top of page
  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Disenfranchised grief is a term that has particular relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also applies in many other situations. Disenfranchised grief occurs when a person or pet has died and there is some type of invalidation of the loss. I’ll give you a few examples:

  • A death occurs and there is social stigma around it (such as a suicide or an overdose death, or the death of person who had perhaps been violent or involved in criminality) leading to people being less comfortable discussing their grief and processing the loss. There can be a heavy burden of shame that makes the grief somehow unspeakable.

  • Pet loss. There is a crushing universality to the grief that accompanies the loss of a partner or friend; however, for pet owners there is additional stress which can arise from the death itself (often euthanasia) and from the difficult grieving process. In many cases, this grief feels equal to losing a family member or friend and yet for some people (particularly non-pet owners) there can be diminished sympathy and understanding about the devastating impact of losing a pet.

  • A loss where there is an emotional or physical separation, so perhaps a divorced partner or a family member with whom there was severe conflict. Or perhaps a family member that had moved abroad and closeness had diminished.

  • A loss where the person grieving is excluded from the rituals associated with the death. This can happen when a person was having an unknown relationship such as an affair, or when a person’s true identity was kept secret (such as with an LGBTQ2 person), or right now when due to physical distancing the usual gatherings to mourn together and celebrate a person’s life aren't possible or have moved online.

A person suffering from grief and loss with head in hands

Disenfranchised grief, when unsupported, can lead to a block of the normative grief process and lack of ability to find meaning in the person's death, so in effect the grief is left suspended. Disenfranchised grief contributes to a complex mourning experience and can lead to what is known as complicated grief, when the severity of the grief continues and there is little or no recovery from it.

So how can grief counselling help?

Most importantly, it provides a space to talk about the difficult or challenging aspects of the loss and to share the love you had for the animal or person. I welcome clients to bring in photographs or personal items as this can be healing and an important step in that processing that has to take place. For some people letter writing can be helpful, especially if there were unsaid or unresolved issues in the relationship. You and your therapist can also brainstorm ways that you can be involved in a ritual of some kind, a personal and beautiful goodbye. It is also really helpful to have conversations around ways you can stay connected to the person you have lost. This approach, known as continuing bonds, allows the griever to become fully adjusted to life without the person or animal that has died, but at the same time find enduring ways of remaining connected to them. It can also be helpful to talk to your counsellor about your own beliefs around death and dying, as loss can often trigger unresolved fears around this unavoidable aspect of life.

Grief is universal, there is no avoiding it; however, with grief there is no such thing as normal. The grief you encounter will be every bit as unique as the person or animal you have lost and profound grief is a reflection of profound love.

Please contact me if you would like to book a session to discuss a loss that you are facing or have faced in the past: Here is a link to my grief counselling services page:

Helen Whitehead

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver

I am including some resources in the Lower Mainland for anyone affected by grief who may not be able to access counselling:

BC Bereavement HelpLine: 604-738-9950

Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society: 604-696-1060

#grief #loss #DeathAndDying #complicatedgrief #petloss

  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Ever get that feeling that if one more thing goes wrong you're going to either explode or burst in to tears? That's a sign your window of tolerance needs some help.

#WindowOfTolerance is a now a widely used term first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel, a UCLA psychiatry professor, author, psychotherapist and all around pretty amazing guy. The idea being that we all have a window, or a zone, that we can operate within at an effective level, we can respond to challenges, process information, evaluate situations and manage everyday life. When we are operating outside of our window of tolerance - usually during times of stress, tiredness, hangryness etc. then we find ourselves becoming more easily overwhelmed and this can cause either #hyperarousal (panic, anger, anxiety) or #hypoarousal (dissociation, numbness, freeze response). In both states we are unable to access our “good brain” our prefrontal cortex and so we can’t see logic or reason or even find language to express what we feel.

Window of tolerance explanation with what happens inside and outside of the window.

Some folks may just have a smaller window of tolerance. Adverse experiences in life and trauma can shrink our window of tolerance because our brain is trying a little harder to keep us safe and so wants us to tolerate less so that we are ready much quicker to go into fight, flight or freeze. A smaller window of tolerance means that we will be more reactive to real, or what is quite often, perceived danger - a trigger, or stimuli that has reminded our brain of a traumatic incident or painful memory from perhaps many years ago and our brain desperately tries to protect us from it happening again.

The good news is by being aware of your own (and maybe your partner’s) window of tolerance, we can manage it a little more effectively.

How big is my window today?

By checking in with yourself:“how big’s my window today?"you can tell if it might be time to take a break, do an activity that will help to regulate your nervous system and widen your window. Techniques such as grounding exercises, breathing exercises, self soothing, music, petting your dog, whatever it is that can help us regain calm. Finding out your own ways of self-regulating is really important, especially for folks who have experienced trauma and if it’s difficult for you to figure this out, try a few different things, see what fits and if you go to counselling - your therapist can help!

If you have any questions I would love to hear from you:

For today, check in with your own window of tolerance and see how wide yours is :)

Helen Whitehead

  • Writer's pictureHelen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

So you've made the decision that whatever it is you're struggling with, you need a little help. You've talked to friends about their #counselling experiences, you've figured out your RCC from your RPC and your CCC from your MSW and you've decided that a Registered Clinical Counsellor is the best choice for you. If you have extended health, you've double checked to make sure that they cover RCCs (most do) and you've checked out the online directories (such as and yes! You've decided on a #counsellor!

Many counsellors (me included) offer a free consultation and this gives you a chance to speak to your possible therapist and ask them any questions and learn a little bit more about how they work. This can be really helpful to do and it also makes the first session a little less daunting.

What happens before that first session depends on whether you are meeting online or in-person and depends on your counsellor. They may ask you to fill out an intake form with a few general questions and they may ask you to read and sign their informed consent form, or, if you are meeting in person, they may do this then. The informed consent form should explain appointment rates, cancellation fees, confidentiality, ways to contact your counsellor and plenty of other not super exciting and yet incredibly important information. At whatever stage you read the informed consent - this is your chance to ask questions about anything at all you are unsure about.

Counselling session

First Session Jitters

Meeting a new person can be anxiety inducing for some people and meeting a new therapist can be especially scary. This might be the person you tell your life story to, this might be the person you trust with a secret, this might be the person who can help you get through life. It's a big deal!

Here's a secret. We get nervous too.

And trust me, we get it, we feel it too. It's a responsibility that counsellors take very seriously and we hope that you feel comfortable and safe with us but we also appreciate that for some people this can take many sessions to achieve. And that's OK!

The first session is a chance for you to see if this counsellor might be the one for you to work with, it's a chance for you to tell the counsellor what you're struggling with and what would have to happen for you to know that counselling was a good idea. Your #therapist will have some questions for you as they try to get a sense of your situation and you get to decide how much detail you give them. We understand it can take time to feel comfortable and often information will come out naturally over the course of your sessions together, we don't have to know your life story to be able to help you, but if you want someone to hear it, we're there for that too. A couple of tips would be to take a notebook with you, as it can be helpful to jot things down rather than trying to remember everything and also take a drink with you as at the moment many counselling offices, mine included, are not providing any water/refreshments.

Whats Different with Online Therapy?

Of course many counsellors and clients are having #onlinetherapy sessions now due to #Covid19 and for many people these work really well. I work with a number of clients who initially were quite resistant to the idea of a virtual session but now tell me they would never go back to in-person. Some of the benefits of online counselling include not having to get transit or drive and worry about being late or parking; also for some people, talking about difficult topics can feel a little less overwhelming when it's from the comfort of your own home with a cat on your knee.

A dog dressed up sitting at a computer as an online therapist

Tech issues do happen, so it's a good idea to check whatever platform your counsellor uses and make sure you have good wifi, if not then get an ethernet cable to plug right into the router to ensure a solid signal. Non-technical interruptions can (and do) happen too. If I'm working from my home office, I always warn my clients that there may be a meow from my cat or a bark from my dog and of course that Amazon delivery would choose to arrive right in the middle of a session! These little moments don't affect the #therapy session negatively, sometimes it's the opposite, they create a shared moment of laughter or awkwardness and perhaps having a little window into your therapist's life can make them seem a little more human :)

Confidentiality is another factor when thinking about online therapy. When you are in my office I can provide assurance that no-one can hear our conversation, but I don't know who you live with or who lives next door so make sure that you can find somewhere private to hold the session and think about using earplugs so at least only half the conversation is out loud. The best advice I can give you is to make yourself as comfortable as you can, have a water or hot drink with you, some paper to scribble down any notes or just to doodle if it helps you relax and always take a few minutes before the session to ground yourself, take some deep breaths and set your intention for the session. Oh and could I forget tissues.

Final Words

Whether you choose online therapy or in-person, whether it's your first session or your 100th, getting counselling sends a very positive message to yourself. I care about me.

Thank you for reading this post and if you are considering counselling for the first time please get in touch if you have any questions, I would love to hear from you.

Helen Whitehead.

Helen Whitehead Counselling

North Vancouver, B.C.


Instagram: @hwcounselling


thoughts from a north vancouver counsellor

bottom of page