Can Therapy Make Your Loss Worse?

Does grief therapy really have positive effects?

By Susan Campbell, published August 2, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Forcing well-adjusted individuals to dwell on the loss of a loved one may actually retard the grieving process.

"In grief treatment, there really isn't a positive effect overall, and more than one-third of people get worse," says George Bonanno, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, who reviewed studies on grief for an article in Applied and Preventative Psychology. The findings do not apply to people who lose loved ones under unnatural or traumatic circumstances.

Bonanno claims that the bereaved often experience severe depression for up to one to three years after the loss. "One reason is that 80 to 90 percent do not need serious professional treatment. On average, 50 percent—sometimes more—are just fine [without therapy]," says Bonanno, who found that half of bereaved individuals do not demonstrate obvious signs of grief.

People who appear to recover quickly may be judged dysfunctional by clinicians and by society, but Bonanno insists that the less people dwell on grief, the healthier they are over time.

Studies by Dutch researchers Margaret and Wolfgang Stroebe are in line with Bonanno's findings. Widows and widowers who discussed or wrote down their feelings fared no better than those who did not. A better index of recovery was "identity continuity," or the ability to get on with one's life despite an overwhelming loss, according to the studies published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.