Engaging Others to Help us Heal After the Sudden Death of a Loved One:

Mental Health Professionals and Grief Companions

By Jennifer R. Levin, MFT, PhD, FT

Therapy Heals – www.therapyheals.com


The traumatic death of a loved one is a devastatingly painful and life-altering experience. There are so many complex emotions, logistical concerns, and life responsibilities that need tending to, and grievers often struggle with feelings of overwhelm, loneliness, isolation, and even symptoms of trauma. There is no right or wrong way to grieve a sudden or unexpected death of a loved one and every grief experience will be unique. Despite the individual experience each person faces, there will be common grief patterns and themes that can be beneficial to share and explore with others to decrease feelings of isolation and receive guidance and support during challenging times. The emotions and pain associated with grief were not meant to be carried alone. As Suzanne Stabile so eloquently stated, “Grief is solitary work that cannot be done alone.”


Although helpful books and online resources are available to support you in your grief, having another person witness your experience is an essential part of healing. Mental health services such as psychotherapy or participating in a community-based program like the Grief Companioning Project provide opportunities to share your experiences and receive support and guidance after the traumatic death of a loved one. Read below to learn more about each option.


Therapy and Professional Mental Health Services

After the death of a loved one, many people engage professional mental health services including individual, couple or family psychotherapy, or therapeutic support groups led by mental health professionals. Mental health services are provided by licensed professionals (or individuals pursuing their license), therapists with an advanced education; usually a master’s or doctorate degree. There are therapists who specialize in grief and even traumatic grief. The decision to enter therapy can seem daunting and scary, so to protect your confidentiality, strict professional boundaries govern the relationship between a therapist and you, the client. Establishing clear expectations at the onset creates a sense of safety within the therapeutic relationship. Your sessions will occur within a “therapeutic setting” and may take place in your therapist’s office or virtually. This service is fee based and considered part of the Western medical model. Some therapists accept medical insurance while others do not.


Although each therapist uses a different approach known as a theoretic orientation, your therapist will initially assess your symptoms and the impact grief is having on your life (i.e., your sleep, thoughts, mood, ability to eat and care for yourself or others, and to meet daily responsibilities). The therapist will take a detailed history of the mental health of you and your family, ask about your coping mechanisms, social support, and assess for safety concerns. To develop the most appropriate plan of care to process your loved one’s death and summarize what therapy will entail to give you the resources and skills needed to work towards healing, the therapist will listen to understand the circumstances of your story, struggles, and pain.


Depending on the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death, the therapist might first collaborate with you to reduce your immediate symptoms, strengthen your support system, and build a trusting therapeutic relationship before delving into the details of the death. Although every experience differs, grief therapy after the traumatic death of a loved one can be a lengthy process to explore the complex dynamics associated with your loss, but if you are open throughout that process, therapy can also provide opportunities for insight, growth, and healing.


The Grief Companioning Project

A grief companion can also support grievers who have experienced the traumatic death of a loved one. Grief companions are volunteers from all walks of life; many who have experienced their own loved one’s sudden or unexpected death and who will ease the pain and grief of others. The Grief Companioning Project offers comfort and support to individuals who have experienced a traumatic loss. Grief companions cannot fix or solve your problems but offer something more important. They companion you, or walk with you, during what might be the hardest and most intense, painful moments of your life. Grief companions have participated in multiple, extensive trainings about the diverse and complex needs of individuals and families who experience the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one. They have learned how traumatic grief devastates an individual and family; understand the impact of traumatic grief on the body; are skilled at listening and holding space; and are knowledgeable about community resources available to support individuals living with traumatic grief. Grief companions can work one-on-one or lead a support group. When grief companions do not know the answer to a griever’s question, they have a leadership team to consult for supervision, additional resources, and support. There are people, however, who are not suited for the companioning program due to previous traumas and will benefit more from professional mental health services.


Grief companions do not exist within the confined boundaries and strict guidelines of professional mental health services. There are no fees for the grief companioning program and while grief companions are short-term resources who integrate grievers with community long-term services, their relationship with you need not end. Often, companions develop lasting connections with the individuals they serve. Grief companions commonly volunteer their time because they, too, have experienced the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one. So, their giving back by developing unique bonds with the individuals they serve and making lasting connections is also a part of their own healing process.


Similarities between the Grief Companioning Project and Grief Therapy

Although professional mental health services and grief companioning take different approaches to working with individuals living with traumatic grief, there are similarities in some aspects of their services and approach. Both resources are essential in providing grievers with validation and normalizing their traumatic grief experience. In a society that is so uncomfortable with death, grief, and especially traumatic grief, therapy and companioning are vital in confirming how difficult the pain and struggles are and the impact the lack of support and understanding our world has on a griever’s experience.


Therapists and companions can give grievers permission to feel what they need to feel without judgement, and reassurance that their reactions are appropriate. Therapists and grief companions can also provide individuals suggestions, new ways to cope with pain and ease feelings of isolation, and comfort just by being in their presence. After the sudden or unexpected death of a loved one, the emotions, pain and grief are overwhelming. Participating in therapy and receiving support from a grief companion may be a helpful combination.


Healing from the traumatic death of someone you love is a lifelong journey. Finding the right resources for yourself may take time. Do not be afraid to pursue multiple forms of support to walk alongside you in your grief.