Seeking Professional Grief Support: The nuts and bolts

“I think I could benefit from some professional help”.

Sounds easy enough, right? Over the past weeks, months or years you may have heard hints and suggestions from people all around you:

“Have you thought about seeing a counselor?”

“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 kind of help? When will I have time to go?  Will Google tell me where to go? 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 really need help.

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

  • They want help sorting through their experiences
  • They need 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
  • They are having problems with interpersonal relationships as a result of the loss
  • They need 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 are looking for in a therapist.

To get started, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want something long-term or short-term?
  • Do you want someone just to listen, or someone to give you concrete guidance or advice?
  • Do you want to be seen alone, with you partner or family, or both?
  • Do you want/need insurance to cover your sessions?
  • Do you have a preference between seeing a man or a woman?
  • Do you have a preference in the age of your therapist?
  • Have you ever seen a therapist that you did or did not like in the past?  If so, make a list of what worked or what didn’t.
  • Do you think you need to see a therapist who specializes in trauma as well as grief?

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?    Alphabet soup 2

Once you have a list of providers, you may be 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 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 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.


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 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 professional support, 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.

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 staring a workout routine:  it is hard work when you’re doing it and you 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.

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July 10, 2017

4 responses on "Seeking Professional Grief Support: The nuts and bolts"

  1. 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. http://www.confidentialcare.com/psychiatric-services/adolescent-group.php

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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