Support groups are becoming increasingly popular as alternatives to individual counselling and a means to recovery from many of life’s difficulties and challenges. In the U.S., one in six adults have participated in a support group at some time in their life. A quick online search on ementalhealth.ca came up with 392 organizations in Ontario alone that offer some form of mutual aid and/or support groups.
I have facilitated grief support groups for 9 years and for all age groups. In my private practice, I frequently suggest or even recommend a support group to bereaved clients at a certain point in their grief journey. Frequently, they look fearful and are hesitant to sign up for a support group because the idea of sharing their intense pain with a group of strangers is scary.
I would not broadly recommend a support group experience for a number of reasons. First, some individuals are not comfortable sharing feelings and experiences in a group–ever. Secondly, the timing in bereavement is an important factor to consider. You need to be out of the initial shock and disbelief phase before considering participating in a grief support group. Also, you need to be at a point in your grief journey where you are able to feel safe and comfortable in a group, ready to share your story of loss and feel strong enough to hear others’ stories without becoming overwhelmed or re-traumatized.
Although a group is not right for everyone, most everyone I met who has participated in a grief support group has found the experience helpful, even when they first were hesitant or doubtful. If you are at a point in your grief journey where you need extra support and you are not sure about joining a grief support group, please read about some of the benefits a group experience may bring.
A Sense of Belonging
We are social beings by nature and have an inborn need for belonging and connection to other human beings. This need is as important as breathing is for our wellbeing. The connections we form with other people can be an important source of healing for grievers. When someone important to us dies, we often also lose a sense of connection and/or belonging with other people in our lives that we were close to before this loss. This dis-connection is often more prominent when the death is violent and sudden, stigmatized and/or untimely. Bereaved clients often say their family, friends and colleagues don’t get it, are not supportive, or that no one understands. They feel different, alone and isolated in their grief. Connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss can bring a much-needed sense of belonging, support, and relief.
The single most common statement from evaluations of all the support groups I have led over the years is: “I don’t feel alone anymore”. That is the most helpful thing about groups. It is comforting to be with others who have had a similar experience, with whom we can identify, who “get it” even if we can’t “explain it” or “finish saying it”. Support groups give you the opportunity to feel part of a group or family, to be heard and understood, to feel valued and validated, and to feel good about giving other people these same gifts. A grief support group may be “the club no one wants to join”, but it is the club most everyone is grateful for.
Expression of Feelings
Support groups are not therapy, but they are therapeutic. The most important aspect of peer support groups is emotional support, which results from the sharing of feelings, thoughts and experiences. Living in a society where we often feel judged for the expression and/or timeline of our grief, giving voice to our inner feelings in a safe and nonjudgmental environment is extremely cathartic and therapeutic.
A major concern for individuals who are contemplating a grief support is losing control of their feelings in front of others. They also worry that once they start to express their painful feelings, they may not be able to stop and that their pain will increase. In fact, the opposite is true—when we do not express our true feelings, they fester and grow. They gain power over us, our pain increases and we do not heal from our loss. When we acknowledge and express our pain or difficult feelings, we diminish their power over us, we feel lighter, and we make room for positive feelings and adaptation. Brené Brown said it so well:
When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us.
Most of my practice consists of grief counselling and traumatic bereavement. When people ask me what I do for a living, I frequently say that I give people hope. It is often difficult to understand why some individuals faced with a particular life challenge are hopeful and others are not. But, I have learned that hope is an essential ingredient to healing. For those who are struggling to find it inside of themselves, support groups can be an important source for hope. One reason is that a support group frequently includes individuals at different points in their grief journey as well as peer group facilitators. Grievers further along in their journeys can be examples to newer grievers that, with time, it is possible to find a new normal and to feel joy again. More importantly, I have repeatedly seen hope slowly develop within groups as a natural result of people coming together to share their experiences of loss, bonding and companioning each other in their grief journeys. It is the power of connection, of expression, of being seen and heard, of feeling valued and validated that gives rise to this hope.
Sharing Leads to Insight and Learning
Hearing other grievers talk about their experiences, their feelings and thoughts can help normalize the impact of grief and help you gain a better understanding of yourself. Although it is true that each person’s grief is unique, there are commonalities in our experience of loss. So often I have heard people say with relief, “Now I know I am not losing it or going crazy–it is grief.” By hearing others speak about their experiences and by hearing ourselves talk out loud about our own, we learn we are not “weird”, we can learn to accept difficult feelings, and we gain insight about ourselves.
Support groups are also a good source for expanding our repertoire of coping strategies. When others talk about what they have tried and what has helped them in their grief journey, we can learn new coping strategies. Hearing what has worked for a peer seems to have a greater impact than ideas from a professional.
Peer support groups can help empower group members in a couple of ways. They give individuals the opportunity to give support as well as receive it. Bereavement is a time we often feel at the lowest in our lives. By helping other group members, seeing our strengths through group members’ eyes, and taking on a meaningful group role, we start to feel better about ourselves. We gain confidence and become stronger.
So often I hear bereaved individuals verbalize that they have lost a sense of self, of meaning in life, and feeling of personal power. In a peer support group, grievers are given the opportunity to make decisions about their goals and their healing. They are perceived as the experts about themselves and their grief—and there is no better way to feel truly empowered than to be in charge of one’s own healing journey.
We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another. –Luciano de Crescenzo