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
- 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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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