By Margo W. Steinberg, MSW, LCSW
|Time-Limited and Open-Ended Groups|
|Effective Support Groups|
Bereavement support groups are increasingly being recognized as an effective way to promote healing through education and support after the loss of a loved one or close friend. While the debate may still be ongoing regarding scientific research supporting the benefits of such groups, bereavement group members report a strong positive impact based on both the psycho-educational aspects of groups and the safe haven setting they provide for emotional expression and release of feelings.
Bereavement groups come in many shapes and sizes. Group participants may express a desire for narrowly defined groups where everyone has had the same type of loss, (spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc). Comfort levels may be increased if the losses are similar, but this is not a prerequisite for a successful group. The commonality of loss is a common denominator and learning comes from sharing among different age groups and perspectives.
Traumatic losses, such as loss of a child or suicides generally are better served in groups where all members share the same type of loss. Age separation by young widows or widowers from older widows or widowers is important since many of the issues they face are different due to where they are in the life cycle.
Groups are either time-limited or open-ended. A time-limited group may meet weekly for six to ten weeks. Open-ended groups often have a drop-in format, where the membership may vary from session to session and the time between meetings may be longer, bi-weekly, or monthly. Many grieving individuals find it useful to begin with an intensive, closed group, and then move on to the less structured format of a drop-in group, where there is less commitment and investment needed.
Social workers can offer and encourage grieving individuals to join a bereavement group when the following conditions are present:
- When the grieving individual finds a lack of support or empathy among the usual base of family and friends, or feels isolated or geographically remote from family or close friends. The grieving individual may feel he or she is “not doing as well as everyone else” and may feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in their presence.
- When the grieving individual is facing his first grief experience and wants to learn more about typical patterns of grief. Many grieving individuals do not understand the many ways that grief affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally. They may be disturbed by their behaviors and recurrent feelings that often include anger, guilt, sadness, and fear.
- When the grieving individual is able to talk and wants validation of feelings and emotional support from others who are experiencing similar feelings. “I feel like I’m going crazy” is often noted by grieving individuals who don’t fully understand the wide range of reactions that grief can cause.
Support groups work most effectively when they offer participants:
- A safe environment where one can tell his or her story and express feelings freely, knowing that others will be understanding, non-judgmental, and supportive.
- A place for establishing a connection with others to decrease the isolation that grief brings.
- A forum for understanding common myths about grief and typical grief patterns. There are different stages of grief which include feelings of denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. In reality, grief is better understood and more readily accepted when seen as a spiral pattern that spins round and round between resilience and grief reactions.
- A community that validates and normalizes one’s emotional reactions.
- A place for learning that there are many different ways to grieve, all equally natural and acceptable.
- A resource base for gathering articles, poetry, and reading lists to further one’s awareness of the many aspects of grief and to learn from examples of how others have faced their losses. Discussion of articles can serve as a springboard for identifying important meanings in one’s own loss.
- A place for learning new coping skills, relaxation techniques, stress management skills, and daily survival skills that others in the group have found effective. The opportunity for members to help each other brings strength, confidence, and a new sense of purpose and value.
- An opportunity for personal writing and/or journaling that promote self examination and encourage exploration of the many aspects of loss over time. It is healthy to re-examine the loss at different times in the life cycle, (such as young, middle age, or older adulthood), in order to recognize self-change and growth and feel good about these changes.
- A sounding board where members can present on-going or new concerns, report on progress or concerns, and safely come back for help when they experience setbacks or backslides in their grief journeys.
Support groups do not fully resolve grief, particularly when they are time-limited. These groups can promote acceptance that life will be different now, but that life will be okay and even hopeful. Participants report that groups serve as a major stepping stone along the path of learning how to live with loss. A sure sign of their value is that often groups continue informally after they have ended or provide the basis for new friendships that continue to grow as members transition from becoming past-oriented to present and future-oriented.