Dear Therapist:

Thank you so much for your weekly insights. I am looking for some help due to a loss in my family and I was offered a support group by a local organization. I am also considering a private therapist. Can you please explain the differences and benefits of one over the other? Do you have an opinion as to which is better in this situation? 



I’m sorry that you lost someone close to you. Of course, it’s natural to have strong emotions after a traumatic experience. But no two people are exactly alike. Each person’s emotions are based on uncountable experiences, reactions, triggers, insecurities, and other factors.  Therefore, no two people will mourn in exactly the same way.

Do people generally need help to deal with a death in the family? This would depend on the definition of “need” and of “help.” Certainly, most of us will lean on others in order to help deal with a trauma, tragedy, or loss. Do most of us “need” this help? Maybe not, but it can definitely help.

Many people will seek help outside of their immediate circles. This type of help can include support groups. There are a number of advantages of support groups. As the name suggests, group members can help to assist and encourage others with their shared experiences.

Sometimes, emotions can feel overwhelming. At these times, we can wonder how we can go on.

There are times when it can feel like we are the only person who has ever felt this way. In a sense, we’re right; no one else has ever felt exactly how we feel at that moment. But this is really splitting hairs. The issue isn’t that we feel unique (which we all are), but that we feel alone. We feel alone in our pain, alone in our confusion, and alone in our grief.

Support groups can help us to feel normal, to feel less alone, and to recognize that others experience feelings similar to ours. Often, the experiences of others can help us to learn strategies for dealing with our grief.

Some people opt to see a professional to help process their emotions. Advantages of individual therapy can include normalization of emotion, a better understanding of the grief process, and tools to help us work through our emotions. As you can see, there can be overlap between the advantages of supports groups and of individual therapy.

Some people “need” help more than others. This does not indicate weakness or failure. Each of us is unique. We all have very individualized experiences, emotions, and reactions. For instance, some people have more trauma in their lives than others. Depending on a multitude of factors, this can work in a variety of ways. The two most basic ways are either reacting less strongly due to having been inured to the effects of trauma or reacting more strongly due to the cumulative effect of unprocessed trauma.

There are an unimaginably large number of possibilities and ways in which each person processes their trauma, both in general and with regard to mourning. There are people for whom the “normal” ways of dealing with trauma don’t really work, and there are times when a person’s regular process doesn’t work for them. As mentioned, this can be due to a variety of factors.

Support groups are not always the answer for everyone. Some people simply don’t find them helpful. For others, it can feel depressing. For some people, support groups can actually feel isolating, especially if they feel (rightly or wrongly) that everyone else in the group is processing their emotions differently from them.

Many therapists have the training and experience necessary to help their clients identify their own needs, emotions, trauma reactions, and processes. Appropriate ways for each particular client to grieve—and to process their emotions—can be achieved through individual counseling. There are many things that therapists can address that would typically not be addressed in a support group. For instance, mental blocks and defense mechanisms can be acknowledged and worked through. Past traumas and their relationship to the current one could be addressed, and new processes and trauma reactions explored. 

A therapist should be open to each client’s needs, and should always seek to adjust their own perspective to better understand—and therefore help—their client. An experienced therapist with this ability can help the client to tailor an approach that is specifically designed to help that particular client. Additionally, an eclectic therapist draws from many therapeutic methods, further expanding the individualization of the therapy process.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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