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How Effective are Grief Support Groups?

There continues to be debate over the effectiveness of grief support groups. After a study conducted in 1999 by researchers B. V. Fortner and R. A. Neimeyer suggests grief counseling and support groups were not useful (and, in some cases, might even be harmful), many professionals advised against individuals seeking out grief counseling or joining a grief support group.

For others, grief support groups are a crucial part of the healing process. They allow space to be vulnerable, to meet people on the same journey, and to learn from new friends. Everyone is different and everyone’s experiences are different. Let’s dig a little deeper…


Researchers note that grieving is not a linear experience. An individual doesn’t simply grieve and then get over it. While they might have a day where the loss is forgotten, that might be followed by a prolonged period when they are unable to stop thinking about their loss. This non-linear behavior was reported in Mental Health Practice by Baier M. Buechsel, using pinball to illustrate how grief is processed in some individuals.

Types of Grief

There are basically two types of grief. The first is “simple grief,” and is characterized by changes in eating patterns, prolonged crying, loss of sleep, and can also include too much sleep. In simple grief, the grief eventually passes with the passage of time. “Complicated grief” is a much more prolonged process. With complicated grief, there can be periods of prolonged numbness and emotional disconnect, as well as an inability to experience pleasure, combined with deep depression and a loss of trust in others. Complicated grief also tends to be compounded in relation to drug or alcohol addiction.

Eighty to ninety percent of grieving falls into the simple grieving category, whereas ten to twenty percent falls into the complicated grieving. People in both groups have turned to grief support groups and private counseling for assistance in dealing with their emotions.

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A study published in the United States Library of Medicine questioned people who participated in grief support groups, as well as those who did not participate in the groups. The subjects were given emotional evaluator tests at the five-week period and the one-year period. It turned out that those who participated in the grief counseling and support groups looked as if they were in a grieving emotional stage higher than those who did not participate.

However, a research paper published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, disputed the original study, stating there was literally no empirical data or statistical proof grief support groups and grief therapy were ineffective, stating more research needed to be done.

Group Support Versus Individual Therapy

While individual grief therapy has its advantages, proponents of group support point out the benefits of grieving within a group. Everyone reacts differently to the group and those reactions can reveal important information about how someone is feeling. The therapist within a group can actually see how someone is reacting in a social situation, which is normally not seen within a one-on-one session.

In the end, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of grief support groups. More than anything else, it appears to be truly determined by the individual in the group. For some, grief support groups turn out to be worthless, while others might find them to be a vital part of overcoming their grief and embracing life once again.

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