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Online counselling and the GriefChat service

By Catherine Betley, Managing Director of Professional Help and founder of GriefChat.

After a significant loss, bereaved people have traditionally been supported by their communities, their religious or social groups and their friends and family.

Some 60 years ago, one of the first bereavement care services in the world, Cruse Bereavement Care, was launched to provide support groups for widows who had lost their husbands in the war. The founder of Cruse, Margaret Torrie, recognised that death was a taboo subject and that social attitudes to widowhood needed to change. She wrote in 1970 that ‘there are clearly-marked signposts which, if followed, lead the way to recovery. First, there has to be the wish, however transient, to find the way to better things. It is the beginning of hope, that basic ingredient for all life. From there, confidence and belief develop, and the certainty that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, good is in us and around us offering support. In such a situation of positive thinking, we cease to be dreamers and accept fully our present lot. It is the material from which we are to build our future, whether long or short in time… The remarkable discovery we can make is that love has not deserted us and that it is available to us now in a new way. Our own willingness to love and to give in the world about us is the secret of recovery and the new beginning.’

Finding hope is a key ingredient of bereavement counselling. It is the theme to which we cling to when all around us seems dark and unpredictable. Death often temporarily extinguishes hope and in bereavement counselling, we try to rediscover our hope – for the future and for ourselves.

Society has changed since Margaret Torrie launched Cruse. People are more geographically mobile, distanced from their friends and families, working remotely and travelling frequently, less tied to the people and places that would once have supported them in difficult times. Our expectations of life are higher – we want more, earn more, know more and can see the lives of others, often much wealthier or more glamorous or interesting than ourselves on the television and social media. We understand more about our emotions, we are aware of our mental health. Our ‘stiff upper lip’, so carefully cultivated during and after world wars, is long gone.

The last 20 years have seen a plethora of new bereavement services emerge, many of them formed by newly bereaved people who have lost someone significant to them. After a loss, it is natural to want to make something good out of a terrible experience – it is in some ways restorative to create something that will help other people who might find themselves in the same position. Yet capacity in most bereavement services is overstretched. Rather than finding the help they need, bereaved people are faced with answerphones and long waiting lists. Bereavement counselling, the skilled technique of supporting and walking alongside bereaved people as they navigate the unfamiliar and unwelcome territory of loss is an expensive and complex service to offer and while some services do it well, few if any can meet demand and provide consistent and professional levels of support. Bereavement services have been slow to change; long waiting lists and slow response times have been used as evidence that an organisation is still needed and wanted – and used in funding applications to attract the cash needed to keep themselves running just as they always have, while not necessarily adapting to the demands of the modern world or embracing new technologies or ways of working.

It is widely recognised that geographical boundaries and time zones no longer restrict our ability to seek help and that convenience, flexibility, anonymity and cost are all key factors in the decision to seek counselling and therapy, whether for bereavement or for life’s other difficult issues. It no longer feels appropriate that we must merely accept charitable help for our grief, but that we can seek out and engage with the professional services that are well placed to help us, as and when we want them – at our convenience, not theirs.

Studies have shown that there is little or no difference between seeing a therapist face to face as opposed to online. In fact, in some cases, online counselling offered more advantages and comfort to some patients. But are we ‘dumbing down’ therapy by providing it online? To some extent perhaps we are. Services such as GriefChat were never intended to replace the long term, intensive therapeutic relationship that professional face to face bereavement counselling provides. Instead, GriefChat provides three types of service – initial information and advice for grieving people; signposting to longer term, community-based bereavement support services or professional counselling services;  and the opportunity to immediately explore what’s happening for the bereaved person in a safe, convenient therapeutic space, with a professional counsellor. It’s the immediacy, anonymity and flexibility of a professional online bereavement counselling service like GriefChat that is its key strength, along with our commitment to providing services that are effective and responsive to the need of today’s bereaved people.

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