Why I believe in grief support groups

Daniela Odalys McCroby |

Grief is a journey best taken in the company of others.

Why I believe in grief support groups

By establishing relationships with each other, participants in grief support groups gain a greater sense of self and inspire one another to get through difficult challenges.

Few people are prepared for the death of a close family member or friend. While grief is a natural and universal response to loss, the process is unique to each of us. It is normal for grieving persons to experience a variety of distressing thoughts and emotions that include anger, loneliness, relief, guilt, sadness—even happiness—as the griever comes to recognize the magnitude and permanence of the loss. 

Grief is often incorrectly characterized as a set, linear process—a series of stages with a predictable start and end. But grief is an individual process. There isn’t a timer telling us when it’s time to move on and let go of certain thoughts and emotions. Grief doesn’t tell us: “Come on, it’s been over a year. You should have already moved on from this.” Rather, grief proceeds day by day, and grievers grow daily from it, even though some days it may not feel like it. 

Grief involves every dimension of our lives—spiritual, psychological, physical, and social. It’s essential, therefore, to practice self-care as we grieve by learning new coping skills, understanding our personal limitations, growing from what we already know, and welcoming new memories into our lives. Even when thoughts or emotions associated with grief recur several times, the strength gained from a previous occurrence of that thought or emotion can help a grieving person make progress.    

Evidence-based bereavement care
While grief is a natural process, many people benefit from the support and guidance of others. Since 2015, I have worked as a student intern at Caring Connections, a hope and comfort in grief program at the University of Utah College of Nursing. It is the only comprehensive bereavement-care program located within a college of nursing in the United States. The mission of Caring Connections is “to provide excellent evidence-based bereavement care to grieving persons in the intermountain west through clinician facilitated support groups … and, in keeping with the academic mission of the University and the College of Nursing, to provide opportunity for clinical education in grief and loss to students in the health care professions, and to conduct research which promotes greater understanding of loss, grief and bereavement.” 

Caring Connections offers grief support groups throughout the community, each tailored to a different loss: loss of a family member or friend, loss from suicide, loss from an overdose, loss of a spouse, and loss of a newborn. Meeting for eight consecutive weeks during winter, spring, and fall, the closed groups provide consistency and congruency in establishing relationships and trust. 

Not an easy fix
As a student intern, I’ve made bereavement calls to the families of people who died in the university hospital, assessed and enrolled group participants, annually assisted with two community education programs and one clinical education program, and helped produce the program newsletter. During my three years of working for Caring Connections, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet participants and greet them at the door when they gather for evening meetings. 

I admire them. Attending a grief support group is not easy. Grievers quickly realize that the emotions that come with grief are difficult to handle, so some who become part a group are initially hesitant, vulnerable, and afraid. But, they come hoping that things will get better and that they can adapt to their new reality. They understand they are there to gain a sense of self in this new experience.            

After a family member or friend dies, many feel alone, depressed, and confused. Others don’t seem to understand their pain. Weeks, months—even years—can go by, and some still struggle with grief. They hear the common expressions of sympathy—he or she is in a better place; your friend or family member wouldn’t want to see you this way; it’s been over a year, you should move on and find someone else; or just have another baby. Many believe that once you get through the first year, “you should be done.” However, feelings of grief can and do recur on birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries—or just in everyday life. Alone in their pain, grievers feel alienated, misunderstood, and frustrated—and they question their grief. 

Grief support groups help participants remember friends or family members while continuing to experience life. Sharing memories with others is a healthy outlet, and it provides common ground—a way to share that part of life. There isn’t just one correct way to remember deceased family members or friends. In a grief support group, participants are introduced to various ways they can remember and communicate their memories.                                        

Relationships that heal
A clinician facilitator guides discussion. The leaders are not the healers. The healing comes from other participants. By establishing relationships with each other, they inspire one another to get through difficult challenges. In overcoming these hurdles, they gain a greater sense of self. By meeting others who are also grieving, they make new relationships. Other participants will not share exactly the same experiences, but all of them are experiencing grief. In my work with Caring Connections, I’ve seen many people make relationships that have carried on after the group sessions are completed.               

Grief support groups encourage sharing stories and difficulties in a warm, welcoming environment where judgments are set aside. They introduce participants to coping skills, such as deciding whether to experience grief in the present moment or to set it aside temporarily to create new memories—to be in the now moment. Eventually, as they gain control and mastery of their grief, they come to recognize that grief doesn’t have to control them. Yes, feelings of grief will come and go. Loss of control over one’s emotions can be frightening, but participants in a grief support group eventually learn to manage their feelings.

As I’ve registered participants, one of the most common feelings I hear expressed is guilt: I should have been there for him or her, or I shouldn’t be enjoying myself without my family member or friend. These common responses can hinder development of new experiences. Because grief is a journey, and there isn’t one right way to grieve, grief support groups encourage patience and self-acceptance.

Grief is an individual process, but that doesn’t mean it is a one-person fight. Some may feel it’s simpler to get through grief on their own, but as with many of life’s difficult challenges, it is often best to get support from others. Ultimately, a griever’s greatest need is the gift of time. RNL         

Daniela Odalys McCroby, SN, a student at the University of Utah College of Nursing, is a Rising Star of Research and Scholarship.

Editor’s note: Daniela Odalys McCroby will present Distance-Technology Delivered Grief Support Program: Perceived Quality and Satisfaction of Training Provided to Social Workers during Poster Session 2 on Monday, 17 September 2018, at Sigma’s Leadership Connection in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Register here for Leadership Connection.

  • vol44-3
  • RNL Feature
  • Why I believe in grief support groups