What is Grief Counseling: The Nuts and Bolts

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“I think I could benefit from grief counseling”. Sounds easy enough, right?

Over the past few weeks, months or years you may have considered going to therapy. Or heard hints and suggestions from people all around you like: “Have you thought about going to grief counseling?” “My sister has a great therapist” “Have you gone to a support group?” “Maybe you should ‘see someone’”  Talking to a counselor is one of the most commonly suggested grief coping interventions. And although these suggestions won't be right for everyone, many people feel as though they maybe, someday, might want to talk to someone about their grief-related experiences.  

But the decision to seek professional counseling brings up new questions and anxieties for those who have never sought counseling. For example: "What is grief counseling? Is it different than other kinds of counseling? What kind of help should I seek? What kind of therapist should I see? I hate strangers! What will happen when I go?  I can’t even get to the grocery store, how will I every pull myself together to go to therapy?  These anxieties are totally normal, so don't worry! We’re here to walk you through the basics this handy-dandy guide to getting help.

Step One: Deciding if you want to go to grief counseling or therapy in general

Many people think they need to hit a threshold of dysfunction before sitting down with a counselor, but this is not the case.  Some of the reasons people seek counseling after a loss include:

  • Needing help sorting through their experiences
  • Wanting someone they can talk to who won't gossip or judge them
  • They worry their friends and family are tired of listening to them talk about their grief
  • Needing help with interpersonal relationships as a result of the loss
  • Wanting someone to push them or to hold them accountable
  • They are struggling with fear, anxiety, ongoing emotions and/or thoughts that cause intense distress and which they can't control, loss of meaning and purpose, etc.

Here are some posts you may find helpful if you are worried your grief goes beyond what might be considered normal:

Step Two: Consider what you're looking for in a therapist

To get started, ask yourself the following questions. Do you...

  • Want something long-term or short-term?
  • Want someone just to listen, or someone to give you concrete guidance or advice?
  • Prefer to be seen alone, with you partner or family, or both?
  • Have insurance to cover your sessions?
  • Prefer to see a man or a woman, or does it not matter?
  • Have a preference in the age of your therapist?
  • Want to see a grief counselor specifically or a therapist who specializes in something different?

To help determine what educational background and therapeutic approach might be a good fit for your preferences in the first three questions above, consider the information in the next two steps.

Step Three: What do all those letters after the counselor's name mean?   

In search for a list of providers, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the range of backgrounds and credentials they have: MD, PhD, PsyD, MA, LCSW, LCPC, MFT, LMSW, ATR, CT, CCMHC, CGP, SAP, CAC and on and on and on.  Don’t worry, it makes my head spin too and I have a bunch of those letters after my own name.

All of these people have gone through some kind of advanced training in mental health and counseling.  What type of education, licenses, and certifications they have is less likely to impact whether they are a good fit as to what kind of therapy they practice and their personality.  We will cover the types of therapy next, but for those of you who really want to know what the letters mean,  click here. This is not an exhaustive list, but it should be a pretty good place to start.

Step Four: What type of therapy do you want your therapist to practice?

Therapy is therapy, right?!  Not exactly.  Many mental health professionals will have a certain therapeutic approach(s) that guides their work with patients. Finding a therapist whose training and approach meets your needs will be important for productive treatment.  The problem is most of us have absolutely no idea what these approaches are, which will meet our needs, and how to find out which approach(s) a therapist practices. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.  Click here to learn a little bit about different types of therapy.

You also might want to consider the types of experiences that you need help with. It may be just as, if not more, important that the therapist you find specializes in these areas in addition to grief.  For example, if you want to attend therapy as a family, it's important to look for a marriage and family therapist, or if you have experienced a traumatic loss, it may be most important that the therapist specializes in trauma.

It may be especially important to ask a potential grief counselor about their particular approach and training. Not all people who claim to be "grief counselors" have license and extensive training. Some may simply have taken a brief certification program, but have no formal training or education as counselor. This may suit your needs just fine, but it's definitely your right to ask questions to make sure who you're seeing meets your particular needs.

Step Five: Consider insurance, money, EAPs, and budgets.

If you need insurance to cover your visits, start by calling your insurance company or going to their website and getting a list of approved mental health professionals in your area. If you do not have insurance, and cannot afford to private pay, begin calling hospices in your area.  Many offer grief and bereavement counseling free or on a sliding scale for a limited number of sessions. 

If this is not an option, a local hospice may offer grief counseling sessions or they may be aware of some free or sliding scale mental health providers in your area. Depending on your employer, you may also have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that will offer you a fixed number of sessions with a therapist, and may also be able to direct you to something long term.  If you are not sure if your job offers an EAP, talk to your HR department. If you plan to private pay, determine what you are able to pay per session.

Step Six: Ask around and look online.

If you feel comfortable sharing with friends and family that you are planning to seek grief counseling, ask around for recommendations.  Though finding the right therapist can be a very personal choice, a friend who has a therapist they like may be able to give you some insight into their style and if they will be a good match for you.   If you don't know anyone who has a recommendation, you may be able to learn a lot about a therapist from their website or professional online profile.

Step Seven: Get organized before you call.

When you start calling providers you will want to ask some questions and share some information about what you are looking for.  One office may have a number of different counselors, so being prepared with these items may help a scheduler put you with the counselor who is the best fit for your needs.

You will want to share if there is a specific type of educational background or therapeutic approach you are looking for, a specific age or gender you feel more comfortable with, a type of insurance they must accept or an hourly rate you cannot exceed, any limitations in schedule that will impact what days/times you can be seen, specialties you are looking for, or a specific distance from your home or job you require. Ask basic questions if you aren't sure: have they worked specifically with grief and loss? Are they licensed?  Did they go to an accredited school?

Step Eight: Set up an appointment.

This one is easy!  Schedule a time for an appointment.  Your first visit may be called an “intake”, “assessment” or “new patient” appointment.  In some cases, it may be longer than future sessions will be, and it may cost more.  Some providers may actually have you go through that first appointment before matching you with a counselor.  This is because they may be looking at information during that first visit that will help them place you with the therapist who is the best fit.

Step Nine: Know what to expect from grief counseling.

At this point, you are all set to go to see your counselor.  Many people are nervous about what to expect on their first visit.  Think of this as the “first date” of therapy visits.  Your counselor will likely ask you a lot of questions to get to know you, your situation, and what brings you to their office.  Depending on the therapist, they may have a very structured set of questions they will ask you, or it may be more informal and free flowing. 

They will often ask you what your goals and expectations are.  This is an important time to be as honest as you can about what you are looking for.  If you have had a therapy experience that was not productive or successful in the past, this is the best time to discuss this with your new counselor and explain (as specifically as you can) what worked and what didn’t about that experience.  Most importantly, be honest.

Final Thoughts.

Keep in mind, therapy is no day at the spa.  Think of starting therapy as starting a workout routine: It is hard work when you're doing it and sometimes you are really sore afterward. Then one day it starts getting easier.  You get stronger.  You get healthier.

Another thing to remember, it sometimes takes a few tries to find the therapist that is right for you. Don't give up if after a few sessions you realize your counselor isn't a good fit. This happens on occasion and does not indicate that therapy isn't right for you. It may just mean that you would benefit from a different counselor or perhaps a different therapeutic approach (for example, a more direct or less direct therapeutic approach).

Don't be afraid to speak up if counseling isn't going the way you expected. Your counselor may be able to provide you valuable insight into the process, feedback on other types of therapeutic approaches, and/or they may be able to refer you to another counselor.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

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19 Comments on "What is Grief Counseling: The Nuts and Bolts"

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  1. Mike  May 13, 2023 at 1:14 pm Reply

    My dear wife and best friend passed away 2 years back.We was at our holiday home in France when she became unwell,after a scan pancreatic cancer was diagnosed from this day to the day she passed away it was 6weeks.We understood the severity of this what I am having trouble with is when I left her on day at 17.30 she phoned me in such a traumatic state she was being moved to another hospital nothing was said to me by doctor in afternoon while I was with her when I got to the hospital where she was I was informed a procedure had been carried out where they had to go through her stomach she never recovered and I switched of machines after holding my phone to her ear so our sons could say goodbye and she cried.I have been to medical meetings to find out why I was not informed of her move the answer from doctor she was to busy.I never got to say goodbye to my best friend and wife and I live this everyday the pain does not get any easier and as for the doctor and her attitude towards my dear wife and myself I pray that the same thing will happen to her then she will understand just how this hurt feels.

  2. Ana  June 3, 2021 at 7:35 am Reply

    Haven’t really felt like I’ve grieved at all about a close friend to me who passed away from a car accident, but for some reason most nights I’m out driving, strangers start to look like my friend.. I see him in every man I see.. some one help I don’t know if this is bad grieving or if I’m losing my mind.

  3. Mevine ogonda  August 23, 2020 at 11:59 pm Reply

    Hello everyone…i am depressed coz i feel that everything that am going through is not normal i lost my mum just aweek ago and am in darkness coz i dont understand what caused my mum’s death she just fell down and fainted after sometimes she started convulsing till death took her away…am not at piece coz i really try discover what led to my mum’s lose…my greatest wonder is that weeks before my mum’s death i hv been having imaginations that my mum is dead in dreams i sometimes see my mum’s death this made to make sure that am always on mum’s side but all in all i knew it could not happen coz my mum was alive and we were playing as usually when the imaginations persisted though i did not take the seriouzly coz i knew it cant happen i was afraid to share it with my mum coz i believed that nothing like that can happen untill aday before my mum’s death the imaginations everytime then i started wondering whether its me who going to die or what is it bt i continued assuming upto now am guilty of my mum’s death and am totally depressed i dont know how i can even explain this to my friend..please help me

    • Jennifer  November 26, 2020 at 2:42 am Reply

      Sweetheart. It is not your fault. Please know that. My father was murdered and set on fire by someone that I love deeply. It sounds like she died peacefully. Hold on to that

  4. David  January 1, 2020 at 10:58 pm Reply

    Found my sister dead Tuesday morning ! I need someone to talk to

    • Jennifer  November 26, 2020 at 2:45 am Reply

      My sister died as well. She committed suicide and left behind her family, husband and two children.

      • IsabelleS  November 27, 2020 at 11:42 am

        Jennifer, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  5. Traci  September 5, 2019 at 2:56 am Reply

    8 years ago I lost my mom. She Was my world. My mom, my best friend and my sister all in one. I still cry like it was yesterday. I’ve shut so many people out of my life since then. I hate how lost I am. I’m an only child and my aunts , uncles and cousins don’t care about anyone but themselves. She’s the one good thing I had , the one person who never let me down, and now I have no one!

    • kishlan  March 16, 2021 at 3:02 am Reply

      hi, traci. my heart aches for you. in many ways, our circumstances are similar, if not the same. i can feel your pain.

  6. Amanda Ragland  August 2, 2019 at 4:20 pm Reply

    My name is Amanda Ragland I never got over the death of my 2month old son Jamarious Kentrell Ragland he was my 1st born He turn 12 August 16th Born in 2007 Every Day and night I cry and I ask God can I see my baby I wanna hold him one last time and kiss him I have 3 other kids 2boys an a girl I just want my Son back I be depressed all the time I’ll never have peace until I dead not a day GOES by ION think of Jamarious he dead of sids he suffocation on a bean bag I fault myself??????

  7. Lisa  June 16, 2019 at 8:48 am Reply

    I am at the point that I feel I need a grief counselor. I lost my precious Momma 6 weeks ago, tomorrow. She was my best friend, my rock, my partner in crime. It was just the two of us for about 2 years before she remarried and I was an only child until I was 12. Momma was 19 when I was born so we kind of “grew up” together. She has always been there when I needed her and I have always been there when she needed me.
    Now I’m lost. I feel like my world has been ripped away from me and I’m not sure which way to turn. I have a huge hole where my heart used to be. I sit and talk to her all the time. Every cardinal I see I imagine it’s her letting me know she’s ok.
    I used to be terrified thinking about what I’d do if this day every came now that it has the reality is so much worse than I ever dreamed. I cry if I think about her, I cry if I see a picture of her. There are times I have to pull off the road because I get hysterical with the need to see her and talk to her.
    I have a very supportive fiancé and family but I’m sure they are getting tired of my emotional break downs. I have to run to the bathroom. At least 2-3 times during a shift to keep from crying in front of my patients, I am a nurse.
    I know it’s only been 6 weeks but shouldn’t this start to get better by now? I know I am still in the denial phase of grief but I don’t know how to move on past it.
    I just want my Momma back.

  8. Sariah Meagle  January 7, 2019 at 9:29 pm Reply

    Stating that we should decide if my sister really needs help is something I may need to ask everyone before we go to grief counselor so that we can help her effectively. I do agree that we have to consider what we are looking for in a therapist as you suggest because I want her to talk to someone who can understand her pain. If I can also know what type of therapy I want her therapist to practice as you mentioned is possible, I’ll try to hire someone we all think is the best match for her.

  9. Jewelee  December 10, 2018 at 3:52 pm Reply

    Hello everyone my name is jewelee and I just lost my boyfriend of over 13 teen years due to thyroid cancer just this year on oct /26 he died he was my soul mate he wasent supposed to die what the hell why I dont understand I miss him so fn much I thought I was doing the right thing by being a big person and stayed alown by his side 247 I watch this man die to his last breath and now I dont no if iam going crazy iam happy then sad I cry alot I had him cremated and have him at home with me in our room I know it’s his ashes but I just dont want to let him go we where in this together and boy am I pissed off at the fact he is gone the nerve of leaving me well as you can see I need some help i dont know where or how or who. i am at a total loss I have no money or income or insurance can some one please give me some advice on what I should do please thank you.for letting me a shair God bless you all and I hope you get the help you need I my self also.

  10. Jewelee  December 10, 2018 at 3:41 pm Reply

    Hello everyone my name is jewelee and I just lost my boyfriend of over 13 teen years due to thyroid cancer just this year on oct /26 he was my soul mate he wasent supposed to die what the hell why I dont understand I miss him so fn much I thought I was doing the right thing by being a big person and stayed alown by his side 247 I watch this man die to his last breath and now I dont no if iam going crazy iam happy then sad I cry alot I had him cremated and have him at home with me in our room I know it’s his ashes but I just dont want to let him go we where in this together and boy am I pissed off at the fact he is gone the nerve of leaving me we as you can see I need some help i dont know where or how or who i am at a total loss I have no money or income or insurance can some one please give me some advice on what I should do please thank you.for letting me a shair God bless you all and I hope you get the help you need I my self also.

  11. Keith Jones  August 26, 2018 at 11:27 pm Reply

    Thank you for your words. I am, and I despise this, over my head. I’ve always been logic over emotion. My total family used to have Thanksgiving and Christmas with maybe 30-40 relatives and friends. Now, we are down to 4. That’s life good times are that because you can compare them to the tough times. I’ve lost my fiance and a child I found out about 3 hours before the world flipped me. But, stronghold of logic and thought it was tough, but created a career to always be away from home and only took 2 weeks a year, but it hurt. BUT, this is next level of grief when my mom passed away 3 weeks ago. I can not contain it. The only information I have read that makes the sense is a wave that just unexpectedly tossed me and tries to suffocate. The only thing I can put a point to is she is the person that loved you before you were even born. I knew it was time to start looking for a way out of this hole and darkness. I am at a point where my chest and the soulful crying physically making me feel I had a hard workout. Not sure why telling you this, but I have to get this out. I feel like my soul was ripped out of my chest. And I can’t think of any way to repair the soul. She was my mom and dad (he was a tool, drank a lot, I have no feelings for him as he decided to chase my mom to hurt her. A 12 yr old wiped the floor with a 6’4 260 lb., easy to say no love lost. Alright, thank you for at least perusing it. She lived with me 6 years ago when she started dementia and falling a lot. Not ever going to hurt myself, I mean come on, look at this punum. But, since I quit my job to care for her the final 2 years. Job interviews are a tough one where I used to enjoy interviews. Now, more focused on not getting triggered with music, people, etc. I still call every other day, get 3 rings, oh damn. Come on. Alright, I am still in the quick sand. If happen to see something, please keep me in your job search. May you all have a Blessed week. I mean, come on, who looses faculties when Hear a commercial

  12. Brandon Roberts  November 23, 2015 at 5:36 pm Reply

    My older sister has been having some troubles lately, and my mom wants to take her to a counselor. The problem is is that she has no idea what to look for in a good counselor. I’ll make sure I show this to her right away so she can use these tips and see who she can find. Thanks a ton for sharing this with me. https://www.confidentialcare.com/psychiatric-services/adolescent-group.php

  13. sally glenn  January 15, 2015 at 3:41 pm Reply

    My mum died 15 years ago and I do not feel I have grieved I still cry at times play the song from her funaral, mum ashes were scattered by my sisters friend abroad I have no were to go, no grave or head stone.

  14. Ana  January 8, 2015 at 3:34 pm Reply

    A GREAT resource for grief counseling (in my own experience) has been the hospice that we used for my Mom at the end of her life. They even allow people who were not patients/ family members of patients to use their grief counseling services at a sliding scale fee. I would advise anyone to check out their own local hospice company for what they might have to offer in the way of counseling or other support groups. I’ve really benefited from participating in the hospice support groups as well as visiting one of their grief therapists every week. There have been people with all types of loss (not just “hospice/ terminal illnesses”) in the support groups, so anyone from the community is welcome. It’s a resource most people wouldn’t think of if they haven’t used a hospice during the loss of a loved one, but a lot of hospice services also have pretty amazing grief therapy available to anyone who needs it.

  15. cgp  February 4, 2013 at 6:38 pm Reply

    Wow, marvelous weblog format! How long have you ever been blogging for? you made running a blog look easy. The total look of your site is excellent, let alone the content material!

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