Grief Support Groups: Positives and Pitfalls

The suggestion to “check out a grief support group” seems to be indiscriminately offered to people after the death of a loved one. People generally consider support groups to be a reliable and valid recommendation and many would claim they’ve been helpful to them in dealing with their grief.  Grief support groups provide many potential benefits in addition to the reality that they’re available in many communities, usually have no associated cost, and require little commitment from attendees.

Litsa and I recommend support groups, although we’re hesitant to do so broadly because we know they’re not for everyone.  There are many people who attend a support group and quickly realize it’s a bad fit and others who never even consider attending in the first place.  Also, it’s hard to know what types of support groups a person will have access to in their community.  The following are just a few ways that support groups vary…

  • Attitude and culture
  • Structure
  • Led by a peer vs. mental health professional.
  • Attendance is good vs. spotty
  • Members are consistent vs. changing
  • Focused on specific loss vs. general
  • Focused on advocacy and action vs. grief experience

Before extolling the benefits of  grief support groups, I feel compelled to talk about why someone might have a negative experience. Why do I start here?  Because there’s already an awareness around the positives; enough that when someone has a negative experience they might feel discouraged and wonder, “Why didn’t a support group work for me?  Everyone said it would be so helpful?”  

But as many people as I’ve met who say they’ve had a wonderful support group experience, I’ve met just as many who’ve attended a group and felt disheartened and alienated.  I want people to know this is normal and, if they want to find a support group that works for them, to keep trying.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of reasons why this sometimes happens.  Note: If you make it to the end of the post you’ll see that these negatives lie on a continuum. On the other side of the continuum, many of these negatives are actually positives.

Potential Pitfalls

Overwhelming:

It can be helpful to be in the presence of someone else’s emotions, but sometimes it can be too much.  When you’re feeling vulnerable yourself, you might not be in a good place to experience another person’s anger, sadness, regret, guilt, etc.  Keep an eye on how you’re feeling in response to others; maybe you’ll find it’s too soon for you or maybe you’ll realize you’re just having an off day,

Discouraging:

It is common for people to attend support groups looking for guidance, hope, and reassurance.  Those early on in their grief especially may be looking for evidence that things get easier.  Attending a group with this expectation may  lead to feelings of hopelessness when others in the group, especially those further along in their grief, are still expressing pain, frustration, and negativity.

What people need to keep in mind is that bad days can still happen years later.  Also, people who are generally doing well in other areas of their life may use the support group as the one place where they can still talk about their pain and their loss.

Therapeutic Expectations:

It’s important to remember that support groups are not the same as therapy.  Although group leaders are sometimes mental health professionals, often they are not. It’s important to check your expectations, if your looking for a more formal therapeutic approach you may want to consider talking to a grief counselor.

Incorrect Information/Bad Advice:

If it happens at the grocery store, why wouldn’t it happen in a group where everyone is grieving?  Although you’ll see that there is a benefit in the wisdom of others, there can also be a lot of bad information about what is normal, what to expect, and how to cope.  

Alcoholics Anonymous has a good solution to this problem, in that they emphasize their collective experience, strength, and hope.  Take advice with a grain of salt, if it seems to fit for you – great!  If not, try and focus on learning from the experiences of others and finding hope and strength in their support.  

Judgment:

I think most people attend support groups with the expectation that it will be a safe, judgment free zone.  In reality, even amongst people with similar types of losses, there can be a lot of negativity, insensitivity, judgment, and comparing.

Negative comments and judgments can be especially damaging when there isn’t a strong leader to make sure the comments are addressed.  Often if you look a little further you’ll see that it’s a person’s grief talking, but when not addressed the comments may stay with the verbally assaulted like a hit-and-run.  If this does happen, it may be left up to you to either address or shrug off.

People:

This sounds really harsh, but sometimes all it takes is one person to derail an entire group.  The monopolizer, the know-it-all, the interrupter, the inconsiderate, and the excessively negative person can easily reduce a groups chances of ever being seen as a safe, open, non-judgmental, supportive and constructive environment. Unfortunately, all I have to say about this is that it happens and it can take extreme tact to work with certain personality types.

Culture:

Lastly, it does happen from time to time that a support group takes on a certain identity or chooses to identify with certain beliefs.  New members may feel subtle pressure to identify with ways of thinking such as, “ours is the worst kind of loss”, “life will never be normal”, or “no one else understands.”  Although there is a benefit in having a group to identify with, be careful that you are not adopting outlooks that keep you stuck or cause you to close yourself off from people outside the group.

Positives

Alright, now that that’s out of the way let’s talk about the positives related to grief support groups.  As with my discussion of potential pitfalls, it’s impossible for me to present an exhaustive list of all the reasons why support groups can help.  As we’ve noted, support groups are all so unique and different and so are the people in them. This task seemed impractical until the other day when I found some insight in Irvin Yalom’s The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy.

Yalom’s text focuses on therapeutic groups, which are different from support groups (group therapy is more structured and led by a therapist).  But Yalom notes that even when groups look different if they share similar goals then they rely on the same “therapeutic factors” to effect change.  Again, he was speaking within the context of group therapy, but I think we could argue that therapeutic groups and support groups share similar goals and the ideal support group would share a few (but not all) of the same “therapeutic factors”.

Instillation of Hope:

In a support group, people in the acute phase of grief have contact with those who are much further along in their healing.  In fact, groups are often led by people who have been through a loss themselves.  Group members who are doing well and finding new ways to heal can provide hope to those who are new to grief and show that it’s possible to feel joy again (among other things).  Also, not only might hope be instilled in general, but in some instances, more senior group members might prove the group’s efficacy and provide reassurance to others that the support group itself is a positive and helpful tool.

Universality:

One of the best things about attending a grief support group is the reminder that you are not alone.  Grief can feel very lonely and isolating, especially when no one else around you seems to be grieving.  Although no two people experience grief in the exact same way, by attending a support group you may find that other people have experiences, feelings, and struggles that are similar to your own.  When you feel totally alone and misunderstood by the world, the support group community can provide you with a haven of understanding.

Imparting Information:

Those who have been through experiences similar to your own may have great insight, direct advice, helpful suggestions, and understanding.  Everyone has a different outlook and take on grief and, although you might not want to take all suggestions offered, they each help you to fine tune and better understand your outlook and approach.

Altruism:

There is healing in helping and giving.  Support groups not only provide members with the opportunity to receive advice and support but to give it as well.  You will learn a lot about yourself, life and other people in your grief; support groups provide you an opportunity to use your wisdom to help others. Often people don’t realize how much they have learned or how well they’re truly doing until they find themselves guiding and supporting someone else in their grief struggles.

Group Cohesiveness:

Humans have an inherent desire to belong. It feels good to be a part of a group and to feel accepted and validated.  When you consider the idea that belonging can impact your sense of happiness and well being and then consider the reality that experiencing the death of a loved one can make you feel different, alone and isolated, you realize just how valuable the experience of belonging to a group can be.  Grief is not a club anyone wants to belong to; once you’re in it though, there is a great benefit in surrounding yourself with other members.

Alright, get on with your day.  Oh, but first subscribe.  

July 31, 2017

26 responses on "Grief Support Groups: Positives and Pitfalls"

  1. I have a group to do this week, therefore I am hoping that I can get some help. Several questions come to mind as I am trying to ask for input. First how many times should you bring up the death of a fellow member of a group when the death has been talked about already? What if the member died at the location of the group meetings. Finally, if the group is not ordinarily a grief group; should the group resume it’s original purpose.

  2. I run a grief support group in my home after losing my youngest daughter a yr & half ago , It changes every month , sometimes I have from 2 to 6 people , its not for everyone , I wondered what else I can bring into the group to help others move foward ? Thank you

  3. Such an interesting article! I lost my young adult son, and within a month went to two different grief groups specifically for child loss. It was too soon. But the one (Compassionate Friends) really angered me. The whole 2.5 hour session was just for everyone making their introductions (large group). I was insulted that some people (who took their time with their introduction) left at some point. Very disrespectful to those who had yet to make their introductions! The other grief group was okay, but then the professional facilitators seemed unable to deal with the few who monopolized the group. I did another very structured Biblical-based group (GriefShare), which was much better. Again, though, the facilitator couldn’t deal with a monopolizer (this person really insulted the group when they said divorce was worse than death). And then, finally, I attended a grief group based on a book, which was okay. I haven’t been to one of the groups specifically for child loss in four years (my son died 5+ years ago).The thought of being there, surrounded by sadness, just really turns me off now. I’d rather stay at home and veg out with Netflix.

    • B- thanks so much for sharing your range of group experiences. Groups are not for everyone and some groups are definitely a better fit than others. We are all for Netflix coping (in moderation, of course!) because sometime a little time and space as a “break” from grief is just what you need!

  4. Sorry that should have read “the chaplain was moving on…” not voting….

  5. I finally found a local group and attended once a month for a few months, then the night before a meeting, I got a call telling me it was last meeting as the chaplain was voting on…no new group formed:( Then, after months of no group, a new one was started, I was the only person to show, so they canceled that group as well:( I have been left out in the dust without so much as a don’t let the door hit you on your way out:(:( So, the first group was great…the second, horrible experience. “Sorry but your grief alone isn’t enough for us to continue a group”…they didn’t even try to spend a few more weeks to get more interest…sigh. It’s. lonely road, even when there are others around…

    • Ugh, sorry Kim. As someone who has been on both ends of this, it’s frustrating all around. Your story actually touches on a major issue with support groups that we should have mentioned, finding one that runs on a consistent basis is hit or miss. Group leaders come and go and sometimes it can be a struggle to get group members to attend. I would have hoped that if they weren’t going to hold the group they would have tried to work with you to locate another group or to find other resources in the community. I’m sorry you haven’t had much luck with this. You’re so right, it is a lonely road.

      • Eleanor, thank you for the reply. Sometimes I feel left out in the dust, feel weird when I bring that up(I had someone recently say they were concerned for me after I called her out on not replying to my numerous calls texts emails…only when I called her out was she concerned for me, not the many many times she left me hanging:( ) It doesn’t feel good when you don’t feel heard…so thank you for hearing me 🙂 Very much appreciated.

  6. I lost my father and my mother within a year (last year). The shock of it gave a heart attack and a TIA. I have not been able to recover. I miss them both. I was close to them in different ways. With my father talking about books and trips and with my mom talking about shopping and decorating and doing crafts together. I go around the day talking to them, they help me make decisions. I have had marvelous vivid dreams with both. They are together, in the dreams we have embraced and I have danced with my mother, and she has been sitting next to me, smiling. We have been holding hands. When I wake up i realize it is a dream but it makes me wanting to join them wherever they are, they look so happy and here I am unhappy because I lost them. I feel very very sad they are gone. My childhood and teen age years were wonderful, they were caring and nurturing, always motivating and encouraging me and my sister to achieve what we wanted to do, and we studied careers which were very satisfactory to us. I feel like in a cloud. I was not expecting my mom to die, she was full of life and with a great memory but she died suddenly and I know cpr and tried to resuscitate her but could not. The circumstances of her death are so painful to me because I did my best to resuscitate her and I could not. I felt helpless with this. And I wish I had done more, bring oxygen to her to make her breathe better, she was short of breath but I didn’t know she needed oxygen and I could have gotten her oxygen. I dwell in her last moments, how did she feel when she was trying to breath and could not, with me in her room and she was not able to tell me anything. I noticed her breathing stopped and passed a mirror and there was life, she was warm but then when i did mouth to mouth she did not respond and the cpr I did more than 20 hard pushes in her heart and she did not come back. I feel helpless. Could I have done more? I came back to my husband and my son, both went to be with me for a week in another country and had to return but of course, my best friend, my mom, is not here anymore. I go thru motions of doing things, shower, dress, fix my house, but I am not here. I am very depressed. I was very happy before they died. I see movies but for the moment, after that I got no recollection of what i saw. I half listen to people. I go to a grief support but I just listen. I have gone to eat with this group. My first step was to enroll in the grief support, the second step was to go out with some of them to eat dinner. I have good friends who have been for me but they have many problems of their own. One of them lost her husband recently. The other friend, her son committed suicide, other friends are going thru divorce when they still love the partner but the partner doesn’t love them anymore. I don’t read religious things because I don’t believe in those things and the books do not comfort me. If someone has a faith…it might help but I got no faith. Anyway sometimes I don’t want to get up of my bed, sometimes i get up but sit doing nothing and just thinking about them and other times I cry the whole day or cry whole days. Because I am desperated. I see no way out of this hole I am inside and can’t get out.

  7. An excellent article about the benefits and disadvantages of a grief support group. Grief support groups can help many but to some it never works out?

  8. I read that a facilitator should charge a fee for members to join a support group. The reason is so members are inclined to show up. Your feedback . . .please.

    • Christine,

      That’s an interesting question and I honestly am thinking about this for the first time so maybe other people have a more informed perspective. Sometimes people need to charge a fee for running the group (space, snacks, etc), but strictly speaking as a way to get people to attend….I think the answer depends. For Litsa and I, living and working in an urban area with people from all types of backgrounds, I would be hesitant to charge a fee just for the sake of retention because I would hate for cost to serve as a deterant for people to show up in the first place. When you’re thinking about getting help but scared or hesitant, you can find all sort of excuses not to, and I could see cost as being a barrier. That being said, you may live in a community where cost is less of an issue but in that case would you ever really charge a fee high enough for people to care about wasting it? Personally, I have dropped plenty of things I’ve paid for because I didn’t like them or they became an inconvenience and I’m sure there are other people like me.

      I would try and think about other ways to engage people in the group and to not only want to attend the next session, but to feel like they may be missed if they don’t. Make sure people understand the structure of sessions and know what to expect from the group. Allow new people an opportunity to share and be a part of the group from the start and let more senior people take on more responsibility for supporting new group members. Find ways to bridge your current session and the next session together – tell what you will be discussing the following week (if anything special), ask people to bring a recommendation of a book or an article, talk about a fun activity you are going to do next week, ask people to sign up to bring snacks/coffee for certain sessions, ask people to share more about something next session, actually say ‘see you next week’.

      Those are just my thoughts on the topic. If anyone else has experience with retention, please lets know.

      Eleanor

  9. I found that a support group can have a have a significant role in the grieving process. However, I am disappointed wth the lack of asisstance in my community especially for youth.

  10. A relief group sure is something that my sister will probably need to be in especially in bereavement counseling. Ever since our grandmother passed away it turned out pretty hard for her. For me, it was pretty hard but I was able to overcome my grief. http://www.waltercarter.com.au/PageA.asp?P=64&M=6

  11. I consider grief support groups, and even paid support services, real minefields. I tried 5 different groups for various losses but none worked out.

    When I’d lost both my Mother and brother, one I attended (6 or 8? weekly sessions) was led by a trained grief counselor and an assistant-in-training, but they never reigned in the loud, pushy “monopolizer” of the group, so in all that time I never even got the chance to talk about my brother’s death for more than a minute. Yet at the end, they asked everyone for a “suggested” donation starting at $200. While a few members were “clicking” and planning post-group meetups, I only made one connection, who dumped me soon thereafter as her own healing was supported by other grieving family members, while I had no one to grieve with.

    Another was a one-night art therapy group for pet loss, but just drawing pictures did nothing for me. I later tried another led by the same woman, but felt left out since the few others there knew her and each other very well, so I was the only newcomer and was barely included in any dialogue. Plus, my grief was much fresher by comparison, so I found the light and happy atmosphere too discordant. I had thought the counselor’s therapy dog was to be included (why I went) but he was only IN the room and not a part of the session.

    Another private workshop (a few weeks long) was billed for “any” type of loss, and I even spoke to the coordinator beforehand about its suitability for me. But the only 2 other people who showed up had spousal losses, while mine was again for animals and a parent, so in the very first hour the leader suggested I might be better off to just take the workbook home and do it on my own.

    Another I attempted was also dedicated to pet loss, led simply by a volunteer at the city’s “animal services” (not a place I wanted to be at the time!), with barely any direction provided, and attendees whose relationships with their animals had been so minimal compared to my own that I simply didn’t feel any connection to anyone. By then I was so discouraged, I never returned to check out another session with possibly different people.

    So with every loss I was forced to seek out private therapy sessions with 3 different therapists (with various approaches), where I received *some* assistance, but not as much as I really required, due to cost factors, therapists’ inability to address extremely complicated loss, and disparate views on especially “pet” loss…the latter being extremely tough to find good and qualified assistance for where I live. I’ve mainly given up, as the energy and time required to search for qualified help whilst grieving heavily (when it’s really needed) just hasn’t been worth it.

    • I’m sorry Maylissa for your experiences- telling someone they would be better off doing this work alone sure wasn’t very thoughtful. I understand about not connecting, I’ve felt the same thing. I hope you’re feeling ok, feel free to contact me if your like…rockymountainhigh at gmail
      Take care

      • Thanks, Kim, that’s very kind of you! 🙂 I’ll keep it in mind (right now, it’s the “barely even having energy to get dressed” effect going on for me), as aside from other losses/griefs that are hanging on, unexpectedly there’s a NEW shock and loss (and its related grief component) I’m having to deal with – that of my partner’s impending unemployment, leaving us suddenly incomeless….and there are sure no (free!) support groups I’ve ever heard of for THAT kind of loss. Once the employer benefits are no longer available, I/we will have no other recourse.

        I also can relate to what you said to Eleanor about having to “call out” your friend before she would even respond. Ugh! WHY are so many people so self-absorbed these days?! I’m presently in the mental process myself of dropping someone from my “friend” list for responding to my personally-devastating news with a mere one-acronym text response of “omg!,” and nothing more. It’s been almost a week since now, and not even one question about what happened. (and I’ve known this person for over 2 decades)

        After all, “being heard” or “hearing” someone, of necessity, also includes demonstrating some INTEREST in what someone is sharing…NOT of sending the message that you’ve provided them their little dose of weekly “drama,” thank-you-very-much, and can now just take a flying leap into no-man’s-land.

  12. Roberta, I lost my 17 year old son to a car accident three years ago. I used the public library to find the different support groups in my area. The post above about the positives and negatives are pretty much right on. Peace and comfort to you.

  13. I lost my daughter 3 months ago and i wish i could find a support group

    • I live in Denver and I lost my 35 year old daughter two months ago. I found GreifShare, it is spiritual and the videos are good, but I think I need to see a therapist of some sort because of the way my daughter past in the er. It goes over and over in my mind and I miss her so much. Good article.

      • Cleo, if you are dealing with intrusive thoughts and images seeing a therapist is probably a good idea. They should be able to help you process some of the emotions and also learn techniques to deal with the obsessive thoughts. Take care.

    • Roberta, have you tried reaching out to a local hospice facility? They may be able to help you.

  14. I am in agreement, Grief support groups are not for everyone. As a professional and licensed therapist and a consultant for HOPE Connection, a non profit organization that has offered grief support groups to the community since 1979, I facilitate 2 grief groups each week. I also have a private practice but I do not see people who are grieving the death of a loved one in a private setting in the beginning stages of grief. I believe that for the few potential negative aspects of grieving in a group setting, the group as a whole, has a much better potential to heal, especially if facilitated by licensed therapists. People need to feel “normal” and what better way to be ensured that you are not “going crazy” than being in a room with other people that are experiencing the same feelings and situations that you are going thru. The idea that grieving and all that goes with grieving is not an illness is best substantiated and experienced in a group facilitated by a licensed therapist who can, in an academic, way, support and validate behaviors and emotions associated with loss.One of the other most positive aspects of a grieving in a group setting is the potential for connecting socially with people in a like situation.

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