Group Support for Grievers

I dropped by my WordPress dashboard tonight to see what the stats might be for my latest post, a bit of fluff about my cat.  I realized I had several posts in the draft file and the following is one of them.  It is eighteen months old and I no longer work as a grief counselor but it is a fairly good piece of writing and captures some of the angst that a counselor can go through when trying to help the griever. I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it back in 2011. Better late than never I suppose.

❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖

As a grief counselor I see people in a number of different ways; one-on-one, educational presentations, and group support are the main three. I prefer one-on-one because, okay I’ll say it, I like the sense of control. In a one-on-one you can lead a client and you can also challenge a client. If you hear the client going off-track, for example, you can attempt to steer the person back to the matter at hand…their grief. You can gently remind them that all those other problems were there before the death of a loved one, they were not caused by the death. If they will not be guided gently you can, eventually, draw the line in the sand and challenge their actions. More often than not it is a very effective therapy.

Groups are far more…shall we say liquid? The groups at my hospice are not the highly structured, 6 to 8 week course in grief with homework and journals. Our philosophy is that grief requires support and companioning. Generally we prefer grief-specific groups. For example, spousal loss, traumatic death, sibling loss, etc. But we also have the General Grief Group and that, my friends, is always an adventure.

I like to use my general groups as a means to discover which specific group the individual should move on to. For that reason I rarely have the same people at my general groups more than 2 or 3 times. Sometimes people are there once and I’ll not hear from them again even though I make follow-up attempts. I like to think they have gotten what they needed and moved on. For 85% of the bereaved counseling is unnecessary. They have the support of family and friends. They seek “counseling” to hear that they aren’t crazy, that it’s okay to “talk” to the deceased; it’s alright to keep Joe’s sweater so you can “hug” him; dreaming of your departed wife of 63 years does not make you nuts, it makes you normal.

But the thing about general grief groups is that they can make me a little crazy. Every session is a smorgsboard of grief. You never know what the mix of the group will provide but it is always interesting. It’s a bit like Russian roulette with grief.

One of my first group sessions is a perfect example. I had already been on the job for a couple of months, doing many one-on-ones. I’d been working with one woman whose mother had died and she was being subjected to some borderline abusive behavior by her father. She had legitimate grief issues but it was difficult to convince her of that.  Her father kept telling her she should “be over it” and when he started dating just a few months after the mother’s death it was very hard on the daughter.  We reached a point where the one-on-ones were not getting us anywhere and I suggested she try a group. Since my newly formed general grief support group was meeting in a few days it was natural to suggest that group.

Big mistake.

About nine people showed up. I knew only one, the woman whose mother had died. She looked nervous so I decided not to start the “introductions” with her. I chose the lady immediately to my client’s right. “Well,” says I, “What has brought you to our meeting today?”

“My two-year old grandchild died in an accidental drowning.”

Have you ever been in a room when all of the oxygen was sucked out of it? That was the net effect of this woman’s statement. Everyone in the room, including me, had to pick their jaw up off the table. A declaration of this magnitude renders the grief of everyone else as “minor.” It’s not true, of course, but there is a part of us that immediately capitulates to grief of this magnitude. We know at our very core that this kind of grief demands more attention.

And attention was paid. All of us bore witness to this woman’s story of unfathomable grief. And when she had finished it was time to move on to the next…my poor little woman who had lost her mother.  We don’t like to compare one type of grief to another but I could tell my client was deflated. The work of six weeks flew out the window. Her father, I suspect with many years of practice, had already driven this woman into a sense of worthlessness. He had badgered her about how well her mother had cared for him and why couldn’t his children do the same? And now, unwittingly, I had plopped her into a scenario that only re-enforced her sense that she was exagerrating the grief of losing of her mother.

My most recent general grief support group was equally diverse. There were four participants: a mother and and her teenage daughter, a late 50s woman, and an 85 year old man. The man, either by generation or gender, assumed the stage and pronounced his grief. It was profound. He had lost his wife of 63 years (in the interest of full disclosure I feel it is important to tell the readers that I am 63 years old). One day she was complaining of backache, within a week she was dead of some cancer. He was, to put it simply, lost.

The mother with her daughter had lost her husband to a massive heart attack three years ago. She and her children have been in a trauma induced fog but life is beating at the door. The bank wants to repossess the house, the wife has only recently acquired a job. The daughter is a junior in high school.

The fourth participant is dealing with anticipatory grief. Her husband is terminally ill but not yet gone. She is there, she says, because she has some problems with denial.

The pain in this room is huge and diverse. A smorgsborg. The widower rather quickly sees that his case, while sad, is not grim. He wishes he had met the woman and her daughter before he gave away all of his wife’s “expensive clothes.” I look at the mother and daughter, trying to imagine them in the clothing of a deceased woman who married her World War II hero and spent the next six decades dancing at the Elk’s Club every Saturday night. My mind is racing, trying to focus, trying to figure out how I will meld this group so that everyone gets something.

It’s not always this pretty.

And soon I realize, as I always do, that it really isn’t up to me. It is the participants who must find their way and they are doing so. There is, in every group, a magic moment when, for a brief moment, every soul in the room melds with the others. And it comes from the most unexpected person.

On this night it was the woman whose husband still lived. She was quiet throughout the night and the man noted that and asked about the sorrow she was bearing and how she was coping. He was clearly stunned at the burdens of the mother and daughter.  I think he feared that this quiet woman to his right may have deeper, even darker tragedies. I have met with this woman, one-on-one, numerous times, and have a fairly good idea just how deep her sorrow is. I waited for her reponse. She took her time and, in a measured tone said, “Well, I keep thinking that maybe I should just go out and have a beer.”

There were laughs all around. The man offered to take her for a beer. The mother said she would join them. And the teenager? She had that sly grin of a girl, hangin’ with the adults and transitioning to a woman.

I can’t say that any of them had that beer. They all seemed to go their separate ways at the door. But in that last 30-40 minutes, after the beer remark, they were a group, they were friends, and each asked about the next meeting. Will they be there?  Your guess is as good as mine.❧

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