Why joining a bereavement support group can be the best and worst thing for you.
When you’ve lost a parent or someone close to you, you may have thought of, or others may have suggested, joining a relevant support group. And this makes sense. You want to be around people that get you. You want to feel safe and understood, and be able to share how you are feeling without worrying that other’s can’t cope, or don’t know what to do, or don’t really want to know. And you may not necessarily want to or feel comfortable enough to share all your feelings with your family, who may also be suffering.
A support group can be an invaluable place for you to be able to go to be open about what’s going on for you, to get some tears and emotions out (this is very, very important) and to start seeing how other people have healed too.
But there is one very concerning thing about some support groups and this could make a group one of the worst things you do when grieving, depending on the group you choose.
What could be bad about support groups???
Over the last week I have been involved in a conversation about these groups on a social media platform with other people who work in the industry. I am not the only one to have expressed concern about who might be running the group and what kinds of ongoing discussions the group might be having.
A support group can be one of the best things you do, as long as there are people there who have healed from their grief, truly believe you can, and have some different ideas about how to do this. Too often I’ve seen groups of people who are all in exactly the same boat – all feeling like it is hopeless and there is no real way to get out. And the reality is that people in the same boat as you usually can’t help you get to the shore. And the conversation goes like this “this boat is horrible, will we ever get off this boat?”, “I don’t know how. I don’t like it here but I feel stuck. Do you know how to get to shore? I’m not sure there is a way” “no I don’t. Maybe if we wait long enough the boat will drift there……….” What you need is someone who has been on the boat but has figured out how to get to the shore. These are the people to look to.
About a month ago I attended one of these support groups. I was there to listen but not contribute. Out of a group of about 8 people one woman said that she’d been told it would take at least 3 years for her to feel better after losing her husband. She asked the others if it was true. Without exception each person either said ‘at least that long’ or ‘let’s not put a time limit on it as we all know it lasts much, much longer’. Not one person put up their hand and suggested that maybe it didn’t have to be like this, that maybe there were other ways to handle her (and their) grief. That maybe there was more hope than that for her. Now if you tell yourself the number of years it is supposed to take before you feel better….or that you never will….that is probably exactly what will happen. What was happening here was that not only were the people in the group supporting each other to share their emotions, their fears, and their greatest pain, but they were also, unfortunately, ensuring as a group that they would all stay stuck in grief. It can be a vicious cycle in the wrong environment.
Many time groups like this are run by people who hold the same belief – that it will take x amount of years to feel better and even then that the pain will never really leave you, which is not very helpful.
While talking about your pain to someone in exactly the same situation as you and with the
same view can be incredibly comforting, it isn’t always the most useful thing for you.
A year ago I was in a situation with a close friend of mine where we both had a similar problem in our lives…and we would talk to each other about it almost every day. When I say ‘talk’ I really mean bitch, moan, and grizzle which, while kinda fun, was not getting either of us anywhere at all. Eventually we realised that, because we were both very much in the same place about it, not only were we not helping each other, but we were ensuring we both stayed right where we were, sometimes even spiralling a little bit further down together. If one of us had been a few steps ahead of the other, and had a different view about what was happening and how things could be, that would have been a much healthier dynamic. But as it stood we eventually agreed not to talk to each other on this topic anymore, as least not until one of us was in a better place. We were just dragging each other down.
So what should you do?
Don’t get me wrong – the right support group can be an amazing experience for you and can be very helpful. But it’s about finding the right one for you. Whether you are joining a face-to-face support group or an online support group or grief forum, have a look around, listen, ask some questions. Naturally you want to be with a supportive group where you feel safe to share but this isn’t the only consideration. Find out what people’s views are around grief. Ask them if they believe true healing is possible and how long that might take. Particularly the group leader. What is their situation? What are their views? Because the point of the leader is not just to make sure things run smoothly, and everyone has a chance to talk. A leader, by definition, is leading you somewhere. So make sure it’s somewhere good. The group is there to help you. Just figure out exactly what it is they will help you do.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or any experiences you have to share around support groups or forums.