How bereavement counselling can help you (even if you think it won’t)

Bereavement counselling’s pretty near the top of the list of things you don’t want to need twice in four years. My two experiences-  both after the suicide of a friend, both with Cruse Bereavement Care, both in the same town – were pretty different. But having had the second, I can comfortably recommend it to anyone…

The first time I had it, four years ago, it turned slightly awkward when, after a few sessions, I started bringing in other concerns. My counsellor was fairly insistent on sticking directly to bereavement matters, which is understandable but tricky when you have a knot of problems and it seems impossible to entangle the bereavement from the rest.

I was getting CBT for anxiety last year, and on the cusp of a decision on how and whether to be referred for the next stage of the slow snakes and ladders game that is NHS therapy, when I learned of another friend’s suicide. When I told the referral team, and that he was the second person I knew who’d done it, they said they wouldn’t see me until I’d been to bereavement counselling, so, not too hopefully but supposing it wouldn’t harm, I agreed to it.

This time I knew immediately without a doubt it was utterly the right thing to do. I’ve had short-term therapy throughout my adult life and although it was rarely actively unhelpful, if I’m honest, I’ve rarely found it as truly helpful as this before. As this great, thoughtful blog post on choosing a therapist hints at, the success rate for therapy is about the same as for dating and the reasons for it not working can be similar in both. As with relationships, some of the more promising therapists I’ve seen were non-starters or cut short for practical reasons (money; availability; logistics…). But, as with relationships, a good one feels worth the wait.

My final session is next week. I’ve never understood why people talked about “missing” a therapist. I was never particularly attached to any of mine and in the past, when therapy ended it felt little different than saying goodbye to my dentist, or builder, or any other service provider. They’d done what they could, to their best of their ability, and I felt a bit better, and there was nothing more to be said. But now I know – and I really will miss this one…

Below – without getting into things best kept within the room – I’ve put together a brief summary of how counselling has been helping me, and how it can do the same for you.

It can help you…

  • If your grief is disenfranchised. Disenfranchised grief is the academic term for grief that has less status than losing a partner or relative, especially if your relationship wasn’t widely known or recognised by others. It also covers any bereavement where the cause of death carries a social stigma, such as suicide, or addiction. This article on disenfranchised grief has changed my life.
  • To confront difficult feelings, positive or negative, around the person who died honestly without being judged.
  • To understand why bereavement might have hit you particularly hard e.g if you have been bereaved before, especially in a similar way, or if you are in a job where there is lots of instability and rejection.
  • To deal with feelings, conflicts and questions which are specific to suicide bereavement and not covered by the general received wisdom around grief and loss.
  • To work towards acceptance Giving yourself permission to look for answers but also knowing when to stop.
  • Not to take it personally if someone else affected by suicide seems reluctant to talk about it. People open up at different speeds. Even very confident, outgoing people may find complicated feelings hard to express. They may not want to upset themselves, or you, not want to open up old wounds, or just not know what to say.
  • To talk through anniversaries and decide when and how to mark them.
  • To talk about how the bereavement might be affecting your friendships and relationships.
  • To be clear on how to safely express your feelings without impinging on anyone else’s privacy or wellbeing.
  • To realise grief is a constantly evolving process, and think about how you might cope with reminders, such as news stories, anniversaries, or approaches from mutual friends/acquaintances (or, especially, from the person’s relatives if you aren’t related and they don’t know you well). All these things are likely due to the nature of the mass-media and internet.
  • Related to the above, tcontrol your worrying about things you can’t control I’m going to work on a rough plan of action for this, using some CBT strategies.

If anyone’s interested in sharing their experiences of bereavement counselling – helpful, unhelpful or anywhere in between – I’d be very interested to read them in the comments.

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