Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: How can therapy help a grieving person?

Myra Gasser is a licensed professional counselor on Hilton Head Island.
Myra Gasser is a licensed professional counselor on Hilton Head Island. Submitted photo

This week, Myra Gasser, a licensed professional counselor on Hilton Head Island, discusses grief, what to do if you're experiencing grief and how to help those who might otherwise hesitate to seek help.

Question. If I'm experiencing grief from the loss of a loved one, what can therapy do for me? If a family member is reluctant to seek therapy because of the perceived stigma, what can I tell them?

Answer. There are few things in life that are harder than getting over the loss of a loved one, and a therapist can provide assistance in helping people process their grief.

It might seem like a paradox, but you must experience the feelings to get past them. A good therapist will help you assimilate the despair to get a healthier perspective on the situation.

It helps, however, to understand the difference between grief and mourning. With the latter, you have the coping skills to navigate the loss.

Grief, on the other hand, is being so sad or distraught that it makes it difficult to function. A therapist will help you move from grief to mourning and understand the different stages of grief -- denial, fear, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance.

People go through the different stages at different speeds, even flip-flopping between them. She or he will help you realize that there's no right way to grieve, and everybody's experience is unique, but you will emerge with coping skills, such as journaling and memory rituals.

Overcoming the shame that some people feel about seeing a psychotherapist is a big roadblock typically born out of fear and misunderstanding. Does it mean I'm crazy if I see one? What if friends spot me going in or out of the office?

The first thing to do is not to judge the person and reassure him or her that those feelings are normal. Another important point to bring up is that most people who seek counseling don't have a mental illness but are going through a difficult life transition -- work issues, relationship problems, financial problems -- that is making it hard to cope.

They're also not really sure what will happen in the therapist's office, so it's good to tell the person about your own positive experiences with therapists and that therapists provide a safe place to experience feelings, be they anger, fear, resentment, anxiety, depression or sadness.

But if the person is not ready to open up when they walk through that therapist's door, seeing one won't do much good. If a loved one is really opposed to the idea, I would suggest other ways to process the unwanted feelings through support groups, pastors or spiritual guides and books. Even talking to a friend or family member who's a good listener will help.

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