Loss and grief counseling is a field in clinical psychology which deals with helping individuals cope with the emotional pain associated with the loss of a loved one. The therapy techniques mostly focus on helping the individual understand the normal stages of the grieving process, and provide them with the necessary support while they go through mourning.
Formalization of Practice
While grief counseling has always been an aspect of any clinical psychology practice, it wasn't until around the 1970s that health care professionals began to show an increased interest in issues relating to death, and thus increased interest related to the subjects of grief and bereavement. As this therapeutic practice began to be formalized as a distinct psychological discipline, a number of practitioners dedicated themselves to specific research focused on loss and grief counseling. The result was a growing body of literature, replete with its own terminology and best practice methods.
The overarching purpose of grief counseling is to help individuals overcome negative feelings and thoughts that are associated with the loss of a loved one. Current methods focus either on individual counseling offered by psychologists, social workers, or specially trained counselors, or in a less formal way through support groups organized by community groups and specific organizations dedicated to this kind of work.
The term normal grief (or, alternately, uncomplicated grief) encompasses the range of behaviors and emotions that are common after a significant loss. One of the earliest attempts to look at this process was conducted by Erich Lindemann in 1944. In the Boston area where Lindemann worked as the Chief of Psychiatry at the Massachusettes General Hospital, there was an accident at a nightclub in which nearly 500 people lost their lives. After the tragedy, Lindemann and his team worked with the family members who lost their loved ones in the fire, and used that data to write the first paper on loss and grief counseling, called "The Symptomatology of Management of Acute Grief." There, he described the characteristics of normal grief, which include somatic or bodily distress, preoccupation with the image of the deceased, guilt, hostility and the inability to function as well as before the loss.
Limitations of Lindemann's Theory
In 1972, Parkes, another psychologist studying loss and grief counseling, outlined the limitations of Lindemann's 1944 theory. Parkes claimed that Lindemann did not present any data to demonstrate the frequency of the described symptoms, and that he neglected to mention the number of times the patients were interviewed, as well as how much time passed between the interviews and the date of the loss.
General Categories of Normal Grief
Even though the list of grief behaviors is so varied and extensive, it is possible to place those symptoms and syndromes into four general categories: feelings (such as sadness and anger), physical sensations, cognitions and behaviors. Anyone who is involved in loss and grief counseling needs to be familiar with the broad range of behaviors that falls into those categories, and adjust their treatment so as to provide customized support for each individual.
- Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health; James William Worden; 2003
- Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders
- Bereavement Counseling: Pastoral Care for Complicated Grieving; Junietta Baker McCall; 2004