At the beginning of grief there is shock and denial. Both serve a purpose –to allow the mourner time and emotional space to accept as much of the new reality as he or she can. For the person receiving the news of the death of a loved one it is a hard concept to wrap the mind around. It is difficult to accept that your loved one is there one minute and gone the next never to be physically with you again in this life. Shock and denial protect the mind and the spirit from being overwhelmed all at once by the unspeakable pain of death and loss.
Once that initial shock in grief diminishes, the real emotional pain and spiritual struggle begins. The mourner for the first time feels the full impact of the new reality of facing life without the physical presence of their loved one. It is usually after the shock wears off that mourners struggle and begin to seek help from outside themselves and their support system…usually in the form of grief counseling or grief support groups.
Not every mourner will need professional counseling or a support group. But many will seek out the help. What should the mourner look for when searching for the grief support group that will meet his or her needs? Here are a few practical suggestions for mourners shopping around for a grief support group:
Every grief support group will vary in its make-up, format and specific goals. Some groups are closed groups that have a scheduled beginning and end. Once the group has started, no new members are added. These groups last a specific number of sessions, are usually very structured in order to cover a set curriculum in the lifespan of that specific group (usually 6-8 weeks). These groups are designed to educate group members, to allow participants time to share their personal experiences and to give group members a good start to their grief journey.
Other grief support groups are open and on-going. This type of group has scheduled meeting times- maybe weekly, twice a month or monthly. The format of this group is usually a more casual, less restrictive one that allows members to attend as frequently and as long as the participants feel a need for the support provided. In these groups there is no consistent, predictable group composition from session to session. New and old members come and go. Group participants attending receive grief education, more opportunities and time to share their experiences and sometimes the mentorship of fellow mourners who are deeper into their grief journeys.
Suggested questions to ask about the grief support group:
- What are the dates, times, location and duration of the group? If you have missed out on a current session, ask when the next group will be offered and how often the groups are offered. If an upcoming group fits your schedule and needs, ask if you can be placed on a waiting list to reserve a place in the next group.
- How many participants will be in the group? Most group facilitators agree that a group of eight to twelve is most beneficial and productive for the support group members. When the group grows to more than twelve to fifteen members, it is more of a class than a group. The smaller the group is, the more time that is available for individuals to share personal experiences and feelings.
- Who is sponsoring this group? Knowing the sponsor of the group can give you some hints as to the approach the group facilitators will take in leading the group. Example: A church-sponsored group may take a faith-based, religious approach to grief and loss. This may or may not fit what you are looking for to meet your needs as a mourner. Another example: A grief support group sponsored by an agency that specializes in cancer or Alzheimer’s disease may specialize in mourners who have lost loved ones to specific diseases or causes.
- Who will be facilitating the grief support group? What are the group facilitators’ credentials or training for leading the group? Group facilitators can be lay counselors or licensed professional therapists. Are the facilitators required to go through training in order to lead the groups? Do licensed therapists supervise the lay facilitator(s) and the groups? Another question that is important to some mourners is if the facilitators have a personal history of loss. Also important to ask is if a group participant needs more help than is provided in the support group, do the facilitators know of other resources that provide the appropriate, beneficial services that group member might need?
- Is this group limited to specific types of losses or open to all types of losses? Some grief support groups specialize in the type of loss such as loss of a spouse or loss of a child. Most grief support groups are open to any type of loss due to any cause of death. Be aware that some grief support groups take participants who have experienced any type of loss such as divorce, loss of a job, and pet loss.
- Are there requirements mourners must meet in order to attend the support group? Some groups require their participants to go through a registration or application process. This can include an interview (by phone or in person), an evaluation and an orientation to the group process. Some groups also require that the mourner must wait two months or more after the loss before participating in the group.
- Are there any fees or costs for participation in the grief support group? Some groups charge for the materials provided and the services of the group facilitator.
You might want to ask if there is a one-time fee or a per session fee. You might also want to ask if you will be required to purchase workbooks or other supplies in order to participate.
- Are follow up services provided after the group ends? Many closed groups will offer additional services in order to provide any on-going support the group participant might need. Ask if you will be provided with additional grief support or grief counseling resources.
- Remember that grief support groups provide support, not therapy or grief counseling. If you feel that you may need more in-depth, personal support and help for your loss, you might consider entering into individual grief counseling with a licensed professional.
Ask about the structure of the group and if there are any rules to help give you an idea of what to expect in your first grief group session. Most grief support groups have rules in order to help the participants and group facilitators to know what to expect from each other in sessions.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” available online at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Never-LPC-S-Larry-Barber/dp/1613796005 ), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-never-dies-lpc-s-ct-larry-m-barber-ct-larry-m/1104364890?ean=9781613796016).
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa”
Both English and Spanish versions are available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.