We rarely think about our own death, but it’s as much part of life as the grief of those we will leave behind.

Surviving friends and relatives experience a shock, followed by a numbness which lasts days or weeks. After the numbness, it’s the pain which follows that can lead folk to seek professional help.

This distressing time is normal and healthy. Surprisingly perhaps, counselling is hardly ever needed. That’s why at York St John Counselling and Mental Health Clinic (CMHC), we assess bereaved clients face to face. Around half of bereaved people cope well, because they intuitively know how to grieve.

Most others, about a third, adjust well with a little guidance and support, perhaps helped by a few counselling sessions. People who grieve successfully spend some time each day mourning, perhaps tearfully, and the rest of the time distracting themselves by keeping busy. The proportions of mourning and distraction vary from person to person, and in healthy grief, the tearful periods diminish over time.

It’s the rest that require the compassion and expertise of the CMHC: clients that either remain numb or get stuck with the pain. If you are what’s termed an ‘avoidant griever’, you embrace activities which leave no time to grieve. Maybe using alcohol and other substances to help numb the pain.

While so-called ‘prolonged’ or ‘complicated grievers’ find it hard to distract themselves, entering a cycle of rumination which can lead to chronic anxiety and depression. Both groups need empathy and patience from their counsellor, who will use individualised therapeutic approaches. Avoidant grievers are supported in experiencing the pain and facing the reality of the death. Prolonged grievers are facilitated in taking time out by engaging with fresh interests.

The CMHC is researching the experience of bereaved individuals who never sought counselling. Can you help with our project? Contact John Wilson, j.wilson2@yorksj.ac.uk for details.

Dr John Wilson | Director, Bereavement Services, York St John University Counselling & Mental Health Clinic.