On Dating & Grief Groups

Lady and the Tramp

Ahhhh . . . the dating scene from 1955’s “The Lady and the Tramp.”

In the hospice where I work, the Grief Support Group Guideline #16 states: Members shouldn’t date other members while participating in the support group.

What?

Though not the exact wording, it’s close. As a grief support group leader, I spend the first session on mundane tasks such as explaining confidentiality forms, asking members to write about their expectations, and—like the dullest of substitute teachers—reading aloud every single do and don’t in the group guidelines.

  • We do want them to silence all electronic devices.
  • We don’t want anyone to dominate the conversations. (No gushers, said a friend of mine.)
  • We do desire confidentiality.
  • We don’t want anyone taking recreational drugs.
  • We do want group members to let us know if they’ll miss a session.
  • We don’t want them to do any dating of fellow participants.

There are more guidelines than these, but you get the idea.

Groups in other agencies probably have similar guidelines. And I’d bet those agencies have continued to modify their guidelines. While confidentiality has predictably appeared since the dawn of groups, what about silencing electronic devices? Who fretted over social media in the 80s? Group guidelines, in the so-called information age, will continue to evolve.

We added #16 to ensure participants felt safe and comfortable.

masksWhen I share #16, reactions are predictable. Members mutter “No way.” Some even nervously laugh. Laughter is rare for a new group of grieving strangers. These are people struggling with a beloved’s death. They are roiling with unpredictable emotions. A few can’t or won’t cry, their faces like the masks of Melpomene or Thalia, the Greek gods of tragedy and joy. Or they are forever crying, a flood zone of anguish.

Then I mention dating.

What? You’ve got to be kidding!

But remember, this is a weekly support group that meets for months. After sharing confidences and learning others have faced similar positive or negative experiences, bonds may form. Everyone might be hurting, but they are also human. The stranger beside you in the opening session may feel like a longtime friend by the fifth or eighth session. Regardless of a participant’s age, finances, or zip code, these new friends can phone, text, email, IM, join Facebook, Twitter, and so forth.

They can chat in the parking lot after the day’s session is over.

They can also—oh, how simple—meet for a cup of coffee or scoop of ice cream.

All of the ways to develop a relationship are “simple,” but for one or both individuals, things may not stay simple. And so, in our groups, we declare: Please, don’t consider any group member a potential date.

Why?

In a grief support group, people are wounded and vulnerable. The contents are fragile.

Wait!

You are only contacting a group member to be nice. It was just a friendly thanks-for-being-supportive text. It was just offering a cup of coffee and a listening ear. It was just a phone call to tell your new friend that you appreciated the story she (or he) told about their deceased child or spouse or parent in group today. It was just . . .

We all know one thing can lead to another. We all know we have no intention to upset or pressure another. We all know that all we want is a little extra support.

But that irksome, strict group leader Larry says we shouldn’t have much contact with others outside of the actual group meeting. What does he know! (Well, truthfully, I don’t know much, except about what’s worth emphasizing: people need time to heal.) The death of a loved one means people hurt like they’ve never hurt before. The person accustomed to having control hates that everything feels out of control. The easy-going, upbeat person wearies of the non-stop gloom. If another has observed a little of your worst in group sessions, and yet still wants to get to know you, then . . . hip-hip-hooray!

What does it matter if you send her a friendly text?

What does it matter if you meet him for a quick lunch?

Let groups be a safe place, where your current mix of chaotic emotions aren’t further disturbed by another participant’s “innocent” overtures.

Does this mean no to new friendships?

That those grieving shouldn’t date until, well, when?

That the person wrestling with a loved one’s death will be stuck in the leaky lifeboat of her or his life, forever adrift in an endless sea of misery?

No.

If you want to develop new and possibly intimate friendships, that will come.

If you want to date with an openness to a serious relationship, that will come.

But during the group work—whether it’s for several sessions or covers months of weekly meetings—respect others need to heal. Respect your healing. “You can’t hurry love,” Motown’s Supremes sang back in 1966. And, though not a fun lyric or truth, you can’t hurry grief.

After these thoughts about groups and (not) dating, you may be someone that won’t join any group. You don’t like groups and/or have the time and/or prefer to work things out on your own. But you still wonder about the “right” time after a death to consider a new relationship. As with so many things, I wish I had the answer . . .

Everyone can find a hopeful story about someone who ignored the written or unwritten “rules” about dating—and everything worked out! There are also an abundance of horror stories, where nothing worked out.

Nonetheless, waiting and caution have value. Your healing, or helping others in group heal, is essential, hard work.

(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.)

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Writer (and friend) Mark Liebenow has shared about his wife’s death and his own path of healing. His thoughts here about dating are helpful.

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