Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death… No one can know ahead of the fact [and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is] the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. Joan Didion The Year of Magical Thinking, pp.188-9
This passage reflects the overwhelming initial reaction of many to the loss of someone they love. The goal of a grief support group is to assist grieving individuals through the process of coping with this sense of meaninglessness. Engaging in this painful process within a group dynamic offers several unique opportunities for the grieving individual.
First and foremost, the company of others who are also grieving is enormously comforting. When we have lost someone, we are usually “allowed” a reasonable period of time to feel sad, after which a simmering impatience emerges, as others deem it is time for us to “get on with living.” The beauty of the support group is that there is no impatience with the grieving process, which often continues well beyond society’s acceptable “timeline” for grieving.
Second, grieving individuals need opportunities to tell their stories again and again. They need to feel safe to explore the painstaking details of their loss experience in order to begin to make sense of it. Group members understand and support this need. They often ask questions of one another, and are able to empathize in ways that only another grieving individual could.
While each individual’s grief journey is uniquely their own—based on their relationship with the one who died and the circumstances of the death—there are many features of the grieving process that are universally experienced. The opportunity to sit with and share with others the sorrow and confusion that comes from grieving can serve as reassurance and comfort that the individual is not alone.
Additionally, recognizing one’s own feelings in another who is also grieving offers comfort and confirmation that “I am (in fact) not going crazy,” which is how many grieving people describe their early grief experience. Reports of confusion, distractibility, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and emotional instability are common reactions to loss. In isolation, many are unaware that these experiences are a natural part of the grieving process.
Few people have the luxury of taking the time they truly need for their grief work. Families, jobs and other daily responsibilities are not able to be put “on hold” while we grieve. Being able to sit with others on a regular basis—as is offered through a group experience—often is the only time many find in which to actively allow themselves to process all that they are experiencing.
Because the group is composed of individuals with varying lengths of time passed since their loss, members are able to see others who may be a few steps ahead of them on their grief journey. This experience allows them hope that it can be done; that someone can traverse the incredible pain they are feeling—and survive. Likewise, there is tremendous reward in serving the needs of another grieving individual, and in recognizing how far we may have come ourselves.
Group work provides this perspective on our own journey as well as, offering hope for others.