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Working with bereavement and complicated grief

Losing someone or something you care about is painful. Whilst there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, so that in time you are able to move on. Grief can occur at any time in your life – with or without warning - and one of the myths is that there are standard stages or responses that everyone has following a loss (in 1969, it was psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief”, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Sometimes though it helps to know that grief is experienced uniquely and cannot always be categorized into so called ‘normal’ stages.

Emotional symptoms

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that everyone’s experience is different. Not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages—and you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. Grief may challenge your spiritual beliefs or it may confirm them, and it may have an impact on your social relationships, as those around you may not know how to support you or what to say. Losing someone close after many years of shared life may also profoundly affect your sense of your own identity. Confusion and alienation may dominate as this new isolation is so strange and makes ordinary things feel surreal.

Physical and other symptoms

We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, appetite changes, aches and pains, and sometimes insomnia and hallucinations.

Getting support

Having the support of others is an important part of the healing process. In the past, people tended to deal with their grief by receiving support from their family and community. Meals might be prepared for the grieving person and there was a dress code that informed people that a person was bereaved and should be treated accordingly. However society has changed a lot in recent years, families are more geographically dispersed, and bereavement has become more hidden in our society, meaning that support can be harder to find. It is generally advised that you delay seeking counselling immediately for grief, to give yourself time to adjust naturally in your own way. It is normally recommended to leave it at least some months before seeing a counsellor. However, as times have changed and family and social support is not always available, then if you do not have access to a caring social network then it is a good idea to seek support so that you are not grieving alone.

In addition, if you find that you would like to talk through your feelings outside of your immediate family or social circle, it can be invaluable to express your emotions such as anger or resentment - within a safe and confidential setting.

What about more complicated grief?

There are many different types of grief, and complicated grief occurs when a death is sudden – in the case of suicide for example, a result of a violent crime, or when you have witnessed a death – such as in the event of a car accident. In this situation, you may experience shock and trauma, as well as grief. Certain types of counselling can help to treat the shock and trauma first of all, so that you can then move on and connect with the grief. You may also experience complicated grief whilst a person is still alive, for instance if a loved one becomes ill and you become their carer. You may find yourself grieving for the relationship that you have lost, grieving for the freedom you have lost or for the things you used to do together. After the person dies, you might feel a sense of relief and this can bring with it feelings of guilt.

Sometimes you might lose people because you have had to protect yourself from them. For instance if you have ended a relationship with an abusive partner or because the partner has an addiction. Despite making the choice to bring the relationship to an end, it is likely that you will grieve the loss. Lastly, grief is an under acknowledged element in the lives of survivors of child abuse. If you have experienced abuse in your past, then you might need to cut yourself off from a member of your family, or indeed your whole family. Complications here can arise as you may be suffering with grief, but feel unable to tell anyone.

How can counselling help people to find closure?

  • Grief can be a more straightforward experience if the relationship with the person who died was OK. If this is not the case, then some of the more complicated emotions can be worked through in therapy, and counselling can draw on a number of ways to help this process. For example, you might talk to your counsellor and decide you want to write to the person who has died, to express your thoughts and feelings.
  • Another way of communicating is to use something called the ‘two chair’ approach, where your counsellor will ask you to talk to the person as though they are in the room. Although to many people this may sound strange, when this is sensitively done at the right time it can provide an emotionally cathartic healing experience. Your counsellor will work with you to find ways for you to cope outside of the sessions too.
  • Death and dying can offer the opportunity to look afresh at life – when the time is right. Some people find that their priorities change, and that some things which previously held a lot of importance no longer do. Animals are a great source of comfort to some people. Even though animals do not speak they are often profoundly tuned in to emotions on a body level and will use touch and proximity to bring comfort.
  • Relationships with others can deepen, and some find that they develop a more active spiritual life or deeper connection to nature.. The important thing is to work with your counsellor to explore the ways that work for you.


• ‘Grace and Grit’ by Ken Wilbur about the illness and death of his wife

• ‘Anam Cara’ John O Donoghue a view on life and death from Celtic Christianity

From which this blessing:


May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul. May you realize that you are never alone that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe. May you have respect for your own individuality and difference. May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here that behind the facade of your life there is something beautiful, good and eternal happening. May you learn to see your self with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.

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