Taking the First Step: Seeking Therapy Following a Loss
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | July 14, 2017
Reaching out to a therapist is not always easy. It takes tremendous courage to ask for and receive help. If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, taking the first step can be even more challenging. When you lose a loved one, whether a parent, spouse, child, a close friend, or even a beloved pet, you are likely living with feelings of emptiness and deep sorrow that are sometimes overwhelming. At times, it may seem that no healing is in sight.
The decision to seek therapy is an important step in the path toward healing. The prospect of meeting with a therapist, however, can raise a range of conflicting emotions and fears. You may feel relieved that you are finally taking steps to get through a painful and difficult time in your life. You might feel fearful, afraid of the unknown. You may even fight feelings of defeat because you believe that you should be able to do this on your own. Despite such emotions, realize that taking first steps to get the help you need is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Seeking therapy means that you have decided to place your well-being at the forefront of your life.
Common Roadblocks to Seeking Therapy Following a Loss:
“Therapy won’t help”
Following the loss of a loved one, you may think it unthinkable to feel anything other than deep sorrow and pain. You might ask how anything can help, let alone therapy. Not anyone nor anything can completely take away the pain of a loved one’s loss. Grief is not something we ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from. Rather, we can learn to understand and manage our grief.
In therapy, you and your therapist will work to identify where you are in the stages of grief and outline a path for moving forward. This may include strategies for interacting with others differently, changing your perspective about aspects of your life, and learning to take care of yourself while honoring your personal healing journey.
Grief can be a long, isolating road. Having a guide in your journey can be very beneficial. Your therapist’s job is neither to judge nor offer unsolicited advice. Rather, your therapist will work with you to help identify a path that is right for you while offering support and encouragement along the way.
“I should be able to do this on my own”
We, in the U.S., are raised to be independent and solve problems on our own. Seeking help can be associated with weakness, but losing a loved one is one of the most profound and difficult experiences in a person’s life. Although you could go it alone, it’s important to know that you don’t have to. We all have blind spots. We can’t all be experts in every field. There is no shame in acknowledging that a little bit of support and guidance from a professional Psychologist can go a long way.
“It will be too painful”
Confronting the reality of a loved one’s loss can be a major deterrent to seeking therapy. A roadblock to seeking therapy is self-acknowledgement that your grief is a problem in need of addressing. When you come to therapy, you will be invited to talk about the hard things in your life along with the difficult emotions associated with them. Engaging in distracting activities such as staying extraordinarily busy, eating, drinking, or engaging in harmful activities adds to the avoidance of thinking about the loss. The prospect of confronting those difficult emotions can be daunting. Your therapist will be sensitive to the tremendous courage it took for you to talk about these difficult emotions.
It is important to be open and honest with your therapist about your fears. Let your therapist know when you are feeling emotionally flooded. Together, you will discuss a pace that feels right for you while learning how to cope with difficult emotions as they arise. As hard as it may be, accepting support with a therapist or with a trusted family member, friend, or a faith-based confidant rather than grieving alone is critical. Talking about your grief is essential for the healing process. We cannot simply get “over it,” “around it,” or even “under it.” Rather, we need to go through it. This means giving ourselves permission to grieve. Your therapist will be your guide in this process and stand with you in the face of the storm.
Finding the right therapist for you is one of the most important steps in seeking therapy following a loss. Consider the therapist’s experience and specialty as well as his or her personality and approach to therapy. Connection with your therapist predicts success best. You should feel comfortable with and genuinely cared for by your therapist. Therapy is the place to feel your most authentic self and not worry about being judged or critiqued.
It’s natural to be apprehensive, skeptical, or nervous about seeking therapy following a loss. You can find comfort in the knowledge that you have taken the first step to help yourself move in a forward direction. This does not mean you’ll leave your loved one behind but rather learn to live with your loss and eventually regain purpose and meaning in your life.