What Happens at Grief Counseling Sessions?

By Lesley Postle, Editor of GriefandSympathy.com

In order to find out exactly what happens at grief counseling sessions, we interviewed certified counselor and psychotherapist, Shirley Porter, RP., RSW, CCC, from Choosing Therapy. Shirley has been practicing for over 25 years. She has published two books and has her own blog on trauma and PTSD

Grief counseling can be an expensive commitment in time and money, and it’s understandable that you’d want to find out as much as you can about what’s going to happen and whether it will be worth it before you spend your hard earned cash. 

Lesley put lots of the questions that you may be asking yourself to Shirley and we hope that they will help you make your decision about whether or not to embark on grief counseling. 

Large mural saying 'How are you really' on side of brownstone buildingPhoto by Finn on Unsplash

LP:  What Happens at Grief Counseling Sessions?

SP: 

  • In a grief counseling session, the counselor will typically begin by explaining how the counseling process works, its confidentiality and its limits. 
  • The counselor will usually ask you what has brought you to counseling, and will obtain some history. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, the counselor might assess whether it is actually grief or trauma that you’re dealing with at the moment. 

(Hint:  Grief is about focusing on the loss of the person in the present, while trauma is about focusing on specific aspects of how the loved one died). 

  • The counselor should let you know that grief is a natural and normal response to loss, even though it can feel overwhelming at times. They will likely also provide some education on normal grief versus disordered grief
  • If you are experiencing normal grief, the counselor might then offer reassurance, and encouragement - letting you know that most symptoms will begin to diminish within 6 months, with "flare ups" as anniversaries approach.  

Counseling is not required for normal grief, but might be continued if the client finds it helpful. Complicated or disordered grief will likely benefit from counseling intervention. In this case the counselor can provide information on the symptoms of disordered grieving, validate the challenges in functioning that the client is experiencing, and offer help in moving them through it.


LP: What Sort of Questions Will a Grief Counselor Ask? 

SP: A grief counselor might ask:

  • What brought you to counseling?
  • When did the loss occur?  
  • How is it affecting you - mind, body and spirit?  
  • How is it affecting your ability to function?  
  • Have you noticed any improvements in functioning during the past while?
  • What helps you to cope?  
  • Who are you able to talk to about this loss?
  • What makes it harder to cope?
  • Is there a part of this loss that you find yourself "stuck on" - something you keep thinking about over and over?  If so, what is that?

LP: What Are Some of the Benefits of Grief Counseling?

SP: Grief counseling has been shown to benefit people who are experiencing complicated or disordered grieving. Conversely, it has been shown to have either no benefit, or actually can do harm among those who are experiencing normal grief.

For those who are experiencing disordered grief, counseling can provide reassurance, validation, and a path to getting "unstuck" in one's grief, so that one can begin to integrate the loss into the present, and find a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. 


LP: Can You Give an Example of How Grief Counseling Might Make Someone Feel Better?

Photo by Abigail Faith on Unsplash

SP: A young woman named Jasmine, comes to counseling. She is in her first year of university. She lives in residence but said she really hasn't gotten to know anyone, and really doesn't feel like being social. 

She said she is having trouble concentrating on her courses. She has no interest in anything. She said she goes to class and her mind wanders. Sometimes she realizes she hasn't taken any notes at all. When the counselor asks if this is new for her, Jasmine says she wasn't like this in high school. She said she took a year off after high school to work. 

When the counselor asks her what she is thinking about when her mind wanders, Jasmine looks away and her eyes fill with tears. She said she wonders what the point is... She said that one day you are alive and making plans, and then an hour later you could be dead and all your plans wouldn't matter. 

The counselor asks Jasmine if she has lost someone she loves. Jasmine said that after graduation in high school, people in her class were going to a barbecue at one of the student's homes. They drove together in cars. Four of her friends were in the car ahead of her. She saw them go through an intersection and get hit by a truck that had gone through a stop sign. She lost four of her closest friends that day. She said she can't stop thinking about them. 

She should have been in the car with them, but had her mom's car because she had to pick up her sister at a friend's later that night. 

The counselor listens to Jasmine's story. She acknowledges what a traumatic experience that was, and how Jasmine has suffered since then. The counselor provides Jasmine with some information on complex grief, and normalizes the symptoms that Jasmine has been experiencing, given the traumatic nature of her grief. The counselor commends Jasmine on the courage it took to come to counseling and reflects back Jasmine's tremendous strength and resiliency. The counselor offers to work with Jasmine through her grief...


Jasmine was most likely able to feel benefit after grief counseling due to any or all of the following reasons:

  • Jasmine was able to talk to another person about the most horrific experience in her life, and the counselor was able to handle it,
  • Jasmine was being heard in a non-judgemental and compassionate way,
  • the counsellor normalized and validated the Jasmine’s symptoms and provided information on disordered grief - which might have provided some relief to her and helped her to begin to understand what she has been going through,
  • the counselor reflected back the Jasmine’s resiliency and strength, which is likely something that that Jasmine hadn't been focusing on,
  • the counselor offers to work with Jasmine to help her through her grief - which might provide her with hope.

(Name has been changed in this story for privacy reasons). 


LP: We are most grateful to Shirley Porter for letting us know what happens at grief counseling and we hope it helps you to make your decision about whether it’s right for you.  

Grief counseling may be helpful for many types of grief. Grief can be caused by loss of a loved one but also for lots of other losses, such as divorce and separation, loss of a job or your own health, pet loss, and many more. Often you may experience multiple types of grief at one time. It is totally valid to reach out for help if you need it whatever type of grief you have experienced.  

For more information about finding the right grief support for you, read our free eBook – 99 Ways to Spot a Great Grief Counselor. 

If you’ve decided that counseling might be right for you, we have information about a recommended online grief counseling service below. 

Related Pages: 

Do You Need Grief Counseling?

Online Grief Counseling Explained

Have You Considered Online Grief Counseling? 

Get Private and Confidential Help in the Privacy of Your Own Home

The following information about online counseling is sponsored by 'Betterhelp' but all the opinions are our own. To be upfront, we do receive a commission when you sign up with 'Betterhelp', but we have total faith in their expertise and would never recommend something we didn't completely approve.  

Do you feel alone and sad with no support and no idea how to move forward?  It can be tough when you are stuck in grief to find the motivation to get the most out of your precious life. 

Online counseling can help by giving you that support so you don't feel so alone. You can have someone to talk to anytime you like, a kind and understanding person who will help you to find meaning in life again, to treasure the memories of your loved one without being overwhelmed and to enjoy your activities, family and friends again.

  • Simply fill out the online questionnaire and you will be assigned the expert grief counselor most suitable for you.  It only takes a few minutes and you don't even have to use your name.  
  • Pay an affordable FLAT FEE FOR UNLIMITED SESSIONS.  
  • Contact your counselor whenever you like by chat, messaging, video or phone. 
  • You can change counselor at any time if you wish.
  • Click here to find out more and get started immediately. 
  • Or read more about how online counseling works here.  
Woman Crying. Get Started with Online Counselling

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