Grief Counseling Techniques to Help Healing Begin

Published April 27, 2020
woman seated alone with empty armchair

Grieving is a complicated process that can impact your mental and physical wellbeing. During this time it's important to take care of yourself and explore different healing options that can help you begin to process this loss.

Play Therapy Techniques for Children Experiencing Grief

Children begin to understand the permanence of death around the age of three, although they are likely to have a lot of questions about it and may have a hard time remembering specific details mentioned. Any child under the age of three will need to be reminded in a gentle and honest way regarding the death of an individual if they played a significant role in their life. For children three and older who understand the concept, play therapy can provide a healthy outlet for processing the feelings they may be experiencing.

How to Conduct a Play Therapy Session

Play therapy is best led by a therapist that specializes in childhood trauma or grief, but a parent or caregiver can also set up a play-related activity that helps their little one.

  1. Set up a specific area for the play session to take place. Use a play mat or blanket to designate an area, and if possible use one specific room.
  2. Before your child enters, have several bins of various types of toys available to them. This should include a good mix of people, animal, and object toys. Don't worry about organizing the toy bins to fit a specific category. Mixing up types of toys is totally fine.
  3. Once set up, bring your child in and invite them to explore the room. Without leading them, notice what they are drawn to.
  4. Unless they attempt to interact with you, simply watch what they choose to play with. Notice how they are playing with the toys, how they interact with them, how they have the toys interact with each other, and what emotions seem to be coming up.
  5. If they do opt to interact with you, do so in a mirroring way and try not to lead their story.
  6. End the play session when it seems as if your child is ready to do so.

In play therapy sessions, therapists typically observe and take notes. They may not interact with the child during the play therapy session if the child is heavily focused on the toys. Observing and not interfering allows the child to process their feelings through play. Keep in mind that they may have an intense emotional reaction and throw toys, have outbursts, look withdrawn, or attempt to engage with you. All of this is normal and to be expected. Children process grief uniquely and are still learning how to communicate their emotions.

therapist works with a young girl

If you feel triggered during the session, do not act on this feeling without giving it thought. For example, you may feel tempted to swoop in when your child begins yelling at a toy or playing with toys aggressively. If possible, and if there is no serious safety concern, try not to interfere with their process. Depending on their age, you can discuss which toys represented who or what their names are, and what they were doing. You can also ask how certain characters were feeling. Keep questions open ended and tell your child they did a great job afterwards. If it looks like they need to decompress afterwards, give a few options for what you can do next like take a walk, try a breathing exercise, or watch a funny show.

Empty Chair Technique for Teens and Adults

This exercise can be done alone or with a trusted individual observing. Make sure the observer does not interfere at all unless you are in imminent danger. Pick a time when you know you won't be rushed, while still allowing for decompressing time afterwards. This exercise may feel silly at first, but has the potential to bring up a lot of intense emotions, so it's best to prepare yourself mentally before starting. To begin:

  1. Move an empty chair to a room and sit across from it.
  2. Close your eyes and visualize your deceased loved one. Now imagine they are sitting in the chair across from you.
  3. Notice how you are feeling.
  4. Use this opportunity to say whatever you need to say to them without censoring yourself. This means you can yell, cry, get angry- whatever you want and whatever feels right is what you should do. Do this for as long as you'd like and stop at any point. You can always pick this up again another time if you are feeling overwhelmed, or if you have more that you'd like to say.
  5. Give yourself time to return to a more relaxed state.

The empty chair exercise can feel incredibly challenging to get in to at first. Give yourself time to get used to this unique idea and when you are ready, allow yourself to go for it. Releasing your thoughts and emotions without the pressure to act or say what you believe is expected of you can feel cathartic and healing during the grieving process.

Externalization Therapy Technique for Anyone

Externalization is a narrative therapy technique that focuses on helping you write your own story and owning your emotional process. With externalization, you pull out an emotion or thought that continues coming up for you, give it a physical form, and fully examine it. Doing so can help you better understand yourself and your process. This exercise is suitable for any child who is able to label their emotions, as well as teens and adults. To begin:

  1. Have paper and age appropriate writing tools available.
  2. Ask yourself, the teen, or the child what emotion they or you have felt the most since the passing.
  3. You can either discuss, draw, or write about the emotion.
  4. Give it a physical form, name it, describe its characteristics, and note what makes it feel better and why it acts a certain way.

Different emotions can be externalized as more come up throughout the grieving process. Speaking about emotions, better understanding them, and confronting them without any suppression can help the healing process continue versus blocking it from moving forward. Addressing emotions in an externalized way can feel safer because it does not necessarily have to do with you, it's how the emotion impacts you and how the emotion operates separately from you. This removes some, and at times, all the blame from feeling as if having a natural emotional reaction is your fault or something to feel ashamed of.

Teens and Adults Can Chart the Grieving Process

This tracking exercise is helpful for teens and adults. Tracking and charting your emotions on a scale can help you better visually understand your grieving process and better identify potential triggers. Staying connected to yourself and exploring your grief with curiosity instead of guilt or shame is an important aspect of developing healthy coping skills. To begin:

  1. Designate a journal, note on your phone, or laptop to use specifically for this purpose.
  2. Close your eyes and bring up an image of your loved one.
  3. Note on a scale of zero to 10 how intense and painful the emotion is.
  4. Write down the most prominent emotion or emotions, and how intense they feel.
  5. Note also where you feel the emotion in your body.
  6. Try to do this exercise every day, or at least a few times a week so you can stay connected to your process.
woman taking notes

Grief Therapy Techniques for Schools

In a school setting, there may be personal losses and group losses. Being prepared with appropriate resources can help the school staff, parents, and the kids feel safe during a painful time. Schools should keep local child and family therapists on file to give as recommendations if parents request them. There should also be age appropriate books, pamphlets and resources available to everyone in the school.


For children, reading books that have to do with grief and loss can feel incredibly cathartic. For younger children, it can be helpful to have reading sessions where the teacher reads a bit and then leads an age appropriate discussion. For older kids, assigning a book about loss can also foster meaningful and healing conversations. If the students are hesitant to participate, the instructor should aim to ask questions about the characters' experiences to reduce singling out any one child's specific feelings. Sharing personal feelings is totally up to the child and shouldn't be forced.

Create a Collective Project

If the school has suffered a loss and staff members and students are experiencing collective grief, creating a collective project that honors the individual or individuals who have passed away can be very special. Some potential projects include:

  • Each child or class creates a quilt square that honors the deceased. The squares are sewn together and the quilt is displayed somewhere prominently where all students and staff have access to view it.
  • Each class takes turns adding to a collective mural, which is later displayed on campus.
  • Each class or student writes a page about the individual(s) who passed and a book is created. This book can be passed around from classroom to classroom or kept in a common area for anyone to view.

Why Healing Is Important

When you've lost someone you love, your mind and body experience several changes. Your emotions can go through intense shifts and may oscillate between numbness and heightened emotional periods. Your body may feel achy and tense and your brain goes through a massive process of reorganizing its thoughts and experiences related to your deceased loved one. All of these huge shifts can feel overwhelming and confusing to experience. Blocking yourself from feeling and avoiding triggers may alleviate some painful emotions temporarily, but over time, these unresolved grief-related thoughts, memories, and emotions may lead to unhealthy behaviors and reactions that trickle out. This can include:

  • Looking to outside sources to numb feelings of pain
  • Having anger outbursts that feel hard to predict
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Experiencing pangs of physical pain that are not due to another ailment
  • Feeling easily reactive to those around you

Grief that feels too painful can be pushed into your unconscious and can become difficult to access later on. Often times, these seemingly random outbursts or experiences are triggered by unprocessed grief, even though it may seem completely out of the blue. Finding healthy ways to work through your grief can help you move through this painful process without slowing down or blocking your healing process.

Using Grief Therapy Techniques

Utilizing grief counseling interventions and techniques can be an immensely helpful tool in assisting you, your child, or your teen in the healing process. If you continue to feel overwhelmed and aren't sure how to continue processing your grief, reach out to a therapist who specializes in grief and loss so you can receive some extra support during this incredibly difficult time.

Grief Counseling Techniques to Help Healing Begin