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Counseling After the Death of a Spouse

Phi Atratus
  • Dec 08, 2021
  • 7 min read
Sad old woman notably alone

A lifelong partnership with a loved one is very much a bittersweet gift. Sweet because we get to live our lives alongside them and grow old with them, but bitter because, eventually, one must experience the death of the other. 

If you are going through this difficult period of mourning right now, you may be wondering if grief therapy is something worth reaching out for. 

The death of your spouse is, after all, a complete upheaval. The world itself feels like it’s not going to be the same anymore, and somewhere in all of this, you must find the time and energy to deal with the bureaucracy of death: the funeral, insurance and hospital papers, and the will. 

And in this mess, many different emotions will emerge: shock, sorrow, fear, numbness, anxiety, and anger, just to name a few. 

All of these are perfectly normal things to feel when mourning and are very likely to affect not only your mental state but your physical health as well. 

It is common for people grieving to have trouble sleeping, feel less hunger, and have reduced cognitive abilities such as concentrating or making decisions. 

Grief therapy can help overcome all of this difficulty, but how it does so and whether or not it’s right for you are not always obvious.

Normal Grief After the Death of a Spouse

It is well-understood that grief comes in stages. These stages are:

  1. Denial – disbelief and refusal to accept their death  
  2. Anger – either at them for dying, at yourself for remaining alive despite of that, or just anger in general
  3. Bargaining – thinking of any and all possibilities of how their death could have been avoided
  4. Depression – heavy emotions, such as sorrow or numbness, begin to dominate as you come to realize the irreversibility of their death
  5. Acceptance – accepting their death and finding what meaning it has in your life

Note that these five stages are not always experienced in that exact order. Each individual may experience them in a different order, simultaneously as they overlap or go back and forth between certain stages. 

They do, however, all end with acceptance.

These stages, alongside the negative emotions that are part of grief, are very natural things to experience, and grief counseling may not be necessary for everyone who does. 

What Is Chronic Grief (Prolonged Grief Disorder)?

At some point, though, grief after the death of a spouse becomes too intense and too pervasive. It becomes what’s known as chronic grief, or prolonged grief disorder (PGD), which was recently recognized as an official diagnosis

To put it simply, PGD is when your grief has overtaken every aspect of your life for an extended period, far longer than for the average person. 

The diagnosis of PGD is based on experiencing intense yearning for the lost loved one, as well as least 3 of the following symptoms, for at least 12 months after the loss:

  1. Confusion about your identity, such as feeling that a part of you had died 
  2. Difficulty accepting their death
  3. Avoiding anything that reminds you of their death
  4. Difficulty moving on with your life
  5. Feeling intense emotional pain, such as sorrow, bitterness, or anger
  6. Feeling numbness
  7. Feeling intense loneliness 
  8. Feeling that life is meaningless

While these symptoms do overlap with the symptoms of depression, PGD is not synonymous with depression. It is, however, similar to depression in that it requires treatment and should not be “waited out.” 

If you believe your experience fits the criteria for PGD after your spouse’s death, therapy is most likely right for you.

How Does Grief Therapy Help?

When it comes to overcoming such dark periods of life, social support is paramount. This usually means close friends and family, but when the period is especially difficult – such as in the case of loss – there is a limit to how much the support of friends and family can help. 

After all, they can’t be expected to know how to handle what you are experiencing or what could help you reach acceptance and be able to move on.

This is where counseling after the death of a spouse can become the support framework that goes beyond those limits. 

A therapist has the knowledge, training, and expertise in helping people make sense of the darkness they find themselves in, help them find a light in their life, and guide them towards it.

The way the process of therapy for grief works will differ from person to person and from therapist to therapist, but a few core tenants remain the same. 

One of them is the importance of the therapeutic relationship: the trust formed between client and therapist, and in which the extent of your grief and sorrow can surface in its entirety. This helps release these emotions, which is a crucial aspect of mourning.

Secondly, the therapist is not there only to listen but to actively support and help you reshape your perspective, understanding, and assumptions you have about the death of your spouse. 

A therapist can differentiate between natural reactions worthy of validation and empathy and those that are a slippery slope that should be questioned carefully. 

For example, there is a difference between your thoughts wandering towards memories of your loved one, and your mind continuously ruminating about the hole they had left in your life. The former is a natural reaction, while the latter is fertilizer for something more chronic.

Thirdly, a therapist is able to utilize scientifically-backed therapy approaches to help us stabilize from and make sense of the emotional upheaval thrust upon us. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

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Cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT is the approach of observing and modifying negative or harmful patterns in our thoughts and behaviors and creating a new structure in our lives as a result. It helps us become aware of certain pitfalls we mentally fall into and carve a new, healthier path for ourselves. 

For example, through the many exercises and techniques of CBT, you may become better aware of your predisposed beliefs about your spouse’s death, how you think you should be feeling about it, and whether you are avoiding such thoughts or actively seeking them. 

As you become aware of these things, you also become aware that some of them are illogical or just downright hurting you, and start reshaping them.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

ACT, as its name suggests, is an approach centered around making the commitment to facing our difficult emotions and accepting our experiences rather than denying and avoiding them. This approach is built upon six core processes:

  1. Acceptance – actively choosing to allow ourselves to experience our difficult experiences without trying to change or deny them
  2. Cognitive defusion – changing how we react to our difficult thoughts and feelings in order to fixate on them less
  3. Being present – the practice of being aware of the present moment, without judgment, predictions, or trying to change it 
  4. Self as context – understanding that we are more than the sum of our experiences, emotions, and thoughts
  5. Values – identifying the qualities we choose to work towards in life
  6. Committed action – committing to behaviors that move us towards our long-term goals and help us live a life that’s consistent with our values.

How Online Counseling Helps With Grief Therapy

When deciding to seek counseling after the death of your spouse, you may wonder whether traditional, in-person therapy is right for you or whether online therapy is better. The answer to that is contextual and largely depends on who you are as a person and how severe your difficult experience is. 

In terms of the grief therapy itself, the difference is not particularly big. A video session with your therapist, as opposed to a live session in their office, will not change their professional approach, their relation to you, or what you will get out of each session. 

The difference is that, as human beings, our social nature thrives best when we are interacting in person, in the physical world. It is easier to form a connection this way, and the better the connection, the better the therapy outcomes overall. For this reason, in-person therapy is recommended the more severe your experience is. 

On the other hand, online grief therapy is growing in popularity for very important reasons: accessibility and affordability. In terms of affordability, there are no two ways about it – online grief therapy is cheaper across the board, and therefore more accessible. 

Other aspects of accessibility of online therapy, such as not having to travel to meet your therapist, not being limited by the selection of therapists nearby (if any), and having more flexibility with scheduling, are all serious perks that in-person therapy cannot offer. 

So Can Online Grief Therapy Really Help Me?

At the end of the day, the most important thing to keep in mind is that reaching out to therapy is always better than trying to cope with your loss on your own. The support of a professional cannot be overstated enough. 

Here at DoMental, many of our therapists are experienced working with grief and loss and are always ready to help you. Click the button below to get matched with a therapist, and take the first step towards acceptance, moving on, and being at peace with your loss. 

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