Therapy for Traumatic Grief

Types of Therapy, Pros and Cons

In my post Who Can I talk To About Child Loss, I discussed talking with a grief therapist, a support group, one’s friends, and G-d to find relief from the emotional turmoil one finds oneself after the death of a child. Now I’ll discuss the pros and cons of various types of traumatic grief therapy from my experience. 

When I was a child, ‘therapy’ was a dirty word. Those who received mental health counseling for any reason were considered ‘crazy’ and made fun of. Years ago, my Dad had hip replacement surgery, and I told him that the doctor wanted him to get physical therapy. The only word he heard was ‘therapy’. He said with disgust ‘I’m not going to any therapy’. He did end up going to physical therapy, but I had to explain what it was, its benefits, and that there was nothing wrong with it. It was a tough sell. 

Today, one’s mental health is considered just as important and one’s physical health. One no longer has to hide the fact that they may be receiving therapy, and in fact, people readily seek out professionals to help them deal with emotional problems. The mental health industry is booming. 

What is Traumatic Grief?

Traumatic grief is intense grief due to a sudden emotional event. Someone dying from an accident or suicide would be an example of a trauma event. For me, the trauma was experiencing the unexpected – the sudden death of my son. I didn’t expect it. It wasn’t like he was sick and I watched him wither away. He was young and relatively healthy. I went to bed that evening, and the next morning, his heart stopped and he was gone from me. 

Those of us suffering from traumatic grief experience continuous emotional pain. Around friends or acquaintances we smile and put on a ‘good face’, but inside we are anything but happy. We wonder if there’s any cure, or even partial relief, from the feelings of sadness, agitation, and hopelessness we experience as a result of tragic loss. For some people, the grief is so intense that the smallest day to day activities become insurmountable tasks. These people simply ‘shut down’ and cease to function. 

When something is broken we want to fix it. Similarly with our emotions, we want to fix our broken hearts and confused minds. We think if we can just find someone who can make the bad feelings go away, everything will be ok. So we turn to, and pay for, grief therapy.

But is grief therapy useful and worth the cost?

My Experience With Therapists and Therapy

Traumatic Grief Therapy With a Licensed Therapist

Some months after my adult son passed away, I made an appointment with a clinical social worker/ therapist who was referred to me by a friend. I spoke with her once a week. At our first meeting we discussed my overall background and health, my family, and the general circumstances surrounding my son’s death. Her method of therapy was ‘I’m not going to talk to you, you’re going to talk to me.’ So during our sessions, I talked about what happened and my feelings. We spoke about meditation, improving sleep, and using relaxing imagery to help me cope. It was helpful for a while. 

Despite my ‘talking’, she felt I wasn’t talking enough. She asked me go into greater detail about what happened when Jacob passed away and asked me to tell her my feelings at each point in the chronology. So I did, and I ended up feeling worse than when the therapy began. She later agreed that to go into so much detail was, in my case, counterproductive. We ended up discussing the same thing each week and I felt our sessions had hit a plateau. 

I thought by now, after all my ‘talking’, she was going to wave her magic wand and ‘cure’ me of my sadness, my periodic depression and my flashbacks. No, she said that dealing with ‘sudden death’ is going to take a very long time. Well, how long?

At $100 per weekly session I wasn’t in the mood for the long haul. Although she was nice, caring and easy to talk to, I saw no point in continuing our sessions. Maybe if the cost was covered by my insurance, I would have continued the therapy a bit more. As it was, it was just too cost prohibitive for the little benefit I was receiving.

Art Therapy for Traumatic Grief

One of the things the therapist suggested is to try art therapy as a calming activity. Art therapy is a process where art materials are used to describe one’s emotions and lessen anxiety. I chose drawing as the medium by which to depict my anger and sadness. I always loved to draw, so I thought now was the time to get my creative juices flowing again. I used to think that the only kind of drawings were pretty ones. But now, my mind’s eye was not so pretty. 

I opened my sketchbook and began to draw things I never would have drawn in the past. Drawings of an open grave, ripped cloth, and demon faces were just a few of my new creations. The drawing process was calming and positive for my mood. I could release my anger on the paper with bold, jagged pencil lines. I felt calmer when I worked on my drawing projects. 

Art therapy was particularly helpful the first year after Jacob passed away. After that, I no longer needed to torture the paper with my twisted fantasy images. I looked back at what I drew when I began drawing a year ago. I kept a few pieces as a memento of my feelings and tore up the rest. 

Since art therapy worked for me, I wanted to continue drawing because it gave me something to focus on and reduced my anxiety. I started taking an online drawing class. My instructor said a way to boost creativity is to try something new. So I then took a class in watercolor painting. I never thought I’d be any good at it, but surprisingly, I learned a lot. I can actually produce a decent watercolor. I’m still practicing and it takes my mind off my loss.

A Support Group for Traumatic Grief

When I had sessions with the therapist, talking about my feelings and frustrations helped me. In the absence of individual therapy, I still needed someone to talk to. Fortunately, I found an online support group for bereaved parents run by the Jewish Board. The group is free of charge and all the participants have lost an adult child. I’ve found this to be the best outlet to talk about my loss. Like me, some people in the group had also started out with an individual therapist, and then moved to a support group.

The group is run by a moderator who keeps the conversation going. It’s important to note that grief support is not therapy. Grief support is a forum where I can talk about my loss and try to help others who have also experienced what I’ve experienced. What’s also important is that in our grief support group, I’m not just thinking about me. I’m now thinking about others and how to help them.

Pros and Cons of Different Types of Grief Therapy

In my experience, here are advantages and disadvantages of each type of therapy – 

The One on One Grief Therapist

Pros: 

  • Someone to talk to 
  • Can help work through feelings and try to change negative behavior
  • Can suggest methods to improve overall quality of life by addressing issues such as sleep and overall physical health

Cons:

  • Expensive if not covered by health insurance (I’ve found the average cost to be $100 an hour for weekly sessions)
  • May be difficult to find a therapist who has experienced child loss. (This makes a big difference)
  • Over time, the cost may outweigh the benefit.
  • If one therapist isn’t a good fit for you, finding another means you’ll have to go through the whole miserable experience of how you lost your child with a new therapist

Art Therapy for Traumatic Grief

Pros:

  • Calming
  • Stimulates creativity
  • Not expensive

Cons:

  • Not enough on its own. Will need to be supplemented with a therapist or group support

The Grief Support Group

Pros: 

  • Talking to people in a group setting
  • All the participants have suffered child loss. Everyone is in the same boat.
  • Each participant can help the other. Feelings of grief change over time. A person who is a year into child loss can better support someone who has just buried a child.
  • Most support groups are free of charge

Cons:

  • Support groups may not meet frequently enough for the newly bereaved
  • Needs an effective moderator who keeps the conversation going and ensures that each participant get equal time to discuss their loss
  • Some grief support groups are not exclusively for child loss 

Summary

It appears that the major drawback to seeing an individual therapist is cost. But also involved is your valuable time. If sessions are no longer beneficial, and over time they get less so, it makes sense to find another source of help. Everyone has different needs, so I’d say try a therapist if you can afford it. If the therapist doesn’t work, or if you can’t afford one, move on to something else. There are many online forums to discuss child loss. The best therapy may be actually be free.

Those of us who have lost a child desperately need someone to talk to. And when we help others work through grief, we also feel better. As the book Ethics of the Fathers teaches: 

‘(Rabbi) Yehoshua said: Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.’ (Pirkie Avot 1:6)