Reaching out to others is often very difficult when we’re struggling with grief, but experience teaches us that the more support and understanding we have around us, the better we will cope.
You may wish that friends, family and co-workers would just “be there” for you without your having to ask, but that’s not likely to happen. It’s not that these people are uncaring; there simply is no way for them to fully understand the significance of your loss and the depth of your pain. Unfortunately your friends, family members and co-workers may not fully understand or appreciate the attachment you have with the one who has died and the pain you may still be feeling weeks and months after the death. What is more, your need to talk about your loss may outlast the willingness of others to listen.
If you find yourself in this position, please know that you have a number of helpful alternatives available to you.
Finding Support In a Group
A grief support group is one of the few places where you can come to be among others who understand, and where you can still talk about the one you have loved and lost. A support group is not the same as a therapy group. It isn’t meant to cure long-standing emotional problems, alter people’s personalities or change their basic values or beliefs. Neither is it just a social gathering designed to introduce people of similar interests, although friendships may develop outside the group as members get to know one another.
As the name implies, a bereavement support group forms a healing circle that helps members bear up under the heavy burden of loss without giving way. The group provides a safe, structured place where normal, healthy people bound by the experience of loss can come together on a regular basis to share their stories, get their concerns and feelings validated, learn more about the mourning process, express and work through their feelings, and reflect with one another on the meaning of it all. Members have the opportunity to grow by giving help as well as receiving it.
Most support groups are facilitated by people who’ve lost loved ones themselves, worked through their own grief and are committed to helping others get through the experience. Although some groups have the added assistance of a professional bereavement counselor, who can offer expertise and educational information on grieving that may not be available otherwise, the facilitator’s role is the same: to provide structure and to make certain that everyone in the group feels safe.
What goes on in a support group meeting will vary with its leaders, its membership and what is shared, but typically the facilitator starts by stating the purpose of the group and its “ground rules.” (For example: Group begins and ends on time. Information shared in the group stays there. When outside the group, members aren’t free to talk about another member by name without that member’s permission. Members can exchange telephone numbers if they wish to do so. Members may share as much or as little as they so choose. A person who isn’t ready to talk can “pass.” One person speaks at a time. Everyone gets equal time to share, so no one monopolizes the time. Suggestions may be offered, but unsolicited advice is not given.) One by one, people then are invited to introduce themselves and to tell as much or as little of their stories as they wish. Experiences, thoughts and feelings are openly expressed, and painful as well as pleasant memories are recalled. Oftentimes photographs of loved ones are passed around. Sometimes poems, eulogies or tributes are read — but whatever is shared is held in the strictest confidence by everyone there.
Depending upon where you are in your grieving process, you may not feel the need for a support group just yet, but that may change over time. There is no right or wrong time to come to a meeting, but if you decide to do so, you might try coming to several meetings rather than just one, since each one changes depending on the composition of the group and what is discussed in it. Once you’ve found a support group, make certain it’s made up of mourners with whom you can identify, whose facilitator is not only comfortable running support groups, but also knowledgeable about the grieving process.
Finding Professional Help
If you’re more comfortable in the care-giving role or feel uneasy with sympathy—or if you see the need for counseling as a sign of weakness or of mental illness— you may be reluctant to seek the help of a professional counselor. Yet it takes strength and courage to let yourself be cared for, and you need not bear your sorrow all alone.
Even if you’re mourning in a normal, healthy way, it is wise to use all the resources available to help you recover your balance and put your life back together again. Sometimes friends and family may worry too much about you, get too involved in your personal affairs, or not be available to you at all. When it seems that support from family and friends is either too much or not enough, a few sessions with a bereavement counselor may give you the understanding and comfort you need.
Unlike friendship, a professional counseling relationship offers you the opportunity to relate to a caring, supportive individual who understands the grief process, doesn’t need you to depend upon, and will allow you to grieve without interference. Within the safety and confidentiality of a therapeutic relationship, you can share your intimate thoughts, make sense of what you’re feeling and clarify your reactions. An effective bereavement counselor is knowledgeable about the mourning process, helps you feel understood, offers a witness to your experience, encourages you to move forward, fosters faith that you will survive, and offers hope that you will get through your grief successfully. (If after two or three sessions you don’t sense your counselor has a good understanding of your grief process or doesn’t seem like the person who can help you, you should feel free to try another counselor.)
Seeing a bereavement counselor is appropriate if
- you feel uncomfortable with yourself or find yourself unable to function normally.
- you have reactions from which you can get no relief, or over which you feel no control.
- you wonder if your responses are normal, or if they’ve gone on too long.
- you have thoughts or feelings you feel guilty about or you’re reluctant to share with anyone else.
- you feel no grief reaction at all after a major loss.
- you have a history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse.
- you have few sources of support.
- you see life as hopeless and are feeling suicidal.
- Call your telephone operator or public library and ask for the numbers for your local mental health association or your local suicide prevention center. Either agency will have good grief referral lists. You need not be suicidal to get a grief referral from a suicide prevention center.
- Use the Yellow Pages and call hospitals and hospices near you. Ask to speak with the Bereavement Coordinator, Social Worker, or Chaplain's Office to get a local grief referral. Many hospitals and hospices provide individual and family grief support to clients for up to one year following a death, and offer bereavement support groups to the general public at no cost.
- The Association for Death Education and Counseling maintains a searchable data base of certified thanatologists (professionals with specialized education and certification in dying, death and bereavement whose professional responsibilities include working with the dying and / or bereaved) to help you find a grief therapist or counselor in your geographic area.
- The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization maintains a database of hospices for each state in the United States. To search for a hospice in your own community, click on Find a Provider.
- Cruse Bereavement Care is the leading national charity for bereaved people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, offering face-to-face, telephone, email and website support, advice and information to children, young people and adults when someone dies and working to enhance society’s care of bereaved people.
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