Choosing the Best Grief Support: Free Counseling, Therapy, or The Grief Recovery MethodOct 24, 2023
Grief is a universal experience as well as a largely misunderstood one. The confusion surrounding grief can interfere with true healing. It is a paradox that while each of us will experience loss, many are not prepared for what to do afterward. Thankfully, this taboo topic is garnering increased attention and as such, there are more opportunities and options for grief support to help you heal your heart after loss.
We appreciate that having options theoretically allows you to find a program that works for you as an individual, and also acknowledge that it can be difficult to make that determination.
We aim to outline the advantages and considerations of three primary avenues for professional-led grief support: free grief counseling, therapy, and the Grief Recovery Method®. Whether you are navigating your own loss or supporting a loved one, understanding these distinctions will be a critical step toward finding renewed peace and hope. With that, let’s dive in so you can be that much closer to finding the support you or a loved one needs.
Understanding Grief and the Need for Support
Because grief is commonly misunderstood, we want to begin by defining it. Grief is the conflicting feelings that can accompany loss or significant change - both positive or negative. It is both the normal and natural reaction to a loss of any kind.
Grief is more than bereavement and can be felt with many life experiences outside the loss of a loved one or a divorce. It can be the heartache of not having your father walk you down the aisle and despair of taking a different last name even as you are excited to marry a wonderful person. It can also be the frustration of feeling incapable of creating the balance and security of a stable income and a fulfilling career.
Following a loss, there are many ways that you may (or may not) feel - including broken, confused, or frustrated by the profound impacts of grief: disrupted sleep, changes in appetite, irritability, anxiety, depression, brain-fog, isolation, reduced motivation, and even a weakened immune system. These each come at a cost; indeed, the financial burden of grief in the workplace itself has been valued at over $75 billion USD (download our White Paper to read more about this figure and additional data - click here).
Unfortunately, many experience prolonged grief and its negative impacts because they have unresolved grief. According to The Grief Recovery Handbook, unresolved grief is:
- The unmet hopes, dreams, and expectations for a relationship or situation.
- Wishing things had been different, better, or more.
- Any significant emotional expression we never were able to make, felt was never heard, or wish we could make again.
Even those experienced with healing grief (like Ilana and Kim, your grief specialists writing this!!) struggle to move through the fog of unresolved grief, and thus support is invaluable. As noted, there are different options you can consider, and an internet search can be both encouraging and overwhelming. Let’s look first at free grief counseling.
Free Grief Counseling
As none of us are immune from grief, the accessibility of free grief counseling services can be a lifesaver for many, including those unable (or unwilling)* to invest financially in their grief support. There are many different types of free grief counseling services, which you will surely find when you start your search. This could include groups, 1:1, in-person, online, drop-in, structured, open-ended, general loss type, specific loss type, religious-based, or peer-led. Many healthcare providers, like Kaiser or Sutter Health here in the San Francisco Bay Area, also have offerings covered by insurance. Additionally, some practitioners and hospices may offer free monthly drop-in grief support groups for anyone to attend. It is important to be aware that not all practitioners are trained in grief support so it’s important that you do your due diligence prior to starting services.
Grief counseling can be a source of new friendships, helpful reframes, and reprieve from the isolation many experience following loss. It can teach new coping skills, provide emotionally safe spaces, and not require emotional or financial commitment. For some, it is a helpful first step in receiving grief support while they determine what they are ready for emotionally.
Unfortunately, not all (many are though!) free grief counseling services are offered by trained grief practitioners so there is the risk of encountering misinformation about grief, such as the stages of grief (read more here) or unhelpful comments and advice. In any group setting, there is the risk of experiencing comparison with others (e.g. joining a sibling loss group and finding you are the only one present with a complicated sibling relationship).
Some free programs are drop-in or have minimal structure, which can contribute to the unmoored feeling some grievers experience, or to the propensity for someone to get caught in the details recounting their loss story without support for finding emotional closure. Retelling stories of aspects of one’s loss is a sign of being stuck in grief or incomplete with that component. Often someone needs a skilled support person to help uncover the incomplete layers and facilitate closure of that emotional element. For some, however, the unstructured drop-in format really works so we encourage you to evaluate your specific grief needs and try it out if it seems like it will be supportive.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. What is important is that you do it in the way that works for you.
*It is worth being said that oftentimes, you get out what you put into a program, and a financial investment helps one to emotionally invest and thus usually further reap the benefits of the grief support. While we are not discouraging the utilization of free grief support services, we want to point out that the lack of investment and often the lack of structure, may result in reduced benefits. We know this is not true across the board, and is a generalization, but it is a consideration.
Therapy for Grief
Let’s now review therapy for grief support. Many grievers are referred to or seek out this support option following a loss. Therapy for grief and bereavement can provide different tools or reflection prompts to support mourning or untangle sources of pain around a loss. A trauma-informed therapist may gently guide healing following traumatic losses. It can be valuable to have professional guidance and personalized support to build coping skills and process a loss. Loss often brings other underlying issues to the forefront so having a therapist to work through all of it can be incredibly healing.
However, it is important to find a grief-informed therapist as, surprisingly, grief is not extensively covered in therapy programs and not all therapists are equipped to work with grieving individuals. Other drawbacks to therapy could be the cost, particularly if you do not have insurance or your provider does not cover therapy either in general or in the case of acute grief. In some cases, insurance providers will only cover care via a diagnosis, currently the only diagnosis for grief is prolonged grief disorder - which means the loss of your loved one must have been over a year ago for adults, or 6 months for children. Some therapists will bill your insurance company sooner than that by using an alternate diagnosis, such as anxiety- this was Kim’s experience in 2012 following her brother’s death.
While recent years have seen encouraging headways in people embracing therapy and mental health support, there is still unfortunately a stigma around therapy whether for grief or other mental health concerns. For example, many physicians seek mental health support in secret fearing the stigma associated with needing that support. This stigma can be cultural, profession-based (e.g. many in the armed forces fear being treated differently or being seen as “weak”), or generational.
The Grief Recovery Method
This is the primary approach we utilize with our own clients. The Grief Recovery Method is a structured, action-based, 8-week program that provides tools to both better understand grief and heal the pain of heartbreak from any loss type. A certified specialist provides support and accountability while teaching the Method as outlined in The Grief Recovery Handbook, the text used for the program. It is offered both in group and individual formats. Specialists are trained to set containers - both in group and individual settings - in a way that discourages comparison of losses and honors the uniqueness of each individual’s grief experience. However, it is important to be aware that any group setting can come with some comparisons. Specialists are available worldwide and are not bound by state laws (therapists are licensed by state, but you could see a Grief Recovery Method Specialist based anywhere in the world). While this Method is not faith-based, there is room to bring one’s personal beliefs into the program, should that be desired.
The Grief Recovery Method is unique as it is evidence-based - the only grief support program to have this distinction. We consider this a significant benefit to this approach. It shows the power of the program, and it also means that you know what you are getting when you register; Grief Recovery Method specialists are bound to follow the program as outlined and only trained specialists can teach the Method. Many also appreciate the action-based structure of the program compared to an open-ended or unstructured program in which you recount your heartache without tools to move forward. This transformative program can also result in dramatic relief in the course of 8-weeks. While nothing will take away your loss, it is encouraging to know that in a few weeks, you can have renewed hope and capacity for joy (or any feeling other than despair!). Furthermore, the program is designed to provide tools that can be applied to all future losses as well as retrospectively to additional past losses - this can be of great comfort to feel resourced moving forward.
The cost of the Grief Recovery Method program is usually not covered by insurance, although some are able to submit a “superbill” to their insurance company for a partial/full refund. At Yahdav & Hanlon, we appreciate that incomes vary, and while we work to meet grievers where they are, we also know that, again, the investment can influence emotional investment and that the ability to re-engage with life and minimize the negative impacts of grief is invaluable.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Grief Support
There are many things to consider when deciding which grief support option is best for you. Budget is a common deciding factor, which is understandable, especially in times of inflation and job insecurity. For some, it may be their faith and wanting something offered through their place of worship.
Ask yourself these questions to help you decide which option is best for you:
- Do you feel ready or able to address key factors of your grief? While there is no “too soon” for grief support, it is okay if you do not feel ready.
- Are you willing and able to be open, present, and vulnerable? Are you looking for a safe space to share? Are you looking for tangible tools?
- I.e. missed deadlines, unable to focus, irritable
- I.e. late fees from missed bills, not being able to be fully present with loved ones, missed job opportunities, insomnia
- In early grief (or at any period in your grief journey), it is totally normal not to have the energy or desire to dive into your grief. That is okay. That is when drop-in unstructured groups can really be beneficial.
- If you balk at investing financially, reflect on why. We understand that it may truly not fit in your budget which is why it’s important to be aware of services at varying price points. We do encourage people to consider the value of the healing, the time of the practitioner, and the training in which the practitioner invested so as to best support those they serve.
- 1:1 support? Group support*? In-person? Online?
- Structured or open-ended? Evidence based? Drop-in?
- Led by a peer? Led by a practitioner trained in grief counseling?
- Do you have time and energy to dedicate to working through your grief?
- To be able to talk about your person? To know you aren’t alone? To have support ahead of a grief anniversary? To simply be able to get through the day and be able to function again.
There are no right or wrong answers. What is important is being emotionally honest with yourself and your grief needs. Remember, what may work for you during one season of grief, may not work in another. That is totally normal. What may work for one person, may not work for another. That is totally normal.
Making Your Decision
- Free grief counseling
- Benefits: financial accessibility; can find offerings by faith, loss type, or meeting frequency. Many offer drop-in sessions at varying times with a focus on different types of losses.
- Shortfalls: many lack structure, which may result in reduced engagement or getting “stuck” in one’s story. Some may perpetuate grief myths or misinformation, or the practitioner may lack proper training
- Benefits: work with a mental health professional, might be covered by insurance, can be personalized
- Shortfalls: it can be difficult to find a therapist who takes your insurance, has openings, or with whom you relate. Many therapists are not grief-informed. Licensed therapists are bound by state lines.
- The Grief Recovery Method
- Benefits: an evidence-based, action-based, structured program that is complete in 8 weeks. Weekly reading and integration assignments to help you move forward with accountability, and best utilize actual session times. It is not faith-based or loss-specific. Teaches tools that you can use for the rest of your life. Taught by a certified grief specialist. Can be offered online or in person, in group or 1:1. Specialists are not bound by state lines and can work globally. Voiced commitments to confidentiality and to avoid comparison of losses.
- Shortfalls: It is not a loss-specific program, but applicable to all types of losses (which can be welcomed by some and problematic for others). There is a time and financial investment. It is a structured program with weekly reading and integration exercises - it is more of a time commitment than other therapies and requires specific work outside of session time.
- There is a Pet Loss version of the Grief Recovery Method, but otherwise, the standard program is not loss-specific.
To make your decision we recommend you first review your answers to the questions we posed in the section “Factors to consider When Choosing Grief Support”. You can also do an internet search using different keywords to find options in your area (try “grief support in (city name)”, or “grief therapist in (city name)”). Your primary physician or hospice provider may also have recommendations. Just be sure to thoroughly research the clinician’s area of expertise and qualifications prior to starting services.
Know that finding the right grief support can be an iterative process. Perhaps you start with self-help and with a monthly grief counseling program offered through your medical provider, and then when you feel less raw you open up to the idea of a more structured and guided grief program. Perhaps you find that you love the unstructured drop-in groups, that's great to be aware so you know where to go for support.
The three options reviewed in this article are just that - three options. There are many others you might consider depending on where you are in your grief journey. It’s okay if the type of support you seek changes over time. That’s part of the grief process.
You can also schedule a complimentary consultation with Yahdav & Hanlon for support in making the grief support decision that is right for you, at this time of your grief. We have a wide network, and if we are not the best suited to support you, we will do our best to help guide you towards someone who can.
The Bottom Line - Grief Support Is Important
Grief support is very important, and we say this not just because it’s our passion and livelihood. Being in a fog of grief can impact how you show up in relationships, the level of focus and motivation you bring to work, your health from impaired sleep or the toll of emotional stress on your immune system, and your ability to engage fully in life. We know this on a personal level and thus strive to make grief more gentle for others. It is our personal grief journeys that fuel our passion to serve others through theirs.
Grief support can provide a safe space to give voice to your pain and learn tools to move forward with your grief. We choose to offer the Grief Recovery Method (as well as other modalities not listed in this article) in our practice, as we have not seen another program that so powerfully shifts the emotional energy of grief with tangible steps and compassionate support. That said, we have also personally benefited from grief counseling and therapy. Reach out today for guidance on taking the next step in your healing journey.
To read more about our personal experiences with the Grief Recovery Method:
- Ilana’s story: A Gift of Grief Recovery: Freedom to Remember My Father
- Kim’s story: The Grief Recovery Method Healed My Heart…and More
Develop your personalized grief support action plan with our "Grief & Gratitude" workbook.
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