Whether you’re accessing therapy solo, with a group or with your loved ones, cognitive therapies are common for grief therapy. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help with grief or associated conditions like depression or anxiety. CBT will help you address negative or distorted thought patterns (blame and guilt) and how they affect your emotions and behaviours.

Another commonly used cognitive therapy technique (modality) is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Similar to CBT, ACT is about accepting emotions and experiences and using mindfulness techniques to cope. When applied to grief therapy, there are six core principles for ACT:

  1. Acceptance: grief can be overwhelming and can lead us to try to control our emotions, or avoid and escape them. This principle is about being willing to experience negative emotions.

  2. Cognitive defusion: this is about separating you from your thoughts. This helps us better see which thoughts deserve attention and to get more clarity on what we’re feeling. Just because we’re sad, doesn’t mean life is terrible.

  3. Being present: related to acceptance, this is about experiencing grief in the moment and being connected to that experience. It moves us out of regretting what happened or worrying about the future so we can handle what’s happening now, when we can actually make change.
  4. Self as context: sometimes referred to as “the observing self,” this is about viewing your experiences more objectively and looking inward at our grief.  It’s like you’re looking at yourself as a character in a story. This takes place after we have distanced ourselves from our thoughts, it brings more self awareness to our grief and further helps normalize it. Your feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are.
  5. Values: by defining our values, we can create a new pathway to evolve grief into future goals. It gives us back some direction in life.
  6. Committed action: this is about patterns for future action, defined by you. This can involve some homework, short or long term goal-setting. They could even be emotional (allowing crying) as well as physical (walk twice this week).

If you’re the parent of a small child who has experienced loss, you might consider child therapy for them as some methods, like play therapy, are more accessible to kids who may not comprehend everything going on around them, even though their grief is very real. 

Your experience with grief may shift and change over a period of time. A trained therapist, psychologist, social worker or counsellor can help you navigate your own situation and help you along your particular path.
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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.