During my over 30 years as a therapist and counselor, I have often been asked by clients and friends, “What do you think is best, a bereavement group or individual therapy?” Those who decide to go with a group then ask, “What is best, a peer-led group like the Compassionate Friends or a group led by a trained therapist?” Often mental health professionals make the case that a trained therapist is needed in order to run an effective group. I believe that a case can be made for either peer or professionally led groups depending on individual needs and desires. Some professionally trained grief therapists o en encourage clients to attend private therapy as well as a support group, but expenses o en enter the picture. Many join a peer-led group because they do not have the financial resources or desire to participate in paid grief support.
I am a strong advocate of the group process whether the group is led by a professional therapist or is peer-led. The Compassionate Friends is my preferred grief group for child loss as it provides siblings, parents and grandparents the opportunity to both serve and be served depending on their situation. The newly bereaved are helped by listening to the stories of those who are further along in their grief and the more seasoned griever has the chance to see how far they have come and to assist others in coping with their grief. There are many opportunities to serve. One can be a chapter leader, a member of the steering committee, or set up chairs or bring refreshments. Small and larger assignments give those in grief a feeling that they have something to offer and a reason to attend meetings.
It all started for me in nursing school years ago when I was exposed to the work of Dr. Victor Yalom in his classic 1970 book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. In this book Dr. Yalom identifies 11 Therapeutic Factors (sometimes referred to as Yalom’s Curative Factors) that he believes significantly help facilitate change in individuals in the group setting. The Curative Factors are: (1) Instillation of hope, (2) Universality, (3) Imparting information, (4) Altruism, (5) the Corrective Recapitulation of the Primary Family Group, (6) Development of Socializing Techniques, (7) Imitative Behavior, (8) Interpersonal Learning, (9) Group Cohesiveness, (10) Catharsis and (11) Existential Factors. But before we discuss these therapeutic factors let’s explore why it is useful for the bereaved to talk about his or her loss.
Prince Harry Says, “Talk About It”
I recently read an article written by Dan Bilefskiy in the New York Times, July 25, 2016. The article, “Prince Harry Says He Regrets Not Discussing His Mother’s Death,” was based on a speech Prince Harry made at a BBC breakfast regarding the death of his mother, Princess Diana, when Harry was 12 years old. Harry said, “It is okay to suffer. As long as you talk about it, it is not a weakness. Weakness is having a problem and not recognizing it, and not solving that problem.” The Prince went on to say that he has only talked about his mother in the past three years and regretted he had not done it earlier.
Candice Lightner Says, “Don’t Put Grief Off”
This reminded me of a radio interview we did on Open To Hope radio with Candice Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where she cautioned others not to put o mourning. Candice said that after the death of her daughter, Cary, she was so busy lobbying in Washington D.C. for stiffer penalties for drunk drivers that she didn’t grieve for three years. This was painful as friends and family by then expected her to be “better”.
Byron Katie asks, “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?”
My friend Byron Katie, founder of The Work of Byron Katie, often asks those in her healing workshops, “Who would you be without your story?” Writing and telling the story of your loved one’s death can change it in positive ways. When we hold our stories in our minds and bodies they become stale and stilted. In fact, the stories you tell about your losses are not as accurate as you might think. e act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist, Elizabeth F. Loffus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” Groups are a great place to revisit and examine your story.
Talking Helps Heal Grief
In her groundbreaking work with those who have suffered a loss, Dr. M. Katherine Shear, director of e Center for Complicated Grief, Columbia University School of Social Work, uses the technique of having clients tell their story of the death over and over as one of the major strategies for resolving complicated grief.
Talking Saved My Life
I regularly attend The Compassionate Friends annual conferences and was a founding member of the Burlingame, California chapter. I have heard countless people say, “The Compassionate Friends saved my life.” When asked how this happened they say that the group meetings and conferences give them a chance to talk with others who “understand.”
What Happens In Group?
So, now let us explore the specifics of how getting together in groups helps us. As I stated earlier, Dr. Victor Yalom
in his classic 1970 book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy identified 11 Therapeutic Factors that he feels significantly help facilitate change within individuals in the group setting. I have taken the liberty of selecting 8 of the 11 curative factors, modifying them to reflect the benefits I believe the bereaved can derive from a group setting.
Grief Groups: Eight Curative Factors
to their loss can give members the opportunity to experiment with their own behavior and nd out who they are, and who they are not. Behavior of group members can teach skills that can be used in situations outside of the group.
It can also be cathartic for other group members to witness someone dealing with an emotional experience, as they can relate to it and grow by sitting with them in their emotional release.
As you can see, participating in a group has many healing aspects. My hope is that this article will encourage you to explore your story and to use these curative factors to inspire others to join a grief support group. The Compassionate Friends recommends that you participate in three meetings before making the decision about whether or not the group is for you. The first one or two meetings can be stressful, but over time you will nd that sharing stories and meeting like-minded people will enhance the healing process. Remember, we as humans are social beings and grief is a journey you need not take alone.
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