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When relatives go into therapy or grief counselling together after a bereavement, it can help everybody discover precious pieces of their family’s life and heritage, says psychotherapist Anh Doan. 

What are the signs that therapy could work for my family?

It’s all about communication. When we’re hurting after a bereavement, we often act like wounded children and forget being adults. People start arguing over petty things and judging each other, asking: ‘Why didn’t they send flowers or a card?’ or ‘Why did they put a happy picture of themselves on Instagram’?

The family dynamic also changes when someone dies. For example, if mum was the one we’d all seek comfort from and rely on, we might want dad to play that role when she dies. And when he can’t, we get angry. 

If the person who died wasn’t very emotionally present, we might also realise we didn’t know them very well. That can leave us with a horrific feeling that we’ve lost something precious – important pieces of our family’s puzzle. 

How can grieving relatives benefit from doing therapy together?

When people die we can be left with lots of questions. Family therapists can facilitate important conversations that help relatives learn from each other, open up the photo albums and share precious stories. It’s a bit like digging for old coins and vases – it helps us discover the roots of our lives.

Culture plays a big part, especially for new generations. If your grandad was from Jamaica and now you’re a person of colour in the UK, you might realise you never got to ask him how it was to come here in the 1960s. 

If the relationship was terrible or the person who died hurt you, we can ask what you’d like to say to the person who has passed away and explore how to best support you now. This can help close old doors and open new ones. 

During this process people start to see life differently and relate better to each other, as well as to the person we’ve lost.

How can I encourage my relatives to join me in therapy?

There’s a stigma around mental health, but if you put it into physical injury terms people are often prepared to help. If your brother or daughter broke their ankle you’d be the first to call an ambulance.

With bereavement, sometimes all we can see is a grumpy or angry person, but they are in pain. And grief can trigger depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma. So we need to give each other a hand emotionally too.

It’s also about bonding – a chance to connect with your heritage, your inner self, and your family. In this culture we often hide behind closed doors when we feel vulnerable, but we still crave being together. 

Family therapy is about everyone working together towards a common goal. People often agree to come when they see that everyone will gain. We always establish firm boundaries to make sure everyone respects and listens to each other.

What are the main differences between individual and family therapy for grief?

Systemic or family therapy focuses on how people see themselves within a wider dynamic. Even twins are different in terms of how they perceive their roles. 

For family grief counselling or therapy to work, everybody needs to commit to the same goal. It is a massive investment – timewise, emotionally and financially – and a luxury because you usually have to pay privately. It’s much more complex than individual therapy but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it. 

Sessions last 60-90 minutes with a maximum of four people, usually immediate family. We can be flexible, for example, an individual might prefer to come alone before the rest of the family joins in. You also need a therapist robust enough to hold it together. 

Now with Covid, things can feel worse for people who are grieving, isolated and alone. But working on Skype and Zoom is working well, especially for families that are spread out across different countries.

Anh Doan is Head of Counselling at Talking Counselling, an Untangle partner organisation.

After their son Josh died suddenly, psychotherapist Jane Harris and filmmaker Jimmy Edmonds discovered creative ways to rebuild their lives and support other bereaved families.

“The agony of untimely or parental grief is beyond words,” says Jane Harris. In 2011, her 22-year-old son Josh had a road accident during a trip to Vietnam and never came home. “When Josh died, I discovered that nothing much helped”. Jane and her husband, Jimmy, also found that grief can be a very lonely journey. “I realised bereaved people represent other people’s worst nightmares,” she says. As a psychotherapist Jane knew nothing could take the pain away: “You have to get alongside the grief and tolerate the discomfort.” But years of training to support others is very different from experiencing the death of your own child.

Love that never dies

To escape the silence and isolation at home, Jane and Jimmy – a BAFTA award-winning film editor – decided to take a road trip. They wanted to meet other bereaved families and learn from their hard-won wisdom. Having met in film school, they decided to make a film in their son’s memory. The result was A Love that Never Dies, a moving insight into grief across Vietnam, India and the USA.

The experience would also teach them something new: That articulating their grief actively and creatively was the key to making it more bearable. More films followed, Jimmy wrote a book called Released and in 2015, The Good Grief Project was born, founded on their family’s experiences of losing Josh. Today, their small charity encourages people grieving the untimely death of a loved one to express their pain through photography and film, talks and retreats – even boxing workshops.

Breaking the silence, creating new bonds

Approximately 6,000 young people aged under 24 die in the UK every year, leaving up to 50,000 bereaved relatives who often don’t know where to turn. “We live in a culture of silence when it comes to talking comfortably about death” says Jane. “But silence is deadly. Grief will find its way out either psychologically or physically. If we don’t acknowledge it, it can be catastrophic.” She says countless people have described watching their films as a turning point, because they realised there was hope out there. As well as supporting people to open up about bereavement, The Good Grief Project provides ways to create continuing bonds with the person they’ve lost. For example, using photos of their child to create a montage.

Taking the mask off

By the end of a weekend retreat, Jane often notices a difference in participants’ body language. “They’re amazed at what they can create and start to show other people instead of wanting to keep it private,” she says. “Through photography or just being with other people they’ve been able to take the mask off and be themselves”. At a time when we’re wearing masks physically as well as metaphorically, she feels it is more important than ever to give our grief a voice. A new film, Beyond the Mask, tackling loss and isolation during Covid-19, will screen online early in the new year.

Life after death

The Good Grief Project has always been a family venture. During their retreats, Josh’s sister Rosa does the cooking, while his older brother Joe, a personal trainer, runs boxing and fitness workshops, having learned to handle his own depression by being physically active. They welcome siblings as well as parents. “Bereaved siblings appreciate having a voice,” explains Jane. “They lose their parents in a way because they are so grief-stricken and watching out for them is a double whammy.” Almost 10 years after losing Josh, she feels the experience has changed her for the better. “There is definitely life after the death of a child. I would do anything to bring my son back, but he has taught me so much since he died.”

“It’s a huge relief when you realise that grief can become part of your life,” she explains. “You learn to carry that person with you and fold them into your heart. We’ve created new rituals – at Christmas we raise a glass to Josh – we talk about him, and there are pictures of Uncle Josh in my grandchildren’s bedroom. “As time has passed my love for Josh doesn’t lessen. You love your child forever.”

Image – Photo montage of Josh © Jimmy Edmonds

At just ten years old, Anna’s world was turned upside down by the sudden death of her older brother, Benny. She shares how she coped after experiencing a close bereavement at such a young age and how losing her brother has impacted her life.

When Anna was ten years old, her family were out one day, and Benny stayed at home alone for a few hours. During this time, Benny had a tragic accident and was found dead by a family friend. He was just twelve years old.

Anna has many happy early childhood memories of playing with Benny, who was two years older than her, and her other three brothers. She remembers, “Benny and I spent a lot of time playing together. We’d imagine we were pirates in our den in the living room or play football together in our local park. We argued too, of course, usually over silly things like who had been given the biggest portion of pudding.”

Like most ten-year-olds, Anna had never thought about grief before, but found her view of the world changed at that moment. “It was a complete shock. I’ll never forget the sickening, numb confusion that I felt when I first found out. It honestly felt like my whole reality had been pulled from underneath me. It was a tragic, seemingly random event that changed everything.” she remembers.

Support in the early days

In the early days after Benny’s death, relatives and friends rallied around: visiting, helping with the shopping and cooking, or simply sitting with Anna and her family. Anna feels lucky that she felt so surrounded by love at that time but recognises that grief can be very isolating for many people. She also credits her friends with providing some much-needed normality and fun. “There are a few friends, in particular, whom I spent a lot of time with, not necessarily talking about the loss, but doing ‘normal’ fun things that offered some light relief and reminded me that things could be good again”.

Learning to be kind to herself

In the year after Benny died, Anna and her family visited a family therapist who helped them open up and communicate with each other. However, it was when Anna saw a counsellor almost ten years later that she feels she started to process Benny’s death. She says, “This support was invaluable and really helped me understand how the death has impacted my life, and how to move forward in a healthier, happier way. Things have been better since I learnt to let myself feel, rather than blocking out difficult thoughts and feelings. I’ve become much kinder to myself.”

Anna has also found that writing can be therapeutic, whether scribbling incoherent sentences in a journal, writing poems and stories, or writing letters to the dead. “It often makes me cry, but in a good way. It really helps unjumble my thoughts and let go of painful emotions. It can make me feel more connected to my brother, too, like he is still alive in some way.” she explains.

The impact of the parent-child relationship

Sibling loss can often affect the relationship between the surviving child and their parents. At such a young age, Anna had only ever seen her parents as a source of safety and love. She found it painful to realise how much they were hurting and scary that this was a situation that even they couldn’t fix. Her parents were able to continue showing love to Anna and her other brothers, despite their grief, but she remembers feeling that there was no space for her to be a child any more, with a normal child’s wants and needs. From her 10-year old’s perspective, Anna didn’t want to be a burden when her parents were already dealing with so much, and she felt a responsibility to grow up quickly to make things easier for them.

Anna remembers feeling like she had to be a ‘good’ child, which has had repercussions throughout her life. “I pushed my struggles to one side, which in the long run has been exhausting and lonely.” she reflects. “It’s no ones’ fault; we were just doing what we could to get through. Despite these challenges, I’m grateful that our relationship has always been grounded in love and that we found a new sort of closeness as we fumbled our way through our loss – a closeness that becomes more and more precious as time goes on.”

Coping with grief over time

It’s normal for grief to change as time passes, and we find new ways of coping with feelings and remembering our lost loved ones. Anna feels a sense of peace and acceptance about the loss of her brother but admits that she still does have bad days, where she goes right back to that raw grief, missing her brother and mourning the loss of a care-free life. She has found ways to manage these waves of grief and says, “I always come out the other side. I wish my brother hadn’t have died, but it taught me a lot about who I am, and has shown me how precious life is.”

Anna credits her friends, family and professionals for supporting her through her grief journey. She recognises that having an outlet to express her grief, and accepting love and support from the people around her have been crucial to her healing.

“It’s been tough, and it’s not a journey I would have ever chosen, but I’m making the most of it and re-discovering just how beautiful life can be, regardless of the challenges it throws at us.”

Anna is a writer who has set up an organisation to support bereaved university students, the Student Grief Network, where she provides online resources and staff training. To see more of her work, you can find her blog here.

Image – Anna with her brother Benny and family.  © Private

After Sarah, 47, lost two people in her life, Untangle’s online bereavement sessions gave her a safe space to talk about her grief and gain a sense of community with other people.

I found Untangle after experiencing two very different losses in a very short space of time. First I lost my dad, and then just four months later my partner died. My dad was 85 and had had a good, long life. My partner’s death was very sudden – he had a cardiac arrest out of the blue. My first reaction was to bolt out of the house where I had lived for 22 years, cutting everything off. I stripped it all away: left my home, my job, everything. I tried to settle down in Mallorca, where my partner and I had considered living, but it didn’t work out. Importantly, I didn’t access any therapy in Spain – there was very little bereavement care available. I think the UK is much stronger on mental health, with support on offer through your GP and organisations like Mind.

Healing during lockdown

I came back to the UK for a few weeks in March 2020 to be close to my mum, who is in a care home. And then lockdown happened. At this point I hadn’t done any real healing – I’d just gone numb, living mostly in a survival state of fight or flight. I had a real sense of displacement, identifying with what I imagined life could feel like for a refugee – because I’d lost so much: loved ones, my home, my work, my identity. When I couldn’t go anywhere because of Covid-19 I finally had a meltdown. I had to learn about self-care and begin to forgive myself for my decisions.

Together under the umbrella of grief

A friend had heard about Untangle and sent me a link, so I just filled in a simple form online. Then I was contacted about joining a free bereavement support group and started attending Zoom sessions on Sunday mornings. It worked brilliantly for me. It was scary to potentially open up in front of strangers, but we were all there together under the umbrella of grief. And it felt safe because we had a therapist and a moderator with us. They didn’t always get involved, but when something deeper was triggered it was important to have a professional there.

A sense of community

It felt very scary to finally face my grief once the shock had subsided. But then I just fell into the routine and decided to show up for myself and for the group. It gave me a sense of community and felt very inclusive. Little comments or suggestions that someone made could make a big difference. Meeting on a Sunday morning also reminded me of going to church in my childhood, and was a good time for quiet reflection. I did sessions every week for three months. Other people came for one week or a few weeks at a time. As time went by I recognised that I was in a really strong place, and had processed a lot of stuff. Eventually it felt like the right time for me to leave and occasionally pop back in to support others – that’s my intention now.

Subtle yet life-changing

Being part of the online group showed me what enormous power can come from sharing in a safe space with others who are grieving. You can rock up and you don’t have to say anything – just gain a sense of connection by sitting with others who understand the extremity of losing a loved one.It’s so important to give yourself time, even if it’s just an hour, to show up to that place that you naturally want to avoid, because you just don’t want to feel anything when you grieve. Being witnessed, and witnessing others, and feeling part of a community online is incredibly effective. It’s an act of self-care – subtle but life changing, because it allows you to take the next step.

If you want to join in the Untangle community, click here.

Image – Sarah with her partner, Lester.  © Private

Cherry, 26, escaped an abusive marriage and lost her dad. Untangle’s online bereavement groups helped her to face her grief, feel less alone, and start to heal.

I was born in China and grew up in Australia. In 2015 I moved to the US to be with my husband. The marriage became abusive and took a long time to get out of. Then, just a few months after it ended, my father passed away on December 26th 2019. My dad was 54 and it was very sudden. We were still talking and texting the day before, and the next day he just wasn’t there anymore. He was one of the most important people in my life and I was devastated. Those two things happening so close together were very difficult to process. I only had a few months to grieve for my relationship before my dad passed away. I felt numb. Another part of my grief was changing countries. I left a lot of friendships and my community behind in the US. I’m now in the UK living with my boyfriend, and because of Covid-19 it has been difficult to build my own connections here.

Acknowledging grief

I started attending Untangle’s online grief support sessions in June 2020, along with other kinds of support groups. It’s definitely helped me to not feel so alone, especially now we’re so isolated. One of the reasons I joined was to meet others who shared the same feelings. Having this space is helping me learn to understand myself and my emotions. By talking about my experiences and hearing what others have been through, I’ve been able to fully acknowledge my grief – although sometimes I still feel like I’m in a dream.

Allowing yourself to feel

The first few months after my dad died it felt like I was in shock – it was very difficult to accept. Acceptance is a key step in the healing process and it takes time. The online support groups provide a safe space allowing me to feel sad, bad and angry, and to accept that this has happened to me. A good tip I got from the group is writing in a diary or journal about how you feel. One person said that after his wife passed away he would write down things he would have wanted to tell her that day – I think that’s a lovely gesture. Setting up a shrine with photos or objects that remind you of the person you’ve lost is also a nice way to immerse yourself in your memories and allow yourself to feel.

Having your voice heard

I like that the online groups are small and compact – it’s cosier and everyone has the ability to share. We all introduce ourselves briefly, then dive into talking about our experiences when we feel like it. I really like that each one of us has our turn to share and have our own voice heard. You can share as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk you are always welcome to listen and join when you are ready. You can turn off your camera if it helps you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

A healthy and supportive online environment

It can be very scary to look at grief. But when you are in a healthy and supportive environment with other people who are also grieving, it is a lot easier. You don’t feel so alone and it makes you feel more capable of opening up to yourself and identifying your emotions. A couple of months ago I didn’t know that there were grief support groups out there. Having them online is great because people can access these resources from anywhere. And when you are grieving you might prefer to deal with the healing in the comfort of your own home, rather than catching the bus or train on a rainy day.

I am still grieving every day. There are days when sadness and tears find me out of the blue, and also days when I feel excited to start new adventures in my life.

Cherry Xu currently works as a freelance artist painting pet portraits. To find out more about Untangle’s free, moderated online grief community, click here.

Image – Cherry with her Dad, Lionel, and their family in 2000. © Private

It can be hard to think of meaningful present ideas for a friend or relative who has lost someone they love. Here are our ideas for ways to show you care.

  1. Languages of Loss is psychotherapist Sasha Bates’s painfully honest and funny book about making sense of life after losing her husband Bill, helped by her psycho-analytic training.
  1. Express your sympathy with Bloom & Wild, from subtle potted ferns and rubber plants to beautiful bunches of flowers to suit different budgets.
  1. ‘Porter’ means ‘to carry’, and the Porter Pendant allows you to carry the ashes of a lost loved one with you on a necklace. This long-lasting but slightly pricier gift will be sensitively handmade to order by designer Kirsty Maclaren.
  1. A proper cup of high quality hot chocolate can be oddly comforting when times are tough. Try this award-winning 71% cocoa variety from Land, a small ethical chocolatier based in Hackney, London.
  1. The Present Tree allows you to cherish the precious memory of a loved one by planting a memorial tree in their name, each with its own symbolic meaning.
  1. Buy a life-changing gift from Freedom From Torture for someone who has lost everything, in the memory of the person who has passed away.
  1. This scented soy candle by the Lollyrocket Candle Co comes with a consoling message and can be personalised.
  1. In her book This Too Shall Pass, acclaimed psychotherapist Julia Samuel draws on conversations with her patients to show how we can adapt and thrive during our most difficult and transformative experiences.
  1. Wildflower Favours offer personalised seed packet memorial gifts to remember a loved one as spring and summer return.
  1. Apply for a Tribute Tile celebrating the life of someone special at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire – the UK’s year-round, 150-acre Centre of Remembrance.
  1. Caitlyn Minimalist creates custom jewellery engraved with the handwriting of your special someone.
  1. From memorial baubles to special lanterns and ornaments, the Lovely Keepsake Company offers a range of bereavement gifts to help people hold their memories close at Christmas and beyond.
  1. The Heavy Bag is a beautifully illustrated children’s book by Sarah Surgey about Enid, a little girl who has lost her grandad. By reading it together, adults and children can open up conversations about different kinds of grief.
  1. Create a WWF Tribute Fund page in a loved one’s memory and fight for a world where people and nature can thrive.
  1. This pack of three linen-bound journals from The School of Life is designed to help people find therapeutic solace and inspiration by writing down their ideas, aspirations and worries.
  1. Help your friend or relative keep going with award-winning, sustainably sourced coffee delivered to their door by Pact Coffee – you can even design a plan especially for them.
  1. The Treasured Memory Box is designed for saving precious keepsakes, letters and photographs in memory of a special event or person in a beautiful handmade box.

Grief after bereavement doesn’t end with the funeral, and there are lots of ways to continue honouring the person who has died and find comfort in the process. By Hannah Jackson-McCamley, Funeral Celebrant

Hannah is an experienced celebrant who specialises in unique services that truly reflect the person that has died and the needs of those left behind. She is passionate about people, music, literature and travel and is training to be a psychotherapist.

When someone you love dies, it might seem as if life returns to “normal” for those around you once the funeral is over. Relatives might check in less often, and offerings of flowers or food dry up as friends assume you’re starting to ‘get over’ your bereavement.

Death, unfortunately, isn’t something we ever get over. But we can try to make peace with what has happened and even find joy when thinking of the past.

What does it mean to memorialise someone?

My experience as a celebrant has taught me that finding different ways to remember the person that has died can really help us cope with our grief. When everything feels chaotic and the world is a little emptier than before, creating rituals that hold meaning can give you a sense of control and positivity.

It might be hard to look at old photos of happier times or listen to songs your lost person played when you were a kid. But a simple memorial rite can also alleviate pain and give you a sense of the person still being present in your life.

A memorial may sound a little grand – I’m not talking about unveiling a statue or starting a foundation in their name (although if that’s how you want to create a legacy, go for it – see below for more ideas!).

Memorials can be simple things that you hold close or share just with family and friends. Here are some suggestions:

Memorialising someone by yourself

Memorialising with others

Memorials that involve money

It can be hard to know what to say when someone dies, especially if you have a different faith or cultural heritage to the bereaved person. This quick guide can help you to send the right message to someone who has lost a loved one, from Islam and Christianity to atheists and agnostics, across the continents.

Death and grief are universal experiences, but our cultural and religious traditions for showing empathy with people who have lost a loved one can vary widely. Supporting a grieving friend or relative can bring you closer together, as long as you respect their boundaries and beliefs. Keep an open mind and remember that we all process grief differently.

A good starting point is to find out if the person grieving is religious or not. If you are afraid to ask, this map showing the size and spread of the world’s biggest faiths might give you some clues. By doing some research you’ll have a good chance of getting it right and showing that you care.

Christianity

As the world’s largest religion, Christian traditions surrounding death and grieving are interwoven with local ones. A Mexican Catholic may invite you to offer gifts and prayers at a 48-hour vigil, while an Orthodox Ethiopian might expect to be cared for by their community ahead of a final celebration on their 40th day of mourning. As all Christians base their faith on the Bible, offering a verse or prayer for their loved one, or a simple message of kindness and support in a card, could be a real source of comfort.

Islam

Muslims see death as a transition to the afterlife, and funerals take place as quickly as possible after someone passes away. Traditions vary between countries and groups, however mourners usually avoid colourful clothes and jewellery, express their feelings quietly during the funeral or prayer service, and always take their shoes off beforehand. You can offer your condolences to the family afterwards. The mourning period can last up to 40 days, during which bereaved families often appreciate flowers, cards, words from the Qur’an, charity donations and gifts of (halal) food.

Atheists and agnostics

Around 16 per cent of the world’s population are unaffiliated with any religion, including humanists, atheists and agnostics, now forming the second biggest belief system in Europe and North America. Ways of grieving vary, however many choose to celebrate their loved one’s life, our connections with each other and the planet, and see death as a final destination. Try keeping things simple and heartfelt, such as sharing a favourite memory of the deceased, sending flowers or a card expressing your sympathy and support.

Messages like these also work well if you aren’t sure how to refer to someone’s religion sensitively.

Hinduism

Most of the world’s 1 billion+ Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates into another being after death, depending on our Karma or actions in our previous life. Funeral mourners wear white (never black) and can expect an open casket followed by a cremation. You can send the family flowers ahead of the service but avoid sending food. Hindus observe 13 days of mourning, during which family, friends and community members visit to pay their respects. You can express your sympathy in many ways – including by simply offering your heartfelt condolences.

Buddhism

Buddhists believe that when we die we go through the process of samsara, or reincarnation, before we are reborn according to our thoughts and actions in our previous life. Funeral customs vary widely, with a common thread of peace and serenity. You can offer the family white or yellow flowers or a charity donation. Avoid anything red as it symbolises happiness. You can express your condolences in a card or in person, for example, by referring to Buddhism’s four perfect virtues or ‘immeasurables’: equanimity, love, compassion and joy.

Judaism

Many Jewish groups have their own distinct grieving traditions, along with similarities such as burying their dead within a day whenever possible. Avoid sending flowers, wear dark clothes during the funeral, and feel free to place a small stone on the grave with your left hand. Most families observe “Shiva” – the mourning period – during which visitors can send or bring (kosher) food baskets.  “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” is one of many ways to offer your condolences to a Jewish person.

Is there a particular religious or cultural tradition that you’ve found comforting? Let us know.

You are probably aware of the theory that after experiencing bereavement, we go through stages of grief. The well-known theory describes five stages, while others describe six, or seven stages.

But, what if this widely accepted theory is wrong and there is no set grieving process at all? What if everyone grieves in their own way?

Here at Untangle, we believe that the long-standing stages of grief theory is misleading and unhelpful and fails to accurately represent how most people experience grief.

The Five Stages of Grief Theory

The 5 stages of grief model was developed by psychiatrist Kübler-Ross in 1969. Although grief models had been discussed before this time, it was Kübler-Ross’s theory that gained traction and made it into the public psyche.
The 5 stages of grief described in the model are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Over time, people came to think of the 5 stages of grief as the ‘correct’ way to grieve, believing that mourners must pass through each stage to complete the grieving process. In the years since its first publication, the theory has been debunked by many professionals. In fact, it’s reported that before her death, Kübler-Ross herself expressed regret at how her model was viewed. She said that it was never intended to suggest a linear progression through grief, but rather to explore the various reactions we might have after loss.

David Kessler: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Kessler is a death and grief expert who co-wrote two books with Kübler-Ross, as well as many  of his own books. One of his theories builds upon the 5 stages of grief to add a sixth stage: finding meaning. Kessler argues that after we pass through the grieving process, we can transform grief into peace and hope by finding meaning in our life.

Seven Stages of Grief

At various times over the years, others stages have been added to Kübler-Ross’s model, too. You might have heard of the 7 stages of grief, which adds ‘shock and disbelief’ as stage one, and ‘reconstruction’ before the final stage of ‘acceptance’. Just as with the 5-stage and 6-stage grief theories, this presents a rather linear process that we don’t think is true to life.

Other Theories

In more recent years, many counselling and bereavement experts have looked for other ways to describe our experience of grief. Most acknowledge that grief isn’t a linear process and that people experience it in different ways.

1. Tonkin’s model: Growing around Grief

Lois Tonkin is a grief counsellor who coined the term ‘growing around grief’ after counselling clients who had experienced loss. She describes that rather than grief disappearing over time, it stays roughly the same, and the life of a bereaved person grows around it as they have new experiences and begin to look forward. At times, that grief can feel just as painful as it did at the beginning, and at other times, it’s in the background.

2. Worden’s theory: Tasks of Mourning

William Worden, a psychology academic and child-bereavement expert, identified four ‘tasks’ that he says are an active part of grieving. He stresses that the tasks are not completed in a linear fashion and that people often return to each of the tasks at different times of their lives.

The fours tasks are:

3. Stroebe and Schut: The Dual Process Model of Coping

Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model breaks down grief into loss orientation and restoration orientation. Loss involves recognising and accepting that the person has died and how that affects other areas of life such as friendships and finances. Restoration focuses on the moments we can put grief aside to rebuild a life without the person who died. People frequently move between the two as they grieve.

Why it matters

The stages of grief model has become so widely accepted that it influences our cultural beliefs and attitude towards supporting people who have experienced loss. These misconceptions not only impact our ability to offer good bereavement support, but also give the impression that if you’re not moving through the stages of grief then you’re not grieving properly.

A 2010 study found that the majority of undergraduate psychiatric nursing textbooks contain myths about the grieving process:

None of these statements is backed with evidence, but they are presented to psychiatric nursing students as fact. That means that  even our healthcare professionals are not taught how to handle grief effectively.

Part of our passion at Untangle comes from recognising these gaps in the current bereavement support provision. We want to provide wellbeing support and practical help for our community of people who are rebuilding their lives after loss.

If you are considering counselling or therapy to deal with grief and bereavement, here are some pointers from two experts to help you think it through.Like unwelcome visitors, loss, bereavement and grief will inevitably turn up and insist on becoming part of our lives at some point. When they do, there’s no right or wrong way to feel or act – we are all different. But if life feels like too much to cope with, talking to a professional can really help. “A lot of people find it difficult to express themselves with family or friends,” says Adetoun Adams, an NHS psychotherapist and a counsellor for the charity Mind in East London. “Talking to a stranger allows people to open up and can make things feel lighter.”

Talking therapies

“Grief counselling is often the go-to approach rather than therapy,” says Dr Iain Jordan, a consultant in psychological medicine at Oxford University Hospitals. “Just talking through your problems and experiences in counselling, especially very painful ones, is very valuable.” However, some types of loss are more complex and traumatic than others, and there are many other types of ‘talking therapies’ that you can explore or request to be referred for, including clinical behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and dynamic or interpersonal psychotherapy.

Exploring your new identity in therapy after a loss can be vital, for example – such as figuring out who you are once you are no longer someone’s wife, daughter, or sister. Iain recommends therapy after a traumatic event as “you can recover by telling a different story, learning strategies for behaving differently, or changing unhelpful beliefs and assumptions.”

Choosing a therapist

If you’ve decided to try therapy, Iain recommends doing a little research and having a brief phone call with a few different therapists to see if there’s chemistry: “A mutually trusting relationship is fundamental – without it nothing will happen.”

“It is OK to ask for someone who matches your life experience,” says Adetoun. “A black person might feel more comfortable seeing a black therapist, for example. Or you can ask to see a woman because you have issues with men.” However, Iain suggests thinking through the reasons behind your preference. “Are you avoiding something that you should be experiencing? Or is it because only this person can understand my experiences? “For example, if I am a man with a toxic attitude towards women, it might be a good idea for me to see a female therapist to focus on that.”

Accessing therapy

In the UK, your GP can refer you for free NHS support, or you can self-refer through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme which will assess you before assigning you to a therapist. You can also go through your local Mind branch. In some areas there is often a long NHS waiting list, but it depends on the severity of your needs as to how long it will take to get seen by someone. For a recent loss, you can get three sessions of early bereavement support and then go back on the list to a wait for a therapist in the longer term.

If you want to go private and pay, Adetoun and Iain recommend looking for a therapist or counsellor on trusted websites including psychologytoday.com and the British Association of Counsellors, or Untangle’s counselling and therapy services.

Virtual support

Counselling and therapy are increasingly available online and becoming more popular in this time of social distancing. But does online grief counselling work? “The evidence so far suggests that online works as well as face-to-face therapy,” says Iain. However he feels that deeper and more intense types of therapy might be more difficult online. “Some things happen in a room that would be harder to create at a distance, and it feels like a richer encounter when you are together.” Adetoun thinks that taking part in therapy online or over the phone is better than going without, as “at least you are talking to someone.”

Medication – or exercise?

Some of us might consider drugs to tackle issues like depression, but Iain isn’t a big fan of prescribing medication for people who are grieving, sad or anxious. “There should be a clear indication for it,” he explains. “Even if you have clinical-level disorder the effect is only slightly better than with a placebo”. Instead, he suggests putting an emphasis on exercise and eating well, keeping up connections with your loved ones, and making time to enjoy small day-to-day activities are probably more effective when combined together. “But if you are suffering terribly, talk to your doctor about medication to help you through a difficult period,” he continues. “You can then go on to get better in other ways, including therapy.”

So does grief counselling work?

Telling a complete stranger your innermost thoughts can feel scary, but Adetoun’s advice is to try it before making your mind up: “Therapists have to provide a safe environment,” she explains. “You will be listened to, not judged, and everything is confidential.” Iain agrees: “Be curious. If you are suffering, want to behave differently or understand yourself better, any kind of therapy is useful. And you should grieve. You are supposed to stop and reflect. You’ll miss out if you don’t. It allows for a new period of transition.”

“There’s an old joke that goes ‘how many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb’? The answer is: ‘Only one – if the lightbulb wants to change’. If you are willing to open yourself up to a different way of seeing yourself, it is almost always the right thing.” Often you won’t need long-term therapy: “after a bereavement some people just need one or two good sessions,” says Adetoun.

And your courage to take the plunge will pay off: “If people are brave enough to try, it can help them work through the different phases of their grief, or just come out feeling lighter,” she continues. “And they’ll know that although they are no longer thinking about the person they’ve lost every minute of the day, they still carry that person around in their heart.”