As a long-time Solution-Focused (SF) practitioner, trainer and developer, I view grief as a natural, aspect of the human life experience. I also believe that there is more than one “right” way to grieve and that the process differs according to culture, personality, relationship and personal context.

Grief at its most intense engulfs a person’s world. A grieving person is flooded with the reality of loss. The present feels empty and the future can seem completely bleak or even unimaginable, populated by a pervasive absence, a figural and sometimes literal empty chair. To say this experience is agonizing does not begin to describe the reality. It is intolerable and yet tolerate it we must. Like all other therapies, the SFBT approach cannot fully alleviate the inherent pain of grieving. It can, however, counterbalance painful emotions by helping people find meaningful, satisfying ways to endure, cope and make life more bearable during the process of experiencing and addressing their grief.

A clinician in one of my SF seminars asked, “How can SFBT be useful in situations in which there is no obvious solution and perhaps the person doesn’t even want a solution?” He was referring to his personal grief process in the aftermath of his daughter’s recent death. “I don’t want to find a solution to my grieving,” he explained, “I want to honor it because it is an aspect of my connection to my daughter.”

Asked what might be meaningful or helpful, he answered, “I want to find a way forward that honors what my daughter meant to me and allows me to continue to include her in my life in an ongoing way, yet I also obviously need to find a way to somehow stay functional during this grief process so I can continue to be present for my other family members who need me.“

While every grief experience is unique, many people express similar goals of finding satisfying, meaningful ways to appreciatively honor and address the emotional legacy of knowing the person they are now grieving while still managing to carry on with every day life responsibilities and continuing to be available to the people they care about

Applied to grief and utilized with emotional sensitivity, the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approach comprises a compassionate, respectful and effective treatment that gently helps grieving clients counterbalance the most painful aspects of loss by gently eliciting positive emotions regarding the person(s) they have lost and/or how they are finding ways to cope with the loss, and gradually formulating small practical steps forward.

There is no one “right” way to grieve. Grief tends to come and go over time. Although the emotional intensity does not necessarily lessen over time, episodes of acute grief usually become less prolonged, intrusive and overwhelming as time passes.

The process of a solution-focused conversation in the context of grief is consistent with the field of Positive Psychology because of its emphasis on positive emotions. SF therapists consistently elicit positive emotions throughout the therapeutic process by focusing on strengths, formulating goals based upon their clients’ preferences, identifying and complimenting behaviors and cognitions that further clients’ goals, in this case their navigation of the grief process.

In the context of supporting clients experiencing grief, SF goals typically translate in the following directions: developing healthy coping strategies, formulating practical first steps forward, providing a safe, supportive, context for expressing feelings about the person or in some cases, the beloved pet that they have lost, alleviating painful negative emotions, and in some cases relieving related issues such as difficulty sleeping or traumatic flashbacks.

SF therapists assume that people coping with grief possess a variety of previously developed behavioral and cognitive resources. Known as SF exceptions, these resources may translate into positive strengths that can be drawn on during the grief process to help clients cope with and counterbalance painful emotions. For a grieving persons, SF exceptions often take the form of moments when they are able to primarily focus on the immediate present, times when they are able focus appreciatively on their relationship with the person who has died, moments when time passes more easily in the company of friends, family, pets, during an enjoyable activity or hobby, or in the context of other life affirming behaviors or cognitions that comfort them or somehow render their grief more bearable. Focusing on these exceptions oftentimes reveals valuable coping strategies already present within clients’ behavioral repertoire that can sustain them during their grief and subsequently be incorporated into reassuring first steps in the direction of their next life chapter.

Yvonne Dolan, M.A., is the Founding Director of the Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy

The Institute for Solution-Focused Therapy will shortly be offering the new course Supporting Clients Experiencing Grief: A Solution-Focused Approach, from which this blog post was adapted. 5 CE hours will be available for the course.