Grief support groups are a difficult topic for both grievers and therapists. Neither grievers nor therapists who are grieving are willing to attend a support group. A full 70% will never step foot in one. The list of reasons why includes not wanting to hear other ‘s sad stories, not wanting to be sad in public, not wanting to run into someone they know, sharing feelings in public, not wanting to run into a particular religious belief about loss, and sometimes just wanted to keep their own grief and process private.
Many times, I find that it boils down to wanting to be sure that the griever does not run into someone they know, and they do not want to be told what their grief process should be. They know things need to change, but they are afraid that in a group they will be told some of the same clichés they have heard so many other places from so many other people. They’re concerned they’ll be told they’re going too fast, too slow, they’re not getting past it, and they’re going too fast and therefore didn’t care enough, that somehow they are to blame for some part of their loved ones death, and that they aren’t making the right decisions for themselves. Talk about complicated!
The reality is some of those concerns can be real. Some grief groups do tell you how long it should take to grieve. For some the statement is grief lasts forever. For others it’s grief lasts as long as you need it to. There are grief group leaders who will tell you that you are not doing things properly or that you are moving too fast into your recovery because you should not be making decisions right now. In fact, a few decades back, the standard grief group curriculum included a statement at the beginning that said something about grieving people should not make any major decisions for the first year after their loss. And to be fair to people who are cautious about attending grief groups, there are some that are not advertised as having a particular faith or belief behind them but in fact are focused entirely around that. For someone who was fragile after a major loss running into something they are not comfortable with or did they interpret as judgmental when they are expecting open and welcoming environment is a difficult thing to navigate. They may not be comfortable getting up and walking back out, and then they are subject to something that truly doesn’t fit where they are emotionally spiritually or even physically.
In regard to grievers moving too quickly through their grief process, research supports primary grievers who have lost their intimate partner through a long illness finding that they have recovered for the most part within about the first three months. They had time to grieve when their partner was dying. Waiting a year to make decisions imposes nine months of just sitting and contemplating and waiting for others to catch up. When it comes to a griever not making major decisions or moving immediately after a loss, we need to recognize that sometimes a griever must make big decisions in a hurry because of finances or caregiving needs. They do not have the luxury of waiting a year to figure out what they need to do right in this moment. Finally, it should never be the role of any grief group facilitator to tell anyone how long or how short their grief process should be.
There is another side to this of course. Some grief groups are not time limited, and the culture of the group becomes one of wanting to remain in grief. Having lost a loved one becomes the defining characteristic of the person Who is in the group. Grief group cultures can become one of holding people back from recovering and criticizing those who want to move into their new lives after finishing the leftovers in the relationship with the person who died.
So, what should a grief group look like? Let’s imagine one that’s time limited. That prevents it from becoming a group the requires its members to stay in active grief. A group is a leader who educates the members about how grief is impacting them in their entire life, normalizes it, and provides manageable ways to handle that impact. In other words, it gives those in the group the ability to manage their grief instead of their grief managing them. And let’s imagine a group where the focus is not on the grief itself, but on what’s keeping the person who’s had the loss in their grief instead of working through into a new life that’s reorganized around the loss. A group where getting outside and getting some sunshine, some exercise, allowing yourself to feel happy at times and sad at others is not only a goal but is reinforced within the group. And a group where setting boundaries on those around the grievers is the norm so the grievers can make their own way into their new life without criticism from those outside.
Imagine a group where the goals are to finish what is leftover. The unfinished goals and dreams, the hurts and sadnesses, the I wish moments, the if only moments, the I regret moments, and where any residual guilt can be resolved. Now that would be a grief group.
As a grief therapist I would be the last person to say that every person who’s had a major loss belongs in a grief support group. Some people are so accustomed to losses that they work through them on their own successfully without needing a Group A therapist or anything more than really themselves in their own support network. A significant percentage of our population Doesn’t enjoy any kind of group experience. To tell those people to attend a support group would be to induce additional anxiety at a time that they really don’t need more. But for those who don’t have a lot of connections, or who aren’t surrounded by people who know how to be good support while you are grieving, or who are telling you how to grieve in a way that doesn’t fit for you, the right grief support group can make all the difference giving you permission To handle your grief your own way.
If you were looking for a grief support group for yourself a loved one or a client a few things to consider.
- Look into who is sponsoring the group and what their philosophy or belief system is.
- Decide if a time limited one was specific goals or an ongoing group is a better fit.
- Look at whether the goals of the griever match the philosophy and goals of the groups you are looking at.
- And finally, make sure the group is still meeting. Grief groups can come and go like any other group.
While we are all taking shelter from the ongoing battle against COVID, some grief groups have suspended operations. Others have gone online in various forms. And there are still groups on social media that are informal, ongoing and may meet at specific times or may just be available for comments and discussion. For someone who is lost their intimate partner an online grief support group reduces isolation, and can build new relationships outside the family system that can be tremendously helpful. As with the other tips above check the groups content, philosophy, and whether it fits for yourself your client or your loved one.