It’s the default advice for the newly bereaved: “Maybe you would benefit from joining a grief group.” Each year many Americans struggling with grief wonder if they should take that advice. While a grief group may not be for everyone, for many they offer a safe space to express feelings and share memories with others who understand what they are going through. Learning more about how these groups work may help you get the most from the experience.
How do grief groups work?
Grief groups operate on the premise that sharing thoughts and emotions in an environment with others who are in a similar situation can provide comfort and may help participants come to terms with their loss. In-person groups usually meet at regular intervals and discussions are usually moderated by a professional facilitator or volunteer.
During the meeting, participants are encouraged to give voice to their unspoken thoughts, share stories about their loved ones, express their emotions, and help members learn coping skills. The group may also invite guest speakers to their meetings and hold special memorials, such as candle lightings.
Tips for getting the most from a grief group
As with many of life’s challenges, the toughest part of joining a grief group may be taking the first step. Group leaders are trained to help participants talk about their feelings, give support to each other, and share insights with other members. Still, some people may be uncomfortable with the thought of joining a grief group. The idea of sharing closely held emotions and thoughts can be a major hurdle for many first-time grief group participants. They may want to try to deal with their loss on their own.
“I remember trying to drop off my wife, Kathy, at that first meeting when the chapter leader approached us in the parking lot,” says Chuck Collins, a retired police commander and attorney whose daughter, Tiffanie, died in 1996 from bacterial meningitis. “I was reluctant to go inside because I didn’t think a support group could possibly help. We were trembling as we entered that room, wishing we could make ourselves invisible. The men and women we met were incredibly kind and understanding. We both feel they changed our lives that night.” Since that initial meeting, Chuck and Kathy have been highly active with The Compassionate Friends, USA, https://www.compassionatefriends.org, which offers bereavement support through 700 chapters nationwide to those suffering after the death of a child, sibling, or grandchild. “We go the extra mile to provide special comfort and emotional support for anyone starting with our group. We all remember the courage it took to attend our first meeting.”
While no one can predict if joining a grief group will be beneficial for you, there are things you can do to help make the experience as helpful as possible:
- Do some homework. It’s likely that there are many different support groups in your area. Each will have advantages and disadvantages. Some are linked by a broad common denominator, such as the death of a loved one. Others are more specialized, offering help to family members in the wake of a suicide or death from criminal violence, among other causes. Some provide online support and some sponsor national conferences. Most groups welcome telephone inquiries. Learn what you can about a group before attending your first meeting.
- Accept that the early going may be difficult. It can be hard to sit down with people you’ve just met and share your deeply held thoughts and feelings. In addition, you will meet people at all stages of grief. Group leaders are trained to welcome you and to try to integrate you quickly into the group, but you should be prepared for a rollercoaster of emotions.
- Be on time and prepared to stay until the end of the meeting. “I found I was most focused in a support group when people put aside outside distractions and focused on their feelings and those of other support group members,” says Chuck. “When members arrived late or left early, it diluted the benefit of the meeting for all of us.”
- Listen intently, share when ready. It’s okay just to be present in the group as an active listener if you are not ready to share.
- Respect the norms of the group. Groups place a premium on respect for others and trust that what happens or is said in the group will stay in confidence.
- Give it a fair shot. Grief groups may not be for everyone. According to Chuck, “You should try a grief group at least three times before making a decision about it. Don’t put too much stock in the results of your first meeting. It takes time to evaluate whether a group’s chemistry is right for you, and you’ll soon know, intuitively, if it is.”
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