Overview of Grief

Grief is a strong sense of sadness connected to a loss.  The loss may be the death of a loved one, a failed marriage, a miscarriage, or the loss of one’s health, homeland, position, or wealth.  It can also have an additional psychological component like losing a sense of security or innocence.  The duration and degree of grief varies from person to person and is often correlated with the severity of the loss.  Mourning can last for years, but grief generally becomes less intense as time passes.

Grief manifests in a number of ways.  Some people become very withdrawn and depressed.  They may be overwhelmed by sorrow or feel numb.  It may be impossible to talk about the loss without becoming tearful.   Others react more externally by becoming irritable, angry, belligerent, or even aggressive.  It is possible for grief to manifest in the body with symptoms such as pain, nausea, headaches, or sleep disruption.  Bereaved people may turn to substance abuse or other addictive behaviors to cope with the pain.  Still others repress their grief by “putting on a happy face” while some channel their pain into activity.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapeutic modality originally designed to treat trauma, namely PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  It has since been found to be helpful in treating other conditions such as addiction, depression, OCD, and grief.  This therapy is a nontraditional, integrative technique that utilizes an external stimulus as to tool to help the brain process and “digest” traumas that are stuck and unresolved.  The therapist instructs the client to focus on a specific distressing memory while simultaneously paying attention to an external stimulus, traditionally the therapist’s finger as it is moves back and forth.  The client is guided to follow the stimulus with his/her eyes, hence the name of the therapy.  Some think the technique mimics the effects of Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM), a sleep state in which the eyes move back and forth.  It is during this state that the brain effectively processes memories and resolves traumas.  The external stimulus used in the treatment is referred to as “bilateral stimulation”, meaning that it stimulates both sides.  It can be visual (such as a moving finger or a dot traveling across the screen), auditory (listening to a sound that alternates between the ears), or tactile (tapping the palms in an alternate fashion).  Bilateral stimulation activates both sides of the brain which creates a stronger connection between the hemispheres and allows the whole brain to be engaged, thus aiding the resolution of the traumatic memory. The external stimulation also distracts the person from the disturbing memory, creating a non-distressing association with the event.  Numerous research studies have supported the efficacy of this method and it has the capacity to accomplish in months what would normally take years of traditional therapy to achieve.

How Can EMDR Be Used To Treat Grief?

EMDR was originally utilized to treat trauma.  The underlying theory is that traumatic memories can become maladaptively stored in the brain.  These traumas become locked in the brain in the “fight, flight or freeze” response instead of being processed and released.  Those who are affected continue to suffer from a past event as if the threat is still present.  Activating the brain and allowing the memory to become neutralized removes the negative emotions attached to the event and eases or even erases the burden of the trauma.  If we look at the word “trauma” in a broader context, many difficult life events can have a traumatic impact and create residual problems.  It is thought that grief becomes lodged in the same manner that other traumas do, leaving people stuck in the past and unable to let go.  EMDR can be utilized by targeting the loss as you would target any other trauma.  By resolving the core memories associated with the grief reaction, the negative emotions are released and the person can move forward without being weighed down by grief.  Furthermore, EMDR has evolved into a comprehensive, eight stage technique that goes beyond the eye movements themselves.  EMDR includes learning coping skills and replacing negative associations and beliefs with positive ones.   Such tactics are also beneficial when healing from grief.

Is EMDR Therapy Effective For Grief?

There is anecdotal evidence from clients and therapists as well as research studies that have shown that EMDR is beneficial in treating grief.  A small 2016 research study by Soule found that participants felt more desensitized to their negative memories and perceptions, had an increased sense of acceptance towards the loss, and felt more oriented towards the present and future as opposed to living in the past.  The participants also benefited from cognitive restructuring, an increased insight and ability to modify maladaptive thought patterns into healthier ones.  A qualitative 2017 study by Cotter, Meysner, and Lee compared the impact of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) vs. EMDR on participants experiencing grief.  Both groups showed improvements in different ways.  While the participants who received CBT learned emotional regulation skills and reported that they had gained insight into their thought and behavior patterns, the EMDR group stated that their distressing memories seemed more distant and less clear.  This supports the direct way in which EMDR works on how memories are stored in the brain.  Numerous EMDR practitioners have seen the benefits firsthand and may even see significant improvements in their clients after only a few sessions.

Traumatic Grief And How EMDR Can Help

Grief is a normal response to loss, but there are cases in which the grief is much more complicated and difficult to resolve.  Situations such as suicides, violent or sudden deaths, or a death from a socially stigmatized illness may result in traumatic grief.  In some situations people feel alone and unable to talk about their grief without others judging them or becoming alarmed.  The grief in these cases typically lasts longer and the bereaved suffers more intensely than in typical grief.  This type of situation can lead to heightened anxiety or even panic associated with the grief memories.  People suffering from traumatic grief may develop a preoccupation around health and safety, and become very fearful that they could lose loved ones in another traumatic incident.

In general, EMDR is most successful at resolving single-event traumas that can be targeted specifically.  Traumatic grief is more complicated and has to be addressed on multiple levels.  In addition to working with the disturbing memories, issues such as guilt over moving on or feeling undeserving of happiness after a loved one has died need to be addressed.  These beliefs can be treated with EMDR in addition to the disturbing memories themselves.  Therapists have reported that patient experiencing traumatic grief are able to remember their deceased loved ones fondly and maintain a positive connection to their memory while being able to move forward and imagine a life without them.

How To Find EMDR Treatment   

Because EMDR trained therapists are much less common than tradition psychotherapists, finding a qualified EMDR practitioner may take a bit more effort.  However, there are a number of excellent options for in person therapy, online, and even self-guided treatment.

BetterHelp, a virtual platform, is one of the easiest and cost-effective options (get our 15% exclusive discount).  BetterHelp has over 25,000 practitioners on their site, many of whom are trained in EMDR.  You will be matched with a qualified therapist either locally or anywhere in the world.  This company charges a monthly subscription instead of an hourly rate, making it both affordable and easily accessible via online sessions.  If you would like to pursue this option, there is a short questionnaire to complete  which will help with the matching process.

If you would prefer in-person treatment, you can always do an internet search, check with your insurance company, or ask a healthcare professional for a referral.  Word of mouth is an excellent way to find a recommendation.  The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) is the official organization for EMDR trained therapists and their website has a directory where you can search for a provider near you.

With modern technology, administering EMDR on your own has become a possibility.  While it is best to see a therapist, self-guided EMDR is an option if there are geographical or financial barriers or you do not have access to timely and appropriate therapy.   We recommend VirtualEMDR, the leading option for self-guided virtual EMDR therapy.  Their virtual program follows the same principles and stages that are used by therapists and can be administered from the comfort of your own home.  It may also be preferable for those who would prefer to work independently without the aid of a therapist.  Read our full review

More tips on self-administered EMDR can be found in this article: https://emdrhealing.com/how-to-self-administer-emdr-therapy/

The Takeaway

Because EMDR can be applied to many difficult life events, it is an excellent tool to help resolve grief.  Memories related to the loss are targeted and the negative emotions connected to the events are lessened or resolved.  People who have been treated for grief using EMDR report a greater sense ofdistance from the loss and an overall increase in acceptance of the loss.  If you are interested in EMDR therapy for grief, there are several options for in person therapy, online, or via self-administered programs.