Healing approaches

Learning how to grieve, heal and grow

Loss and grief

By Helen Preston, counsellor

Grief manifests itself in many ways but is not necessarily a very easy thing to describe. According to the dictionary definition, it consists of:

“Intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. ‘She was overcome with grief.’ Sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, heartache, heartbreak, broken-heartedness, heaviness of heart, woe, desolation, despondency, dejection, despair, angst, mortification.”

Grief can also express itself in a number of ways. It can take the form of an emotional, physical, behavioural or cognitive response. For example, at an emotional level, a grieving person may feel shock, yearning, helplessness, relief or guilt.

Common physical sensations include a hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the throat, breathlessness or lack of energy. In behavioural terms, grief may manifest itself in the form of disturbed sleep, crying, absent-mindedness, a feeling of searching or reliance on drugs or alcohol. Cognitive responses could include feelings of disbelief, confusion, general preoccupation and even hallucinations.

But it is worth bearing in mind that death is not the only cause of grief. Other situations that also spark this emotion include divorce, the ending of important relationships, losing a job, moving away from the place you grew up, leaving a school in which you were happy, becoming disabled or losing your home.

Most people are able to process their grief naturally and, while they may experience intense bouts of sadness, they can still feel hope and will eventually find happiness again. That said, there is no right way to grieve. Even though rifts are created in some families because members make judgements over others on what grieving should look like, in reality, each individual has to find their own path and what works best for them.

It is common to hear of the five stages of grief first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her ground-breaking book, ‘On Death and Dying’, which was published in 1969. These stages consist of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Author and expert David Kessler also discussed the possibility of a sixth stage – that of ‘meaning’. But it is important to recognise that not everyone will experience all of these stages, and they can appear in no particular order, maybe more than once.


How counselling can help

Experiencing grief can be a confusing and emotional time. It often feels isolating and scary, but speaking to someone else about how you feel can help you process your emotions. It can also help to reassure you that what you are going through is ‘normal’ and you are not you going mad.

In particular, if you continue to experience grief over a long period of time, you might benefit from support to help you process the emotion in a healthier way. Maybe you did not have the time or opportunity to process it when your loss took place, but it may still be affecting you in some way. You may feel depressed or stuck.

Immediately following a loss, there are generally lots of distractions and plenty of support. But then the dust settles, people go back to their busy lives and presume you are fine. You do not want to ‘burden’ your friends with your sad feelings and so say you feel OK when you do not.

It is here that counselling comes in. Counsellors are trained to listen without judgment, to empathise rather than sympathise. Moreover, speaking your feelings out loud may help you to make sense of them.

There are many instances when a grieving person may need support to find a way through the dark times and discover meaning in life again – and grief related to suicide is one of those. There are so many additional emotions and complications that are linked to this situation, not least the social judgments that are all too often made.

It can be hard for friends to support this type of grief and to realise that the grieving person needs a voice rather than to feel silenced by the discomfort of others. In Western culture, we find talking about death tricky at the best of times. But when someone choses to end their own life, we tend to draw conclusions that only serve to perpetuate the myths, while failing to help the sufferer get any closer to the often unanswerable question of ‘why’?

Other circumstances that can have a particular impact on grievers include losing a child or young person or suffering a sudden and unexpected loss or death.

Life coaching motivation and self realization concept in blue

Learning to heal and grow

To sum up, here are some apt but poignant words that have been adapted by a member of Compassionate Friends USA:

If you think you are going mad – that’s normal

If all you do is cry – that’s normal

If you have trouble with most minor decisions – that’s normal

If you can’t taste your food or have no appetite – that’s normal

If you feel rage, denial, depression – that’s normal

If you find yourself enjoying a funny moment and then feel guilty – that’s normal

If you feel angry when someone says “it was God’s will” – that’s normal

If you can’t talk about it but can smash dishes and kick the dustbin – that’s normal

If you can share your story with an understanding listener – that’s a beginning

If you can get a glimpse of the person’s life rather than their death – that’s wonderful

If you can remember with a smile – that’s healing

If you find your mirrors have become windows and you can reach out to another bereaved person – that’s growing.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.


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Healing approaches

Counselling: Answers to frequently-asked questions

person wearing black zip hoodie sitting in front of gray wooden plank wall during nighttime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Helen Preston, counsellor.

Counselling can prove to be a confusing and anxiety-provoking experience if you are new to it and do not know what to expect. So here are some answers to a number of frequently-asked questions to help you on your way:

Why go to a counsellor?

There are many reasons why you may want to speak to a counsellor. We are all human and things can be difficult. Certainly, it is unlikely you will be able to move through your entire life without facing some challenges.

The benefit of a counsellor in this scenario is that they will ‘walk beside you’ during the most trying times. They will sit with you in your grief, pain, frustration, confusion and desperation and be there to hear you – really hear you.

They will listen to you in a way that your friends and family are unable to do. They will attend to what you are saying compassionately and look upon your situation with gentle eyes, not offering answers but helping you find your own solutions.

Experiencing isolation can be soul-destroying. Feeling like a failure because you are unable to find your way out of your difficulties is a commonplace experience. Life is messy and humans are complex, but thankfully we are not our problems. We are far more than that. We can thrive despite the greatest setbacks and the most devastating experiences. Even if it is not possible to change the situation, counselling can help lead you to acceptance.

If your thoughts keep traveling back to the past and you continue wishing that things had been different, it can lead to low moods and depression. If your thoughts constantly look to the future and you imagine thousands of different scenarios, most of which will never happen, it can cause fear, anxiety and depression.

Counselling helps you to become more aware of where your thoughts are taking you, which in turn offers you more choices. Although we are much more than our thoughts alone, if we spend all day in our heads, it can feel like a lonely and scary place to be. Sharing these thoughts can be a liberating experience. While it is not easy, if you can find the right counsellor for you, it could prove easier than you think.

How do I find a counsellor?

Where can you turn to if you need help with a specific issue, whether past or present? Who can you trust with that hurt or vulnerable side of yourself you have been afraid to share with friends or loved ones? How can you know for certain that you will not be judged?

These are usually the first questions that people ask themselves when considering counselling. But the role of a therapist is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for you to explore your feelings and to say out loud what you have been keeping locked away inside, often for a long time.

If you type the word ‘counselling’ into a search engine, you will see lots of options. Go with your instinct. Who feels right for you? Understand that you are in the driving seat and can decide to end counselling sessions or chose a different therapist at any time.

The relationship that you build with your counsellor will be one of the keys to successful therapy. It is one built on trust and mutual respect that develops and grows over the time of your sessions together.

It gives you a place to be seen and heard for exactly who you are without having to think about how your words are affecting the other person. That other person, your counsellor, will never try and make you take responsibility for their feelings in a way that a loved one can. They will never impose their opinion on you in the way a friend may do. That is why therapy can prove to be such a liberating and healing experience.


What is the best type of counselling for me?

It can be quite confusing for people when they read different counsellor’s profiles and see that different professionals offer different types of therapy. While counsellors will be familiar with specialist terminology, it might not be quite so clear to everyone else what cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or a person-centred approach, comprise, or how they might help you.

But if you take a bit of time to explore each counsellor’s profile, you will see they will list the kinds of issues and conditions they deal with. My suggestion would be to call or send them a short email setting out the challenge you are looking for help with. Ask if it is something they have experience in and if they believe they have the skills to support you.

An overview of various types of therapy

CBT was developed to deal with the here and now. It focuses on an individual’s thoughts, which can dictate feelings and subsequent actions. In brief, the theory is that if you can change someone’s thoughts, their feelings will become more positive and their actions easier.

The NHS offers online CBT courses that are short but can be very useful for some people. Recognising that it is your own thoughts that are sabotaging you can be very empowering, but it does not work for everyone.

For some people, past experiences have created certain patterns of thought, which their subconscious mind remembers, even if their conscious mind fails to do so. The subconscious attempts to protect us and may hold onto these thoughts, which is why exploring the past and understanding the impact it has had on you can be a vital part of therapy. This approach is called psychoanalysis or psychotherapy.

But for any therapist to understand a client’s issues, it is vital that they really listen deeply to what is being said without judgment and with a positive regard for the individual. This approach, which forms the basis of ‘person-centred’ therapy, also involves noticing a client’s body language and how they react emotionally to what is being said.

The integrated approach, meanwhile, takes all of these therapy types and uses whichever is appropriate to meet a client’s needs at the time. So an individual’s presenting issue will be explored in the context of the past and then the future in order to help them understand themselves and their choices more fully.

Clients often become stuck because they believe they have fewer choices available to them than is actually the case. But counselling can help them uncover more options by lifting the blocks created by set ways of thinking. It is often possible to discover a solution that was in fact always there but simply hidden away without them knowing.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.


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Picking up clues on the journey to self-discovery

silhouette of a man during sunset
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

By Helen Preston, counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner.

In 2007, I read an article in the Sunday Times that changed my life. It resonated with me very strongly, although at the time I had no idea why. I cut out the page and stuck it in my ‘little book of inspiration’.

It was written by a woman who called herself an “intuitive”. She was sharing a little of what she did, how she did it and how she helped others to make sense of their lives. These words were particularly emotive for me:

“The inner world is created first, our thoughts create our environment. So it’s about what you decide you are about to become. When we truly know ourselves from the inside out, we no longer look to the outside world for validity. Inner beauty comes when we ‘know’ ourselves and it manifests as confidence and self-assurance.”

At that time, I was lacking in confidence and self-assurance. We’d moved house for the fourth time in five years, my children were very young and I was a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother and a friend. But I didn’t really know who ‘I’ was.

I had a feeling there was something I was missing but didn’t know where to start the search for ‘it’. I just knew I needed to keep those words. What I didn’t do was write down the woman’s name. I cut out her picture – she’s looking gently into the camera’s lens and there is peace in her eyes. As corny as it may sound, she has the serenity of an angel.

The thing I’ve grown to realise is that you don’t know what you don’t know. That said, I’ve grown to believe, through my own experience, that what you need to know will show up – sometimes in the words you read in a book or hear in the lyrics of a song, sometimes through a chance encounter with a stranger or a poster on the side of a bus. The messages are everywhere – we just aren’t looking. Our lives are too busy, too frantic and too stressful to notice.

From the moment we are born, we are being conditioned. We are taught to seek approval. We are discouraged from being who we naturally are for the convenience of others. Fear is ever present. As the BeeGees once sang, ‘staying alive’ is what it’s all about. And of course this is true, but there’s a big difference between surviving and thriving.

In the article, the intuitive said: “Some people don’t understand what I do – including my own father. But I never really edit who I am. Not everyone can like you: I learned that in the playground.”

Looking inside

Woman meditating on a mountain
Woman meditating on top of a mountain (Bigstock)

Back in 2007, I was surviving too and it didn’t feel great. My stomach was tight, my breath shallow and my fear and anxiety levels high. I was still editing myself for others. I was the people-pleaser I’d learned to be from early on. In truth, I didn’t know who I was. But I knew there must be more to life than this.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said: “Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakens.” I say: “If you don’t go within, you go without” – and I say that because it scares me how much would have been left undiscovered if I hadn’t sought out a relationship with my spiritual self.

Instead I rocked up at a spiritual development group at The Arthur Findley College in Essex’s Stansted Mountfitchet in 2010 after a ‘chance’ conversation with a stranger at a party who made the suggestion. I learned to meditate. I learned to let go of fear. I learned to open up to my feelings and feel safe doing so. I developed a trust in myself I had never imagined I could feel. I developed inner confidence, resilience and contentment. I found my tribe after a lifetime of feeling like the odd one out. It turns out that I wasn’t so odd after all.

But Jung also talks of the shadow side – the part of us that we don’t want others to see and that we find difficult to accept is within us. We can hardly bear to experience those feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, of not being good enough or of not being lovable.

So rather than sit and feel the discomfort of those old wounds and try to find healing, we distract ourselves with activity. We try to escape from something that is intrinsically part of us. A client once told me that after having ‘run away’ to Hong Kong to escape her pain, she realised that she had simply taken herself with her. As a result, she realised it was necessary to face her inner suffering and heal it in order to be free.

So what does spirituality mean to me? It means living in the here and now, being aware of what is around you, but also feeling what is within and working with your own inner peace. It is living your life from a position of unconditional love rather than fear, having faith and trust that everything is happening exactly as it should be, and learning from life’s lessons.

At the time, I didn’t have the first idea why that article spoke to me. But although I had no real understanding of what the intuitive was saying, I did feel it was important in some way.

Like a clue in a ‘Scooby Do’ cartoon, one piece of the puzzle appears to make no sense in isolation, but if you pick it up and take it with you, you’ll be one step closer to solving the mystery. Actually since then, I’ve collected a whole book full of clues: sayings, articles, inspiring words that others have shared which resonated with me. And each clue has taken me one step closer to me.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.

Healing approaches

Counselling: Embarking on a journey of self-discovery


By Helen Preston, counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner.

People who come for counselling generally wish to understand either themselves or a situation, or both. The goal can, and often does, change as sessions progress, but therapy creates a safe, non-judgmental space where it is possible to discuss anything.

Current issues may spark off unresolved issues from the past. Areas of unhealed pain and suffering may come to the surface. When we as individuals try to process problems alone in our own heads, our viewpoint is often limited and we may feel stuck and hopeless. But therapy can offer a new perspective from which to find a solution.

The point is that we can only view the world from our own perspective, which is gained through experience. This may result in us thinking we are the only person in the world feeling the way we do and no one understands us or how we feel. It is a very lonely place to be.

But counselling offers an opportunity to be understood and, perhaps even more importantly, not to be judged simply for being who we are. After all, each one of us is a work in progress and has the capacity to grow and flourish. Therapy can help you move from merely surviving to thriving.

What should you expect?

The first session is often the hardest so it is important to feel at ease with your counsellor. You are seeing a stranger with the intention of sharing painful and intimate details about yourself and your life. I believe it is always important to acknowledge this situation and each client’s courage and vulnerability.

Therapy happens at a pace that the client dictates. It is like digging for a diamond and fresh insights are revealed as each new layer is exposed. So while it may not be possible to change the past, it can be healed. Such healing is a deeply personal process that clients are guided through by their therapist so they do not have to go it alone.

Only two things are required for the process to succeed: someone to speak their truth out loud and someone to hear it. Listening is key and it is vital for people to feel heard and for their therapist to be fully present as they experience often difficult emotions. This is about empathy not sympathy.

Counselling sessions last an hour and usually take place weekly, but the overall duration depends upon the issues and goals to be dealt with. As therapy progresses, sessions may take place at longer intervals, but flexibility is important.


What issues do I focus on personally?

My clients are aged 14 upwards and come from a wide range of backgrounds. The common thread that runs between them though is that they feel stuck or unable to resolve a particular issue, with many suffering from depression or anxiety as a result.

There can be any number of reasons why people end up feeling how they do, which includes both internal factors and external events. Life can be a tricky journey, but my aim is to walk this part of their life beside them.

As a result, I take an integrated approach and explore the present, past and possible future situations. Sometimes simply talking about an issue and sharing the emotions it evokes can be enough to generate positive change. At other times, the situation is more complex and requires a range of therapeutic approaches over a longer period of time.

But on other occasions, talking is simply not enough. At such points, it is often beneficial to use Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping) to help release energy from the body, aid relaxation and relieve stress, before reframing the problem so that hopefully the subconscious will let the issue go.

Why did I become a counsellor?

As long as I can remember, people have shared their secrets with me. Friends said they felt safe confiding in me. Strangers that I met only briefly would tell me about private matters, adding “I don’t know why I told you that.”

But I have always been genuinely interested in other people, their stories and their life experiences. I have also always been aware of my own inner world – that part of us so few of us get to know either within ourselves or within each other.

So over the years, I have built on this framework to develop further self-understanding not only by attending seminars and workshops, but also by reading or sitting in the silence of meditation. I have likewise learned much from experience and from ‘feeling’ things for myself.

But when my children were in their early teens, I came to a crossroads in my life: continue my career in law or take a different path? Stick to the familiar or delve into the unknown?

So I retrained as a counsellor. I learned how to understand my own subconscious, challenge my self-limiting beliefs and heal old wounds. I learned how to empower myself and gathered the tools to help empower others. This approach fitted with my core beliefs and values as I felt I could really be of service to others.

But I am also aware that, while knowledge can be acquired in many different ways, wisdom comes from within. From an early age, we are all taught to conform to everything from family rules and values to the social norms of our birth place, school, workplace, religion, government and so on.

Sometimes these things work for us and sometimes they do not. But ultimately, I believe humans are hardwired to be happy, which makes it necessary to sift through these learned rules and values in order to see what fits us now – and that is the true aim of therapy.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.