- Grief support is fundamentally different than grief therapy.
- Grief support often focuses on normalizing grief or acknowledging grief in socially supportive spaces.
- Grief therapy is depth-oriented and reconstructive, and it integrates the past in an intentional therapeutic setting.
Grief support is fostered in any environment where people can talk about their loss or grieving experiences with others. This may come from a family member, friend, partner, neighbour, colleague, teacher, health care provider, or a not-for-profit community worker. Typically, grief support focuses on providing a supportive environment where a grieving person can engage with a specific loss they are grappling with in present-day life.
Grief support may be more emotionally supportive or educational in nature. You don’t have to be a therapist to offer grief or bereavement support, and that’s because grief support is different than grief therapy.
Grief support is often about helping grieving people to feel heard, seen, or validated, and it’s often facilitated through compassionate spaces. Grief researchers frequently advocate for how grief support belongs in public and social spaces within the community, as grief is fundamentally a social experience. The truth is we need more compassionate and communal spaces for grief, as many grieving people feel alienated, disenfranchised, or isolated in their grieving experiences.
Effective Grief Support
People who offer effective grief support adopt a care-oriented approach, rather than a cure-oriented approach. In other words, the key to meaningful grief support is often offering a compassionate presence, and not trying to fix someone else’s grief. There are no quick solutions or step-by-step formulas to cure a grieving heart.
Instead, grief invites us to learn how to live with loss. Grief requires us to go through a journey into the wilderness that no one can spare us from. Typically, grief responds well when it is supported to unfold naturally and in the unique way it needs to, although this can be a mysterious process for both the griever and those offering grief support.
This highlights how many grieving persons appreciate being able to connect with others in times of loss and have their unique wishes or needs respected by others. People typically want to feel socially acknowledged in their grief and to be surrounded by those who have the ability to engage in both the uncertainty and mystery of grief. This is because many grieving people don’t know what it means to grieve, how to grieve, or what giving themselves permission to grieve even looks like.
For this to occur, that means individuals must not force oppressive social norms or expectations on grieving people. For example, pushing grieving people to find closure, telling people they are grieving wrong, or trying to force grieving people into a rigid step-by-step formula for grief can be oppressive and harmful.
Effective grief therapy also places an emphasis on normalizing grief, creating a nonjudgmental space, and facilitating a compassionate environment where grieving people can explore their losses. However, grief therapy is different, as it is depth-oriented. There is a reconstructive element to grief therapy, as grief therapists help individuals rebuild fundamental assumptions that were shattered about themselves, other people, or the world due to traumatic loss.
We often discuss the past in grief therapy. This is because early childhood experiences, attachment wounding, previous traumatic experiences, and other painful loss experiences from the past can live on in the present. We open ourselves to deeper understandings of grief when we bring conscious awareness to the past, as this can bring greater understanding to the present and help liberate our future.
Sometimes, grieving people require assistance in integrating past traumatic events or significant losses that may be compounding their present-day grief experience. By revisiting the past, therapists can help grieving individuals recognize self-defeating or painful life patterns that perpetuate suffering. Learning how to explore both present-day and past experiences of grief with curiosity, instead of shame, judgment, avoidance, anxiety, or defensiveness can often facilitate the expression of grief itself.
Grief therapy often supports people into entering active grieving states, as well as helping them find compassionate refuge. We can learn how to attend to new life changes in therapy, and we can develop restorative practices that will help people sustain themselves through their grieving journeys. Typically, grief therapy seeks to help individuals develop a fluid range of responses within their grieving experience, and grief therapy aids people who feel stuck or paralyzed by their grief.
It’s essential to clarify that any competent grief therapist is not trying to take away the pain of your loss but is rather trying to help you integrate a significant loss in your life. Grief therapy revolves around acknowledging loss, embracing grief, developing grief rituals, and deepening our identities or relations to others in times of loss. Grief therapy is often about helping people discover a sense of meaning in their lives when things feel pointless, absurd, and disorienting.
Grief therapy occurs with a licensed and trusted mental health care professional in an intentional therapeutic environment. It’s important to note, however, that many clinical, medical, counseling, and social work programs don’t offer extensive training in grief therapy despite these being major reasons for why people pursue therapy. As a result, grieving people need to look for or inquire about a clinician’s training with grief and be skeptical of generalized approaches that suggest short-term solutions or rational problem-solving.
Grief is fundamentally a felt-sense embodied experience, and, unfortunately, we can’t think our way out of grief. As such, grief responds well to emotionally supportive, depth-oriented, reconstructive, compassion-focused, person-centered, anti-oppressive, expressive, integrative, or holistic therapeutic modalities that honour the totality of grief in one’s life. Typically, grief does not respond well to rigidity, inflexibility, or short-term deadlines.
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