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What is grief therapy?

written by Ellen McSweeney, LGSW

As an early-career therapist, I often find myself “put on the spot” as I face certain questions from clients for the very first time. For me, these are challenging and magical moments, forcing me to reckon with everything that I know—and don’t know—about the human experience and the process of “helping.” 

I’ll never forget when my new client, Lynn, posed just such a question. After a series of traumatic events—including the loss of a family member and her own serious illness—Lynn had been referred to the therapy center where I was working. This avalanche of difficult life events had left her feeling numb, exhausted, and totally unlike herself. 

“My doctor says I need to do some ‘grief work,’” she said, looking at me warily. “Now, what exactly does that entail?” 

Ten answers came to my mind at once.

What does it entail? Oh, boy. There is no road map. Your grief is as unique as you, as unique as the person you lost, and as unique as the relationship you still share. 

Grief work means feeling worse before you feel better. 

Grief work means that the only way out is through.

Sometimes, grief work kind of sucks. How’s that for a sales pitch? 

 

 

I managed to gather myself enough to offer Lynn some kind of answer. “Often times, grief therapy is a place to feel the things that we might be spending a lot of energy trying not to feel,” I said with as much kindness as I could muster. “After all, our culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for feelings this big.”

Lynn nodded. “Yeah. The feelings are huge.” Like almost every grieving person, Lynn was finding herself hit by waves of emotion at completely inopportune moments. Tears would suddenly overwhelm her while she was chatting in the office kitchen, or sitting on the Metro, or standing in the Hallmark aisle at CVS. At these times, Lynn wished a spaceship would appear so she could teleport home to her couch. 

I had no magic pill or special instructions to offer Lynn. I knew grief therapy could be painful, challenging, and unpredictable. 

But I was also aware of another possibility: that on the other side of Lynn’s grief process might be a richer engagement with all of life, and with the deepest truths of being human. 

 

 

Grief is a two-sided coin—and the pain is only one side. The other side is love. Often times, people who have gone through profound grief emerge with an increased appreciation of being alive. They emerge with hard-won wisdom about how short life truly is. They have grappled with human mortality, and with the mystery of how to stay connected to a loved one who has died. We see this in the phenomenon of post-traumatic growth, in which individuals derive an increased sense of meaning and purpose from adverse experiences. 

Even as I wax poetic here, I certainly don’t mean to “bright-side” the process of grief. There is no sugar-coating profound loss. In many ways it is the hardest work we will ever do. The good news is that we don’t have to do this work alone. And little by little, in grieving a death, we may learn how better to live.

 

Ellen McSweeney (LGSW, RYT) is a psychotherapist at the Center for Effective Psychological Services. Beginning July 18, she is offering a 4-week Yoga + Grief therapy group. To learn more or to register for the group, click here. 

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