Why grievers need empathy and when might be the time for therapy?

On first starting with counselling, quite a few bereaved clients are unsure whether they 'should' be here at all. It's as if they have an inner voice telling them they ought to be able to get through this on their own. As I listen to their stories and experiences of loss and pain, I feel what, maybe, they currently can't: their bravery and their endurance.


In deep grief following the death of his son, poet Edward Hirsch described how he now saw the world differently:

"Look closely and you will see almost everyone carrying bags of cement on their shoulders. That's why it takes courage to get out of bed in the morning and climb into the day".

Weighed down by grief, it's hard, often exhausting, to keep trying to fit our grief with, and into, our day-to-day life. Meanwhile, the world around us continues regardless.

Time after time, it's struck me that there's a gulf. It's between how we perhaps think, (if we have to), of grieving as a natural process, and the reality of what it's like to go through.

So, there's this: Grieving is a natural process; a normal, human response to losing someone that we love, who is important to us.

But, then there's this: If you've lost someone, your world as you know it is changed irreversibly. What you yearn for - the return to this world of the lost one - cannot be gained and, in that, there's a unique and deep-seated pain. Your world has been gutted and you feel it in the depths of your being.

Maybe both of these feel true? But there's a gulf between them. A natural process implies some kind of inner map, that we 'know how to do it'. So we tend to be left to do just that.  Initial expressions of sympathy pass on to silence. We're respectfully left alone so we can get through our grief. Meanwhile, in that gulf, we've been plunged into a strange, new, often dark, world.  

How do we cope with this?

Facing this, and despite personal resources stretched thin by grief, people try to hold things together, "climb" back into the world and find their way. Some strive to find means of reconnecting with daily life around them. For others, ways to find some kind of re-connection with the person they've lost.

Social support:

Leaning on friends or family. A huge source of comfort for you and what most of us initially turn to.

Support groups: 

In-person provision can be patchy, but a good example is the growing movement of 'grief cafes'. Check local media to see if one's nearby. Online, a good resource hub is The Good Grief Trust website.

Seeking refuge in nature: 

In a forest, in a park or garden, or by the sea: nature is calming and supporting. Focusing on the sounds/sights/smells there offers a new way to be with what's around us. When you're feeling lost, it's a reassuring reminder the world is constantly there for you.

Creating a new space for them, (and you): 

A memory box of special or significant items. Or a journal or scrapbook. Some people create a playlist of their favourite music. Or plant a new piece of garden. These all create a new space in the world for you and for that relationship to dwell.

Rituals and memorials: 

If faith and spirituality are already part of your life, they can provide a reassuring and strengthening framework for rituals. For anyone, marking significant dates, visiting the grave or a shared special place, are meaningful things to do. An activity, a walk, for example, is undertaken in the name of the person who's died. People find that they feel closer to them while they're doing these.

These kinds of reconnecting are vital. Loss can create a profound disconnection, not only from the world but also from ourselves. Something has been shattered. Part of our grieving process is a delicate, re-establishing of these lost connections. It's like weaving the essence of our loved one, and our relationship with them, into the fabric of our daily life and our new world.

But what do we do when there's nothing that feels possible or enough? When the gulf feels too dark or deep?

Empathy: the guiding connection

If you're struggling with grief and have no one with whom you can share how things are for you, it can feel like the deepest kind of alone. The world around you can feel remote  - how do you get there? The answer is, through a real connection with someone who just 'gets it'. They listen not only to the words that you say but to the parts that are hard to find the words for. Empathy isn't so much about "I know how you feel" as "I see you, I'm with you, you're not alone with this".

Acceptance? Adaptation? What does that mean? It's hard to know when there's nowhere to test out your words and your new reality. In truth, your grieving process is personal and specific to you. What you need is also uniquely yours: what is now missing or changed for you with this loss?

Empathy feels like...

Empathy is profound but subtle. You'll know it when you experience it. Grief feels painful, it aches and hurts. Likewise, you can feel when you're being supported with empathy: that connection feels like a sense of relief, a warming, a lightening, a spreading of the load.

Your world feels less dark

This connection is a tiny but hugely important step with so much potential.  It expands your sense and view of yourself. There's a possibility for some light to come in.  

Helps you find your way

In grief, maybe you can't see the way, or even the direction, yet. Through sharing and exploring memories, your perspective broadens a little and things move a little. It offers the possibility of a stepping-stone out to somewhere new.

Helps you find self-compassion

Increased perspective brings you self-insight and understanding where previously had been self-judgement and criticism. For example, listening to your memories, your companion understands that all you can currently see is all that you've lost. But, supposing they share that from where they are, what they can also see is how much you brought to the life of your loved one, what difference it must have made to them to have had you in it? A new perspective for you.

Having someone like this can make all the difference when you're in deep grief, as you'll know if you already have them. If not yet, maybe you know someone with whom this might be possible? Someone who you already know, or sense, to be kind and understanding. Again, chances are that you will know it. If at all possible, and when you feel able, please consider seeking them out.

Finding that empathetic connection

But it could be that's harder to find for you. It goes without saying that expressing our vulnerability is daunting: incredibly so when you're not sure how it's going to be received.  Grief is often exhausting: just to attempt to find the words can be too much if you're not sure of an accepting and supportive response. There can be many reasons why you feel you can't share what you need, even though part of you wishes you could.

When would grief counselling help?

Because grieving doesn't unfold to a timetable, it can be hard to know when to seek more help. But you are always the best-placed person to know this. Perhaps what I can say is that the following are often reasons spurring people to get in touch:

  • Feeling isolated and without meaningful support
  • Being overwhelmed by incapacitating feelings: they're really having an effect on your daily life and how things are with the people around you.  Maybe there is something about the death with which you're finding it hard to come to terms?
  • You feel stuck and it feels impossible to even see, let alone know, how to shape your new, post-loss world.
  • You need to understand more about what it means in your life.  What's missing for you and what are you longing for now?
  • You need a safe space to do what you need to do and say what you need to say.  This is hard to over-estimate: sometimes the family landscape we're left with without that person is a whole new source of challenge and complication.
  • You want to find ways of adapting to your loss that are right, valid or purposeful for you, (not what you've been led to feel you should do).

Above all, it's whether you feel it would help you, and provide something that is currently not there for you. What's important is not that these above are different, somehow, to a 'normal' experience of grief, but whether, for you, they are an enduring situation with which you feel unsupported. Or whether you feel 'blocked' and unable to see your way. 

Whatever the loss means to you and your world, counselling supports you to rediscover and discover new, self-compassion and understanding. It doesn't just help you survive your loss, it opens up the possibility of change and, in that, hope.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stamford, Lincolnshire, PE9
Written by Melanie Hill, Dip. Couns, MNCPS Acc.
Stamford, Lincolnshire, PE9

Melanie Hill, MNCPSAcc, Dip Couns

I'm a counsellor working with people struggling with bereavement, grief, loss and change.

07908 725159

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