Monday, October 20, 2014

In Grief: Support Groups vs. Individual Counseling

[Reviewed and updated February 7, 2024]

A reader writes: My husband died on a hospice service six weeks ago. I feel very comfortable on your online Grief Healing Discussion Groups site, and have already received great support from the people there. They encourage and inspire me. I'm learning a lot from those who've inhabited this world of grief longer than I have. That's why it would be good to hear your thoughts on the following issue. 
          The forum helps me, but I feel I need additional counseling. I met individually with a grief counselor from the hospice where my husband died and she encouraged me to come to one of their local support group meetings. I went, but hearing the other group members' sad stories made me feel uncomfortable, and even more depressed than I already was.
(For some reason, hearing the stories of the people on the forum doesn't have those effects.) I know that support group meetings aren't right for everybody. But should I go to at least one more meeting before giving up on them? Individual counseling seems like a better fit for me, but I'd probably have to ask the hospice to assign me to a new counselor since the person I talked with before doesn't seem to want to meet with me privately. Should I give the support group another chance, or follow my instincts and seek individual counseling?

My response: The fact that you found it difficult to be in an "in person" grief support group at this point in your grief journey is not at all unusual, for the very reasons you describe: Your husband died barely six weeks ago, you've only just begun to confront the harsh realities of this profound loss, and you may not feel ready yet to "be there" for others in their pain. That's why we usually suggest that mourners wait a few months after the death of a loved one before joining an "in person" support group, until they're a bit further "down the road" and feel strong enough to listen to other people's stories of loss. (Even as I say this, however, it's important to bear in mind that everyone is different in this regard; some people are more "group-oriented" than others, and such folks are quite comfortable and do quite well in a group setting right away. Like everything else in grief, no one "rule" applies to everyone.)

You say that reading the stories of the people on our online forum doesn't make you feel uncomfortable or even more depressed, but I think that has to do with the fact that there you can come and go as you choose, and if you prefer, you can also remain in the background, as hidden and anonymous and invisible as you want to be.

Depending on where you are in your own grief process, you may not feel the need for a support group just yet, but that may change over time. There is no right or wrong time to come to a meeting, but if you decide to do so, you might try coming to several meetings rather than just one, since each one changes depending on the composition of the group and what is discussed in it. Once you've found a support group, make sure it's made up of mourners with whom you can identify, whose facilitator is not only comfortable running support groups, but also knowledgeable about the grief process. Many hospices provide ongoing grief support groups at various times and locations throughout their communities. If none of these groups suits you or fits with your schedule, the bereavement staff will help you find alternatives offered by other organizations in the community. (See, for example, Look to Your Hospice for Grief Support.)

You say that right now it feels as if individual counseling would be a better fit for you, so it seems to me that you've already answered your own question. You know yourself better than anyone else does, and it's important that you do what feels right for you.

Even if you're mourning in a normal, healthy way, it is wise to use all the resources available to help you recover your balance and put your life back together again. Sometimes friends and family may worry too much about you, or get too involved in your personal affairs, or not be available to you at all. When it seems that support from friends and family is either too much or not enough, a few sessions with a qualified grief counselor may give you the understanding and comfort you need.

Unlike friendship, an individual counseling relationship offers you the opportunity to relate to a caring, supportive individual who understands the grief process, doesn't need you to depend upon, and will allow you to mourn without interference. Within the safety and confidentiality of a therapeutic relationship, you can share your intimate thoughts, make sense of what you're feeling, and clarify your reactions. An effective bereavement counselor is knowledgeable about the grief process, helps you feel understood, offers a witness to your experience, encourages you to move forward, fosters faith that you will survive, and offers hope that you will get through your mourning.

You said the counselor with whom you've met "doesn't seem to want to meet with me privately." If that is the case, if you don't sense that this counselor has a good understanding of your particular needs, or doesn't seem like the person who can help you, you should feel free to try another counselor. Again, I encourage you to contact the bereavement office of your local hospice for further information.

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