by Glynis Sherwood
Chronic grief is a serious road block to mental health and happiness. Read on to learn how counselling can help you regain your psychological well being if you are stuck in “the pain that won’t go away”.
There’s much debate in the research community about the usefulness of grief counselling. The debate revolves around whether grief counselling is necessary for recovery, or if it even does any good. There seems to be some agreement that for ‘normal’ grief, counselling isn’t required for healing to take place. Healing tends to happen on its own, over time – especially with good support. However, most researchers recognize that adequate familial and social support systems can be lacking for grievers, especially after the first couple of months following the loss, and agree that people experiencing ‘ordinary’ grief can receive valuable help, understanding and normalization of grief emotions from counselling. This can be immensely beneficial for grieving people who encounter attitudes that reflect little understanding of the process of grief, or unrealistic expectations about the needs of grievers that can pressure grievers to ‘get over it’ long before their healing may have actually even started. The truth is, we live in a world that has little tolerance for death except as a form of entertainment. So ‘normal’ grief counselling can play a beneficial role as both a source of comfort, education and a coping bridge between the griever’s heartache and the world outside. But is counselling necessary for normal grief to heal? Probably not.
Where grief counselling can become a lifeline is in situations where grief becomes chronic. Chronic grief – also known as ‘stuck’, prolonged, or complicated grief – is characterized by the lack of resolution or intensification of acute grief symptoms such as disbelief, shock, anxiety or depression after more than a year. Chronic grief is experienced by 15% to 20% of all grieving people, especially those who have been impacted by unexpected and/or traumatic loss, such as sudden death, prolonged fatal illness, war and catastrophic injury. People who have a history of depression, anxiety or childhood abuse or neglect are more vulnerable to chronic grief. It has also been my experience that people who experience socially unrecognized or “disenfranchised” grief, such as early miscarriage, pet death or job loss, can be at greater risk of chronic grief, as they feel further isolated or judged for ‘inappropriate’ grief.
From my perspective, chronic grief can be thought of normal grief that has lost its way, and does not know how to heal. This kind of grief is often characterized by hopelessness, loss of meaning and/or belief systems, intense pre-occupation and longing for a lost loved one or situation, apathy, a lingering sense of disbelief about the loss, avoidance of situations or thoughts that are reminders of the loss, and sometimes, distressing, intrusive thoughts related to the loss that are reminiscent of trauma symptoms. Left untreated, chronic grief can lead to clinical depression, substance abuse and at worst, suicidal thinking.
Recovery from chronic grief is possible, but requires specific counselling approaches designed to treat both grief and trauma symptoms. Preliminary studies are hopeful as they show that the recovery rate from specialized chronic grief counselling is twice that of regular grief counselling.
During chronic grief counselling, grievers are taught to find a balance between facing their grief and turning away from grief thoughts, emotions and memories. By learning to skillfully ‘dose’ themselves in this way, grievers come to accept the reality of their loss, while developing healthier coping skills including overcoming negative beliefs and distressing emotions, managing other people’s reactions to them, and moving on with life. This skill acquisition makes the grieving process more conscious and voluntary, and builds psychological resilience.
So is complicated grief counselling necessary for recovery from chronic grief? I would argue that not only is it necessary, but that chronic grief counselling is a vital support that helps people stuck in grief to regain an investment in life that otherwise could be lost to them forever.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in helping people recover from all kinds of Loss, Grief and Stuck Grief – aka ‘the pain that won’t go away. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the peace of mind you want and deserve.