Grief Support Groups are Not for Everyone, But…

She called mere minutes after the first grief support group had ended. Which meant she was likely still out in the parking lot, using her cell phone (I hate cell phones, I love cell phones), telling me she was quitting before beginning her drive home.

Yeah, quitting.

I was still putting materials away when the office phone rang. I hadn’t even written the required brief summary for the medical charts about what happened in the opening session.

I answered the phone.

She identified herself. “Do you remember who I am?”

I’d only seen her five minutes ago. Of course I remembered!

[Disclaimer.]

She was one of a dozen strangers who had courageously entered a strange building, a strange room, and confronted a semi-circle of chairs . . . and me. Me being another stranger. None of these strangers knew each other before crossing the threshold. And after the first session—which had only ended moments before—they still didn’t know each other. In our first time together, I’d mostly covered the basics about life in the group . . .

  • They completed required forms.
  • Responded to a handful of easy, boring questions.
  • Reviewed the group guidelines (including confidentiality, informing me if they might miss a session, and other banal, necessary “rules”).
  • And got to know a little about me.

It’s important to make a grief support group’s first session a safe, non-threatening experience. First, there’s information that must be shared with the participants and for our hospice’s HIPAA requirements. Second, they are strangers in that initial session. Each is struggling with the death of a beloved spouse or partner; each one is wounded, weary, and wary. They have spent days and weeks crying. They have spent days and weeks never crying. They have had uncounted sleepless nights. They have had uncounted days where they couldn’t get out of bed. They haven’t eaten a decent meal in weeks. They have been eating nothing but junk food for weeks.

Who knows, in the first session, what they are like? What they dread? What they hope?

Keep it safe.

Of course, I remembered who she was.

“I’m going to have to quit the group. I’m just not ready.”

I was impressed! She’d listened to me explain that I’d like them to call me if they were going to miss a session.

In her case, all of the rest of the sessions!

Shouldn’t I argue with her to stay, to consider attending to see how it really felt after a second and third session to join with others who were also feeling awful after the death of a husband or wife?

Shouldn’t I give her a pep talk about the value of this next step of healing? Couldn’t a group provide her with some tools and weekly support to risk a new future after the devastating death of her second husband of thirty-eight years (with the first long-divorced husband being a selfish dolt whose only upside was that they’d given birth to two kind, caring, and now adult children)?

Shouldn’t I bargain with her? Or beg her to stay? Or, to keep the “B” theme going, scheme to blackmail her into coming one more time?

I did none of those things.

I listened to her. I couldn’t tell her that I completely understand, because one of the things said (and repeated) in that first session is that everyone’s grief is unique.

It is.

Even though my now scratched and faded employee nametag reads “Bereavement Support Specialist,” I know so little. Me, a specialist? I’m just a guy who cares deeply about people. And I cared so much about her. She was hurting. The loss of her husband was felt emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Every day. With every breath.

A group could help her. I truly believed that.

It could help her understand that she wasn’t going crazy. With many, following a loved one’s death, you can self-analyze your reactions—say, for example, like crying the moment your spouse’s name is mentioned—and think you must be bonkers. But that’s normal grief for many!

The others in the group, if she gave them a chance, would share common, troubling events. For example, I’d bet she wasn’t the only who’d spent an hour searching for the car keys that were mistakenly left on the nightstand instead of the usual hook by the door. She could hear others talk about how even the simplest of daily tasks had become like the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill. And falling back. And pushing. And falling.

The resources provided in a group, from the books to read to research helping make sense of the ebb and flow of feelings, might open her mind up to new ways of thinking and planning.

But she would not be coming back.

All I could do, truthfully and kindly, was to support her decision.

Groups aren’t for everyone. The healing of grief can happen without ever being in a group.

Many are private, introverted, shy, reserved, and/or just don’t view themselves as a joiner. Participating in a group could add to the anxiety and unsettledness they’re already experiencing after the death of a beloved.

Others already have a kind of “group” with a tight circle of friends or from their faith community.

No group can guarantee to help anyone heal faster or feel better. Sometimes, after a session, a person can feel worse than when he or she first entered the room. In a group setting, there will be vulnerability and honest feelings and spending time with others when our (or their) day has been lousy. Grief is messy and sneaky and has a way of tossing slimy banana peels in front of us. Joining a group doesn’t make everything rosy and giddy.

Would I have preferred that she’d given the group another week or two before bowing out?

Sure.

But in the clash of feelings that normally occur during grief—guilt, regrets, fears, self-doubts, relief, anger, and a thousand more—I will not add my pressure or expectations.

So, I thanked her for trying the group. I thanked her for calling me. And I wished her well.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image of a support group from the wonderful, inventive Jeannie Phan. Find her webpage HERE.

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Comments

  1. My wife and I left our grief support group after the death of our daughter because we could not bear to hear the endless recounting of peoples tragedies, told as if they were happening in real time. We were struggling so much with our own grief, and would have been happy? helped? by talking with other parents, but it wasn’t possible to simply listen to story after story after story, as if they were happening now.

    • John:

      First, I am without any meaningful words when I say I’m sorry about the death of your daughter.

      Second, how much I appreciate you sharing your experience. Groups are not for everyone. That can be for many reasons, from what you have described to the time not being right to a particular group having members that don’t mesh together. I’m glad you had the courage to try, and the courage to back away.

      I hope you have found ways of find appropriate support. Again, thanks for your honesty . . .

      • Hi Larry,

        Yes, we have. It’s been over 7 years now, and with a lot of help from friends, family and a couple of good therapists, we’ve integrated her whole life into ours (which includes her passing.)

        Some of the best support I got was from online groups. It’s maybe easier to be vulnerable when there’s a monitor between you and the audience? And comments can be deleted or cherished. In some ways that helped me put into words what I felt: I could says something and then refine it based on the responses I got, over a period of time. It often felt more personal.

        Sites like yours (which I didn’t know about until today, I think) were and are tremendously helpful. Thank you

        • John . . . thanks for sharing more. And online sites have helped many folks. Though aspects of the web and social media can easily irk me (!!), the “digital world” has also provided more and different paths for people who are grieving to find support that matches their needs.

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