Dr. Roslyn L. Ashford, LPC Nu Leaf Therapy

The beginner's guide to

Grief Counseling

Is your heart broken? Do you lay awake at night thinking about what you’ve lost, who you lost, or question how you’re going to “get over” this? Is something inside (or outside) is telling you that you should be over it by now? What’s stopping you from healing? In this guide, we’ll cover everything from the basic concept and common challenges to grief counseling as a method of coping. If you’re searching for compassionate and effective grief counseling near you, you’ll also learn how to get started.

The Grief Recovery Institute describes grief as a normal, powerful reaction to loss, that is the most neglected and misunderstood experience by both the griever and those around them (2009).
quote about grief
But don’t let that overwhelm you into suffering in silence. Recovering from the loss of a loved one, a significant life change, or any other form of grief is all about learning a new set of skills that make it possible for you to live in the present while transforming the past.
Here’s everything you’ll learn in this guide:

What is grief and what causes it?

 As mentioned earlier, grief is a reaction to any form of loss. Common producers of grief include divorce and physical death. But there’s also a range of sad and happy events that trigger grief.

Sad events that trigger grief

Death of a pet

I bought a chocolate and white Shih Tzu in grad school, Pacey, and he “watched” me graduate, get married, move, have two babies, get a divorce, and start a new career.
In his old age, the kids wanted a brand-new shiny puppy (He was old enough to be their great uncle). Nope. The worst day was realizing that he had cancer, and the only real option was to put him to sleep. It was more painful than I could have imagined.
The kids finally convinced me that I’d ruin their childhood if I didn’t get them a puppy. They researched all kinds of breeds and knew them all by name. So, a year after Pacey and one Sunday, we were “just looking”. And there he was, the most random Shih-Tzu of the entire mixed litter of midnight black pups. My Pacey was now a chocolate/white Bruno. And that was my sign: He was clearly for me.

Pets often become cherished members of the family, providing unconditional love, companionship, and emotional support. Their presence can bring joy, comfort, and a sense of security to their owners. When a pet dies, there’s a deep sense of loss for the bond they shared, leading to a grieving process similar to that experienced when losing a human loved one.

Death of a former spouse or partner

It’s over but former spouses often share a history, memories, and maybe kids together. This loss can bring up feelings of unfinished business, unresolved emotions, and unfulfilled hopes for the relationship. And if there were difficulties or conflicts during the marriage/relationship, there might be some regret or remorse. Overall, the death of a former spouse is significant, even if the romantic feelings are long gone.

Major health changes

Significant changes in health, such as a diagnosis of a chronic illness, a debilitating injury, or the progression of a serious condition? You may grieve the loss of your previous state of health and the abilities, activities, and freedoms associated with it. These changes can disrupt your sense of identity, independence, and plans for the future. You might also grieve the impact these health changes have on relationships, roles, and responsibilities…even the potential loss of dreams, goals, and expectations for the future.

Legal problems

Legal problems can also lead to financial strain, with legal fees, fines, or other expenses associated with these issues. This can disrupt a person’s sense of stability, security, and peace of mind, as they grapple with the complexities of the legal system and the potential impact on their reputation, relationships, and future opportunities. It’s also time-consuming, emotionally draining, and isolating, struggling to find support and understanding from friends, family, or colleagues.

Negative financial changes

Job loss, financial hardship, unexpected expenses, or investment losses can lead to feeling stressed, regretful, anxious, and insecure about the future.

Now, let’s move on to happy changes that might cause grief.

Happy events that trigger grief


The process of moving involves significant changes and transitions, which can impact you on an emotional level. It’s common for someone to experience a sense of loss when leaving behind familiar surroundings, relationships, and routines. Adjusting to a new environment can also be challenging because it requires getting used to unfamiliar settings and establishing new routines. And, moving may cause you to feel lonely, isolated, and a loss of identity you once felt connected to your previous home or community.

Graduating & Starting school

Just like moving, starting school can be a wonderful and uncertain time. There’s the new academic and social demands that may lead to stress and feelings of inadequacy. You lose friends, old teachers, and established routines and that requires some adjusting.


Getting married is a significant shift, combining the very different cultures (even if you’re from the same culture) of two people who love each other. You’ll need to adjust to new roles, family dynamics, and even your identity as a married person. And you might be mourning your single life and the independence it represented.


Quitting an addiction

You finally let go and realize it’s more complicated than just going cold turkey. Addiction often is the way you cope with stress or emotional pain. So, when someone decides to quit, they may feel that loss as they confront the reality of life without their addictive behavior. Additionally, quitting more than likely means letting go of social connections, facing uncertainty, and confronting past trauma.

Positive financial changes

While these changes may bring more financial stability and opportunities, they can also mean significant adjustments and emotional challenges. First, for example, career advancements or more money may come with added responsibilities and longer working hours.
You know, mo’ money, mo problems?
It makes sense that this could lead to feeling stressed or imbalanced. Second, paying off debt, while a major plus, may make you reflect on past financial struggles or sacrifices, bringing in a rush of regret or frustration.


When my teacher parents retired over a decade ago, I thought they’d be swinging from chandeliers, cruising the seven seas, or at least sleeping in late. But my dad couldn’t sleep. He was sad and bored.
I wished I could tell my job I QUIT and get paid to be at home. But back to them and happy stuff that causes grief…
For many who’ve worked their entire lives, retirement represents a significant life transition that involves letting go of a familiar routine, identity, and sense of purpose. This loss of structure and professional identity can lead to mixed feelings and a loss of meaning. Retirement also means no longer seeing those same work husbands, wives, sons, daughters, and cousins. The new reality of managing a fixed income can also be overwhelming. And we’ve all heard stories of what happens when you retire and stop moving, which can lead to more stress and anxiety about impending health issues.


Holidays can serve as painful reminders of happier times and the absence of those who are no longer present. They often carry expectations of joy, togetherness, and celebration, which can amplify feelings of loneliness, sadness, or isolation for those who may not have close connections or meaningful traditions to partake in.
On another note, the stress of financial strain or family conflicts during the holiday season can exacerbate emotional distress, making it challenging for people to fully engage in the festivities. Overall, this grief is about the contrast between society’s expectations that we should be celebrating versus your personal experiences and emotions.

Kids finally out your house aka “Empty Nest”

After years of dedicating time and energy to raising and nurturing their children, parents may grieve.
The house is quiet. They’re nobody to take care of.
This is a significant life transition and some feel that loss of purpose or identity tied to being a mom or dad. But you don’t stop worrying about their well-being, future, safety, and adjustment to independence. And how to fill the void left by their children’s departure. Overall, the empty nest phase can evoke a range of complex emotions as parents adjust to this new stage of life and navigate the challenges and opportunities it presents.

The conflicting emotions of grief

As you see, grief can come from happy and sad situations, and includes a wide range of conflicting emotions from relief to pain, or anger to confusion, and even fear to freedom. That’s why loss can be described as a feeling like an “emotional rollercoaster” because it can be unpredictable as you may bounce back and forth between emotions that seem completely unrelated.
Take a moment to notice the range of emotions you might have felt since your loss, even noting what you’re feeling right now as you’re exploring getting professional help. These conflicting feelings are normal.
So why does this happen?
In short, you’re in transition from one ending to a new beginning, away from what was familiar. You’re happy that the divorce is final but angry that this happened to you. Or relieved your dad is no longer suffering from a terminal illness but deeply sad you’ll no longer see him again. And you’re especially relieved you can return to your job because you’re no longer a 24/7 caretaker but feel guilty at the same time, because no longer being a caretaker means you don’t have anyone to show your unconditional love to. Grief can feel confusing and exhausting.

How many stages of grief are there?

So technically, there are five so-called stages. I’m just mentioning this because you’ve probably heard that there are stages to grief. So, let’s break this down.
The stages of grief, as outlined by grief professionals such as Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, are commonly described below:
  1. 1. Denial: In this initial stage, individuals may struggle to accept the reality of the loss. They may feel shock, numbness, or disbelief, and may even deny that the loss has occurred.
  2. 2. Anger: As the reality of the loss sets in, individuals may experience intense feelings of anger. This anger can be directed towards oneself, others, or even the person who has died. It’s a natural reaction to feelings of injustice, powerlessness, or abandonment.
  3. 3. Bargaining: In this stage, individuals may attempt to negotiate with a higher power or try to make deals to reverse the loss. They may find themselves saying “If only…” or “What if…” as they seek to regain control or make sense of the situation.
  4. 4. Depression: As the full impact of the loss sinks in, individuals may experience profound feelings of sadness, emptiness, and despair. They may withdraw from others, lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, and struggle to find meaning in life.
  5. 5. Acceptance: In the final stage of grief, individuals come to terms with the reality of the loss. They begin to integrate the loss into their lives and adjust to a new normal. While the pain of the loss may never fully disappear, they find ways to move forward and live with the loss.
There’s much confusion about the stages. If someone recently passed away, you’re probably not sitting in denial. And since you’re reading this, you’re obviously facing the reality of a loss. Not everybody who retires, gets married, or even goes through divorce has to move through these so-called stages. Also, these stages aren’t linear; meaning, it’s unlikely that you’ll glide from one stage to the other. Just think about the many types of situations we’ve discussed, and you’ll see that this is truly a unique and individualized experience.
There are, however, some common symptoms or responses to grief that help you focus on what you need to alleviate versus trying to move from “the end” to “accepting the end”.

Common symptoms of grief

Grief can be physical, emotional, or social. A few common symptoms in these categories are:


  • Crying and sighing
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue


  • Feelings of sadness and yearning
  • Feelings of worry or anger
  • Feelings of frustration or guilt


  • Feeling detached from others
  • Self-isolation from social contact
  • Behaving in ways that are not normal for you
Every grieving experience is different. A person may be able to continue their day-to-day routine after one loss, yet not be able to get out of bed after the loss of someone else.

14 reasons it’s hard to heal after a loss

1. Intensity of emotions can be hard to process

These emotions may surge unexpectedly, flooding your thoughts and senses with their potent force, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Processing such intense emotions can feel like navigating turbulent waters, with waves of grief crashing over you, threatening to engulf you in their depths.

2. Unexpected triggers can reawaken painful emotions

 Unexpected triggers, ranging from a familiar scent to a song, have the profound ability to rekindle the raw emotions of grief, stirring up a whirlwind of painful memories and sensations. These triggers, typically not likely to hurt in nature, carry the power to take you back to the moment of loss, plunging you into an emotional abyss where sorrow, longing, and despair intertwine. In the wake of such reminders, the healing process can feel stalled, as wounds are freshly reopened and their hearts heavy again with sorrow. Despite efforts to move forward, these unexpected triggers serve as reminders of the enduring impact of loss, leaving you vulnerable and emotionally exposed.

3. Loss can leave a void

 The void created by loss is a tangible reminder of what is now missing. This void is characterized by a sense of emptiness, longing, and incompleteness, as if a piece of ourselves has been irreversibly taken away.

4. Struggle to connect with others or find support

 Most of us have adopted this believe that we need to grieve alone. Grief might make you feel isolated, misunderstood, or hesitant to reach out for support. Sometimes it’s hard to connect because there’s a fear of being a burden, feeling ashamed of your emotions, or experiencing social withdrawal due to the intensity of your grief. Plus, not having supportive people in your life can make you feel lonelier and emptier. Without a sense of belonging or a supportive network to lean on, you might find yourself on the grief journey alone, which can make the healing process longer and keep you from having peace and comfort in the midst of your pain.

5. Role changes can be difficult to navigate and adjust to

 When someone passes away, it often disrupts established roles and dynamics within relationships and families. For example, a surviving spouse may suddenly find themselves having to navigate new responsibilities and roles that were once fulfilled by their partner. Similarly, children may struggle to adjust to the absence of a parent or caregiver, leading to feelings of confusion and insecurity. These role changes can create a sense of upheaval and instability, making it hard to find their footing and establish a new sense of normalcy in the aftermath of loss. This can bring more grief and loneliness because you’re not just mourning their loss but also the loss of the roles and identities that were intertwined with the deceased.

6. Unresolved issues or conflicts with the deceased

The absence of closure can create a sense of emotional unfinished business, leaving survivors feeling emotionally adrift and unable to find peace. Processing these unresolved issues and finding a way to make peace with the deceased can be a daunting task, requiring self-reflection, forgiveness, and acceptance.

7. Cultural expectations may add pressure to “move on”

 This pressure to suppress or minimize your grief can be detrimental, as it denies you the opportunity to fully process your emotions and mourn the loss in your own time. Cultural expectations to move on may make you feel guilty or ashamed to grieve openly, for fear of being judged or seen as weak for expressing your emotions.

This only makes you feel even more isolated, alienated, and unable to seek support or openly discuss your grief with others.

8. Traumatic losses, such as sudden deaths or accidents

 Unlike anticipated losses, which may allow for some degree of preparation and closure, traumatic losses often happen unexpectedly and without warning, leaving you feeling thrown off from the shock and devastation of what happened. The sudden and violent nature of these losses can shatter your sense of safety and security, leading to intense feelings of disbelief, horror, and overwhelming emotional pain. At times, traumatic losses may create psychological trauma, symptoms like intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares.

9. Secondary loss makes it more complicated

 Secondary losses manifest in various forms, such as financial strain, changes in living arrangements, or a loss of identity. You may now have to confront expenses related to medical bills, funeral arrangements, or the loss of a primary income earner. You might need to relocate or downsize, which can disrupt your sense of stability and security. And I’ve shared how having added responsibilities and new roles impacts your personal identity, creating another layer of uncertainty in their absence.

10. Guilt or self-blame for things left unsaid or undone

 It’s common for you to reflect on missed opportunities or unresolved issues, leading to feelings of regret, remorse, and self-criticism. You might feel guilty for words left unspoken, actions left undone, or perceived shortcomings in your relationship with the deceased. This fuels a sense of helplessness and powerlessness to change the past, intensifying the pain of loss and prolonging the mourning process.

11. Fear that moving on means forgetting or betraying them creates a lose-lose distraction

 You may worry that as time passes and you begin to heal, you will somehow betray or dishonor the memory of your loved one. This fear may stem from a deep-seated desire to hold onto the connection and preserve their legacy. Or that as the pain of loss fades, you’ll feel guilty or disloyalty. This fear of forgetting can create a sense of ambivalence towards healing; on the one hand you want to honor their memory and find peace and acceptance in your grief.

12. Spiritual struggles, quests to find meaning, and questioning life slow healing down

Sometimes, grief causes you to ask these profound, reflective questions that have no easy answers. Here’s some examples:
  • What’s the point of life now that [my loved one]’s gone?
  • -Why did this happen to me?
  • -Is there some bigger plan behind all this?
  • -What happens to us after we die?
  • -How do I find meaning in all this mess?
  • -Why do bad things like this have to happen (to good people)?
  • -How do I wrap my head around this loss?
  • -Where do I find the strength to keep going after something like this?
  • -How do I deal with all the uncertainty life throws at us, especially now?

13. Persistent and debilitating symptoms interfere with daily functioning

Intense sadness, anxiety, insomnia, or loss of appetite can significantly interfere with daily functioning and hinder the healing process after a loss. These symptoms may be manifestations of complicated grief, a prolonged and intensified form of grieving that makes it challenging for you to cope with your emotions and engage in your usual activities. When grief symptoms become overwhelming and pervasive, they can impair your ability to focus, make decisions, and fulfill your responsibilities, leading to a decline in overall well-being and quality of life. Persistent symptoms may exacerbate feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and despair, further complicating the healing process.

14. Not knowing the difference between what should be accepted vs. changed on the healing journey creates inner conflict

On one hand, there may be aspects of the loss that are beyond your control and must be accepted as part of their reality. However, there are also opportunities for growth and healing through taking action or making changes in your life. Without clarity on which aspects of your grief journey can be changed and which must be accepted, you may feel stuck in a cycle of indecision and frustration. This inner conflict can prolong the healing process and keep you from moving forward in your grief journey.

How does grief counseling work?

Grief counseling gives you a supportive and compassionate space to navigate the complex emotions and challenges you’re experiencing. As a professional counselor, I understand that grief is a highly individualized process, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In grief counseling, I work collaboratively with you to explore your unique experiences, emotions, and coping strategies. Together, we acknowledge and validate the range of feelings you may be experiencing. I use many tools and therapeutic techniques, including talk therapy, mindfulness techniques, safe coping skills, and exploring the relationship timeline, which reveals opportunities to feel more complete and at peace.

How to get started with grief counseling in MS, TX, or FL

Taking the first step towards healing is commendable. As a professional counselor specializing in grief support, I’m here to guide you through this journey. To begin, simply schedule a free phone consultation with me. During this confidential conversation, we’ll discuss your unique circumstances, concerns, and goals for counseling. This initial consultation provides an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have and to get a sense of whether grief counseling is the right fit for you. If you decide to move forward, we’ll work together to establish a personalized counseling plan tailored to your needs and preferences.
Whether you’re coping with the loss of a loved one, a significant life change, or any other form of grief, know that you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. I’m here to provide support, guidance, and encouragement every step of the way as you heal and find hope amidst the pain of loss.

Final thoughts

Remember, you’re not alone. This is a natural and deeply personal experience, and getting support is a brave and important step towards healing. Throughout this guide, you’ve found valuable insights, practical strategies, and compassionate guidance to help you navigate the complexities of grief. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself the space to feel and process your emotions. Every step forward, no matter how small, is a testament to your strength and resilience. While the road ahead may feel daunting at times, know that healing is possible, and brighter days lie ahead. You are deserving of support, compassion, and healing, and I encourage you to embrace this journey with courage and openness.
Any questions? Let me know in the comments or check out Ask Dr. Roz. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Not at all. People who ask for help know when they need it and have the courage to reach out. Everyone needs help now and then. In our work together, I’ll help you explore and identify your strengths and how to implement them to reduce the influence of the problems you are facing.

The difference is between someone who can do something, and someone who has the training and experience to do that same thing professionally. A mental health professional can help you approach your situation in a new way– teach you new skills, gain different perspectives, listen to you without judgment or expectations, and help you listen to yourself. Furthermore, counseling is completely confidential. You won’t have to worry about others “knowing my business.” Lastly, if your situation provokes a great deal of negative emotion, and you’ve been confiding in a friend or family member, there is the risk that once you are feeling better you could start avoiding that person so you aren’t reminded of this difficult time in your life.

Medication can be effective but it alone cannot solve all issues. Sometimes medication is needed in conjunction with counseling. Our work together is designed to explore and unpack the problems you are experiencing and expand on your strengths that can help you accomplish your personal goals.

Because each person has different issues and goals for counseling, it will be different depending on the individual. I tailor my therapeutic approach to your specific needs.

Unfortunately, this is not possible to say in a general FAQs page. Everyone’s circumstances are unique to them and the length of time counseling can take to allow you to accomplish your goals depends on your desire for personal development, your commitment, and the factors that are driving you to seek counseling in the first place.

I am so glad you are dedicated to getting the most out of your sessions. Your active participation and dedication will be crucial to your success.


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