When Strangers Meet: Grief Support Groups

grief support group

They will see themselves as strangers. But are they?

Less than a week after posting these words, I will begin another first session of a grief support group for those who have experienced the death of a partner or spouse. I’ve led nearly thirty groups since starting work at a hospice in 2012. (Which truthfully means I’m really not an expert, and probably wouldn’t be even if I’d facilitated twice that many groups.)

There will be men and women. They will be stoic. Uncomfortable. Suspicious. Cautious. A few will cry. A few will fight to hold back tears. Though I don’t ask them to say much in the opening gathering, several will be articulate with their responses. Others might barely manage to mumble their names. Some will remain as still as slabs of granite, while others may be in constant motion (feet tapping, hands gesturing, fiddling with a purse). But I predict everyone will focus on what I say, with several hoping I’ll voice some “magic words” to make them quickly feel better. If so, they will be disappointed.

This is the senior group. They are over 55 years of age. These “strangers” have been with a beloved for as little as a decade and more than a half-century.

They have cared for a spouse or partner for years and years when finally—maybe wishing death and the end to suffering would’ve happened sooner or maybe secretly fearing the slow, anguished dying would never end—their beloved did die.

Or they were making vacation plans or anticipating a new grandchild or wondering if they should remodel the kitchen. Everything was fine. But then a doctor’s appointment led to a hospital room and became a call to hospice and within days their beloved abruptly died.

Death can seem to take an eternity.

Death can come—how this line from the Bible is right about so many situations—“like a thief in the night.”

Yes, they are strangers. And they are not.

I will be honest with them. I have told some groups about my divorce, which occurred in my twenties, but nearly forty years later, I can recall the bitterness of loss and loneliness. I’ll tell them I’m a retired pastor. Ordained in 1977, in the first year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. I have been in hospital rooms with the dying, and in kitchens with the grieving. While I have no interest in promoting my version of faith, I’ve professionally dealt with a wheelbarrow full of grief. I tell them Dad died from dementia, and his death took years. I tell them Mom died from cancer, with a harsh death as quick as my father’s seemed forever. Finally, I will bluntly share that there’s nothing—no thing—I’ve experienced that approaches their current pain.

Until someone has a beloved die, don’t you dare say, “I understand.” Even then, my grief will be different from your grief.

Let me be honest about something else: none of the participants need a grief group. I’ve read enough research to be confident that most folks, whether or not they join a group, will probably “get over” the worst of grief within a year or so. Humans are resilient and adaptable. The blur of life continues. We may rightly desire for the world to pause, to stop for honoring and giving thanks to the one who died. Instead life spins onward, a merry-go-round stuck on fast . . . and even the grief-stricken widow or widower will likely be swept back into the thick of things.

It’s not about “needing” a group that matters.

What matters is joining other stragglers on a journey of grief and longing, with each precious person reminded they don’t walk alone. I believe it helps to have a place to tell and to listen to stories. A group provides opportunities to cry their eyes out or to be comforted that some never shed a tear. It can help to have a weekly “date” on the calendar. It can help to have a leader—say, me—to complain about. It can help to have (and give) a hug or a handshake. “It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding,” Markus Zusak wrote in his novel The Book Thief.

With equal parts honesty and hope, a group can become a place where each one risks building a new future none of them volunteered to confront or construct.

They are strangers. They are not.

(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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