• Adam Rothwell

Understanding grief

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

The experience of loss can be painful and brings many emotions to the surface. Many people wonder if they need therapy for their grief. Perhaps you are experiencing a loss in your life and are wanting to know how you can support yourself or those close to you. This blog considers what grief actually is, how you can help yourself and how receiving counselling can help.

What is grief?

We can define grief as 'a natural reaction to loss or bereavement, including the thoughts and feelings one has.' Often, the word grief is associated with the death of a person, however grief can be experienced through the loss of:

  • a pet

  • a job

  • possessions, such as your home

  • a relationship, for example divorcing a partner

As mentioned in the definition of grief, it is important to note that grief is natural, especially if you the lost person or thing was incredibly important in your life. Some of the things you can experience whilst grieving:

  • Feeling intense emotions, sometimes suddenly without warning

  • Struggling to sleep, or having interrupted sleep (including intense dreams)

  • Feeling fatigued and the need to sleep a lot

  • Loss of appetite or a lack of interest in eating

  • Eating more than you usually would

  • Feeling that you want to avoid social situations

  • Confusion and forgetfulness


How does grief work?

Everyone grieves in their own way, and often you will not actively choose how you experience your loss, your mind and body will choose their own way of expressing your grief. But for some, understanding a theory about grief can be helpful in having faith that things can and do get better. One famous theory was created by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, following her work with dying patients in a hospital. She identified five stages of grief:

  1. Denial: This stage refers to the initial shock of a loss, for instance if people say "I just can't believe he has gone...".

  2. Anger: In this stage, the person grieving can feel intense emotions about the unfairness of the situation. This does not mean that the person cannot understand the situation, but the pain is incredibly raw.

  3. Bargaining: Bargaining takes place when someone wonders about the things they could have done to stop the loss occurring. An example of a statement made is "I would happily swap places with them so they could have lived."

  4. Depression: People often experience a period of low mood and motivation, described as depression. At this point, one may feel they want to withdraw from social situations, or have low awareness of self-care.

  5. Acceptance: It is important to acknowledge here that acceptance does not mean that someone is happy about their loss, but that they accept it has happened, and they are ready to move forward without the person, or the thing they have lost.

There is often a misconception that people move through these stages once at a time - if you have grieved, you will know that this is not the case. Kübler-Ross herself acknowledged that people can move back and forth between the stages multiple times during grief.


What can you do to support yourself or a loved one?

  • Give yourself time: Try not to pressure yourself to move through grief in a specific time-frame, you will have your own journey and pressuring yourself will only add to the emotions you are feeling.

  • Talk to others: It can be hard to discuss how you are feeling with other people or ask for help, but telling other people how you feel can be helpful. Talking about the thing or person you lost can also help you process what has happened. If you don't have someone close to you that you would feel comfortable talking to, there are support charities you can access, or counselling could help (see the next section).

  • Look after yourself: Think about ways you can care for yourself both mentally and physically. Ways you can mentally support yourself are; watching films or reading books you enjoy, taking time for yourself if you are usually busy, connect with others, journal about your thoughts and feelings. Examples of looking after yourself physically are: avoiding alcohol or drugs as these can raise and lower you mood (if you have a dependency on alcohol or drugs, please consult your GP before withdrawing from using these), having a bath or a massage - something that is physically relaxing, eating healthy foods and drinking the recommended amount of water each day, exercising daily.

If you are supporting someone else who is grieving, you can give them the above advice.


How can counselling help you in your grief?

Sometimes seeing a counsellor can help you move through your grief. Instances when this would be helpful are; if you don't have someone else you can talk to, you want to talk to someone external to your family or social circle or you are struggling with the process of grieving.

When I meet with clients about grief, I aim to offer them a space to remember the person or thing they have lost, without judgement or an agenda other than to be supportive. This can be different to talking with friends and family, who may also be grieving, but understandably may try to help you feel positive and look toward the future. Counselling can allow you the space to remember what you have lost, whether this is a love, a friend or something important to you.

One of the things that I find important when working with grief is that clients have the opportunity to remember the entire picture. Especially in relationships, there are many positive experiences, but there may also be things that were not perfect, and it is helpful to acknowledge these too. Counselling looks to allow clients to gain closure on the past and then consider the present.

Clients will know when they begin to experience the acceptance stage outlined within Kübler-Ross' model of grief. Counselling can also help consider the ways that a loss has affected the client's life in the present time. Examples of this could be; having to take on new responsibilities around the home, or with childcare, finding a new job or financial concerns and attending social events without a partner. Counselling can help sort through these changes, and clients can adjust and take action in their life.

The main thing to take away is that counselling offers a safe, confidential place to process the intense experience of grief. Not everyone will need professional support, but if you are struggling and think that counselling would be helpful, research counsellors in your local area and contact them to find out more about the ways they can help you.


Adam Rothwell MBACP is a registered person-centred counsellor in private practice. He sees clients online and in person in the South Manchester, Stockport and Cheshire East areas of North West England.

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