“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:
- Grief and Psychological Disorder
- Understanding Traumatic Grief
- What is Normal in Grief?
- Normal vs. Not-so-Normal Grief
- Demystifying Grief Counseling
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.
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.
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,
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: