Participating in a grief support group can benefit your well-being
Beth B. Bucheister, MA, CPC
We are forever changed by the experience of loss and no two people experience the sorrow of loss in the same way. Individuals often feel alone in grief. Isolation can feel protective, but it can also prevent the opportunity to grow through grief. Group work is one way that grief is transformed into possibility. It is important to know that we have an opportunity to continue to love those we’ve lost and to learn to love ourselves more in the process of grief. Participation in groups helps this process. There is a powerful sense of understanding and compassion that comes from being part of a group. Groups counter a sense of isolation by offering a connection to others with similar experiences, thoughts and feelings. In addition, in a support group setting, there are ways to ask for what we need, find out how others can be companions as a support in this journey and learn about unresolved issues that extend the grief process.
Grief groups, bereavement groups, and groups for those who have lost a loved one are offered in many communities. Sometimes they are focused on a particular type of loss (sudden, cancer) or members are grouped by age. There are groups for loss of a pet, parent, spouse, child, sibling or friend. These groups can be found through hospice, hospitals, places of worship or through funeral directors. Much work is being done to make the services of trained professionals available to reach those in need. If you can’t find one in your area, check the internet or ask friends. Sometimes groups are led by lay people in the community and sometimes by grief counselors, life coaches, social workers or clergy. A well trained, caring facilitator offers the structure necessary for successful group interaction. What is most important is for it to be a right fit for you. Ask questions beforehand, try it out, believe life beyond than grief is possible.
Do cry when you want to and cry if you want to
The physical release of crying can help express your pain. When we are children, crying over something important to a 5 year old, for example a broken doll, is shunned. Often, a parent will say it’s only a doll. A youth who cries over a lost game or missed ball will be told, “It’s ok. It’s only a game.” We are conditioned to hide our emotions and hold in feelings that may need to be expressed. Disappointment, shame, sadness and fear of recurring losses get pushed down and hidden.
When in a group of others who have experienced significant loss, no one will tell you to stop crying. No one should say anything to stop your tears. In fact, in a group setting, no one should even offer a tissue as this might stifle the freedom to emote. Like a good belly laugh, crying has something to offer.
While the fear of embarrassment when crying is often present, there is also no judgement of those who do not cry. Groups are intent on support, holding each member where and as they are in that space. While we are familiar with allowing tears, it is important not to feel judged when we just don’t cry. Group members are always encouraged to approach each other with, simply, acceptance.
Do give yourself time to grieve
The stages of grief (as originally defined by Kubler-Ross) denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, were never meant to have a particular order or timeline. In fact, many forget that these stages were created from work with those who were themselves dying. When one has lost a significant person in their life, there certainly can be no denying its reality. Yes, there can be the feeling of they should be walking through the front door or I was just about to call_____(my departed one). Unlike, the denial of an illness, this feeling is more of the time needed to accept reality.
Society is so full of wanting everyone to be “ok” that we find ourselves afraid to show emotion. This is the time to allow yourself to feel every emotion and to embrace the fact that you can feel them. Sometimes wanting to be a part of a group will come in a week, a month, a year or more. Only you can make that decision. When the question arises, “Are there others who feel as I do?” “Can anyone understand this loss?” Then you will know you are ready.
What is important is to decide for yourself when to move through your feelings and when to hold on to them. When you are ready to be supported and held through the process of learning to live again, it will be time to join a supportive group.
Do let others know what you need or don’t need
“I am numb. I feel nothing. How can I know what I need?” Those feelings are some of what people new to a loss will say. During that time, it may just be someone to answer the phone or someone to sit with you and not ask questions. Whatever seems right, even if it’s please call again another time, do your best to say what you need.
When someone asks, “What can I do?” the mourner often responds with “that’s ok”, or “I’m fine.” This is the time when someone else’s casserole or baked goods will provide much more than nutrition. It can provide an internal sustenance knowing that there are still those who care for you.
Do find ways to bring your lost loved one on the journey
Continue to talk to or about your loved one. They did not leave your emotional life because they have left the physical one. Your memories include them; take them along as you share with the group and others.
In a group, often an activity is scheduled in advance. You are asked to bring along a photo of your loved one at a happy time. Each group member tells their story. Everyone is anxious to listen to understand what has been lost. Its very impactful on each member to get to know the other’s loved ones. Storytelling brings them into the room and there they remain as we embrace their lives. After all, that is why they are so missed, not because they died but because they lived.
Do find a group that shares your need to live
After a long illness or any loss, your life will change dramatically. No longer is there the person who needed so much care or attention. In a group there is a chance to embrace the uniqueness of your grief and listen to others share theirs. During this process, what arises will be the need all share for more. There are always more questions to be answered and a wish for more time with those we’ve lost. Eventually, there will be a wish for more for you. More time to learn to live again; perhaps to do something that this relationship, illness, or responsibilities prevented you from doing.
Choosing to live life and carry on old desires while creating new dreams will help focus your energy towards the more you were meant to have. This may be the time to find out what more there is for you. Dream big, share those dreams and together your group can foster action to attain new dreams.
Mourners ask themselves: “How can I go on?” “How” is the unanswerable question but for most, the truth is we do go on. Not being alone, not feeling as if you are the only one to ever lose the most important person in your life does make a difference. No, no loss is the same, and yet the challenge to continue to live often is.
It might seem like you are always walking up hill, you might have a fear that nothing will ever be good again, you might even fear for your own health or peace of mind. What is true is that it will never be the same. And it is also true that there is a need, a duty, an obligation to yourself to live and to live well.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don't have the strength.” In grief support groups everyone is encouraged to be courageous and live.
Do not let others tell you what you need
“You should sell your house.” “You should start dating.” “Why don’t you join a gym, get a new haircut, take a cruise, eat more, eat less, call me more, call your family, etc., etc.” The list of unrequested kindly misguided suggestions is endless. Grief is the time to tell others what you need. In a group setting, hearing others that may be less empowered or others that offer the ability to embrace this power may be the catalyst to your growth. Wherever you fall in the spectrum, honor your needs. When well-intended others ask you about moving on or seem afraid to say the name of your loved one, a part of you is negated. In groups, we all share our history and stories about those we’ve lost.
Do not rush yourself to move on
The loss of a loved one is always unique, as is the time it takes to grow from the experience. What can make a difference is knowing that there is an opportunity to work together with others in grief in a safe environment of non-judgment. There, you have freedom to express joy and sadness, triumph and failure. Try it out, try it on, you will know when you are ready. One day, you will just realize that the sun is out or the flowers are in bloom. Something you never thought you’d see again.
Do not allow well intended catch phrases bring you down
Grief groups will not offer blatant meaningless and sometimes hurtful catch phrases. Being a member of a group that has experienced significant loss gives you a space to be free from those words which feel so empty.
Phrases like “I know how you feel” or “things happen for a reason” can be debilitating. There are so many - “it was his time, he’s not suffering anymore, the Lord only gives us what we can handle, she’s in a better place, and thank goodness you still have your_________ (health, children, sister, father, etc).” Although these words come with intentions of helping, often they are not. They are ways for those speaking with you to make themselves feel more comfortable around you. It is not because people don’t want to be helpful it is because they are uncomfortable around the grief. They want you to feel well, to find answers, and to be your old self again. A support group is embraced by the security of being on this journey together.
Do not get stuck in unresolved issues
An important focus that can be addressed in grief groups is unresolved issues. We have relationships with those we’ve lost. They were real people in our lives. Perhaps there was a last argument, a missed phone call, or a question regarding medical treatment. ‘What ifs’ become overpowering and hold us in the loss. The group will work together in accepting the missed opportunities and embracing those obtained.
For example, after her husband’s death, Mrs. H found out that her husband had lost $10,000 in a bad investment. She wanted to scream when thinking about how many times they had argued about getting advice before investing. Yet, when the group’s facilitator asked what Mrs. H most admired about her husband, her answer was that he loved adventure and they had taken spontaneous and exciting vacations together. Something powerful opened here, Mrs.H began to love all the good in her husband and others in the group were given the opportunity to visit their own unresolved issues. The safety of the group and the encouragement to share provided a space for releasing unresolved issues.
Groups that are created to support and provide community for those dealing with grief make an important impact. There is one constant in the journey of someone who has lost a loved one: something big has changed. Many things will never be the same and no one knows what you are going through. Groups help find a way to live and to live well. The success of a group member depends on a caring and well trained facilitator and a group that is committed to non-judgement and support, and the ability to feel safe and welcome.
Embracing your loved one and bringing the stories along with you is a gift for yourself and the other members of the group. Knowing that you now have an opportunity to do something for yourself will open the doors to possibilities that are only available now.