COUNSELING: Are Grief Support Groups Helpful?

Group showing support by holding hands

By Jessica Nowacki, Clinical Intern

Bereavement and grief are a common human experience. In fact, according to a survey by Amerispeak and WebMB, 32% of people suffered the loss of a family member or close friend within the past three years. And this data was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the first year is the hardest, the National Institute of Health says over 70% of older adults experienced a bereavement process that last approximately two and a half years. Losing someone close to you – a spouse, sibling, child, best friend or pet – can bring up feelings of isolation, confusion, sadness and disconnection from others.

Between 7% to 10% of older adults are at risk for developing a mental health condition known as complicated grief. This grief is characterized by sadness, a focus on and intense yearning for the deceased, guilt and self-criticism, suicidal thoughts and avoidance of people and places that are reminders of the deceased. This type of grief is acute and slows healing.

Connecting with others is a key coping strategy for grieving people. Sharing experiences of loss is a powerful way toward healing. Research shows attending a grief support group may help you through these feelings and other difficult emotions or situations that arise from the loss. These peer-centered groups offer the necessary social supports to help people process their grief and work toward a renewed sense of direction and self-identity.

What is the Purpose of a Grief Group?

Grief support groups serve several important purposes:

  1. To process the event of the death: Sharing stories of the loss, including what led up to it, what happened during the death and what occurred afterward help participants work through the reality of the death and the feelings attached to its story.
  2. To validate feelings and experiences: Coming together as a group helps to normalize the experience. Hearing others share and understand your emotions and empathize with you provides validation to your thoughts and emotions. Those who attend groups often leave with a sense that those they have been talking with in the group “get it” in a way different from those who haven’t experienced loss.
  3. To provide a sense of hope: Those who are further along in their grief process can be a beacon to those whose loss occurred more recently. They model the reality that grief can be worked through, the pain will subside and they will eventually begin to feel better.
  4. To connect to internal and external resources: In support groups, participants share ideas, programs, books and other resources that have helped them through difficult emotions and situations. These external resources are highly beneficial for a grieving person looking for solace outside of the group setting. During the group meeting, participants come to discover strengths and find ways to navigate the question of who they are now with the deceased person gone from their lives.
  5. To provide a framework for understanding grief: Support groups are often led by facilitators with training in the stages and tasks of grief. The leader can use this framework as a way to help participants find an additional layer of understanding about what they are going through.

What to Expect in a Grief Group

When you arrive at a grief group, you can expect to find participants who are actively engaged in mourning. They are processing their grief externally by sharing details of the death, life changes, emotions and situations bringing their grief to the surface. As mentioned earlier, participants also share coping mechanisms and external resources. The sessions will generally have between 6 to 12 participants, and the meetings tend to last 60 to 90 minutes.

You may also expect periods of silence and introspection. Participants are not forced to talk. These periods of silence are welcomed and embraced by the group. It’s OK to not feel at ease right away.

If you’re considering attending a grief support group, 3 to 6 months after the death is a good time to begin. At this point, many people find they are ready to start sharing their stories with others and working through the emotions and thoughts associated with the death. In the end, the support group will help you feel less alone, know others are traveling a similar path and give you additional coping strategies and resources.

To get the most out of a grief support group, it’s a good idea to:

  1. Do your homework and make sure you’re choosing a group that represents the type of loss you’ve endured (e.g., spousal, sibling, child, friend, pet): Spousal loss is profoundly different from losing a child. You’ll have an easier time getting comfortable if the other members have sustained a similar type of loss.
  2. Be on time, present and stay until the end of the session: Being punctual, present and engaged help foster connections and builds respect between you and the other group members.
  3. Listen carefully: Empathy and learning both start with a listening ear. Listening to others carefully establishes a sense of care.
  4. Give it a chance: The first couple sessions may be challenging. It is beneficial to give yourself about three visits before deciding if a group is right for you.

Grief support groups tend to be more effective when coupled with individual grief counseling. Support groups are intended for fellowship and coping strategies among peers; however, in individual counseling the focus shifts entirely to you, your story and supports change you want to make in your life. While you may be changed by attending a support group, change is not the group’s goal.

How does the Grieving Process Work?

There are two layers for understanding the grieving process – mourning and grieving. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Grief and Joseph Worden’s Tasks of Mourning each take up a layer. Although the words “stages” and “tasks” may sound like the grieving process has a clear beginning, middle and end, the process is not linear. We may cycle back and forward through the various stages or tasks, taking one step forward and two steps back.

Psychologist Dr. Alan Wolfelt, founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, describes the difference in terms of inward and outward expressions of the loss. Wolfelt defines mourning as an “express[ion] of grief outside yourself.” When we mourn, we have six needs:

  • Acknowledging the reality of the death.
  • Embrace the pain of the loss.
  • Remembering the person who died.
  • Developing a new self-identity.
  • Searching for meaning.
  • Receiving ongoing supports from others.

Mourning involves action; it may include crying, journaling or sharing stories in a support group. In “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” Worden outlines a task-based model for fulfilling the needs of mourning.

  • Accept the reality of the loss: This task involves coming to terms with the person’s death through a funeral, ritual or memorial. Also beginning to speak of the person in the past tense.
  • Work through the pain of grief: This task involves processing the internal emotions through activities like support groups, peer meetups and conversations with friends and family. Working through the pain of grief involves talking about death, which can feel like an “elephant in the room” when interacting with people who weren’t close to or didn’t know the deceased.
  • Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing: This task involves taking on new roles and navigating day-to-day activities without the deceased.
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life: In this task, the person works to memorialize the deceased while taking up new interests and relationships. The goal is to find ways to go on living while continuing to treasure the time you had with the deceased. In grief support groups, you may connect with members who are further along in their grieving process and who may have ideas to help you with this task when you reach it.

What are the Stages of Grief?

Grief, on the other hand, is an inward process. It encompasses the internal thoughts and feelings we have about the death (e.g., fear, loneliness, loss, panic, anxiety, sadness). In her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” Kübler-Ross lays out the Stages of Grief model. She developed her model by collecting narratives of dying hospital patients.

Initially, this pattern was expressed as five stages, but more recent research expanded her model to seven. Each stage has specific emotions and behaviors associated with it.

The original five-stage model conceptualizes grief as:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The expanded seven-stage version looks a bit different:

  • Shock and denial
  • Pain and guilt
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Depression
  • The upward turn
  • Reconstruction and working through
  • Acceptance and hope

No matter which version speaks to you, it’s helpful to note a couple common threads. Initially, we will not believe the death is real. As we heal, we come to accept the reality of the death and our lives and identities are forever changed by our love for the deceased. In between, we will experience sadness, anger, hopelessness and isolation along with glimpses of hope for healing and gratitude for the person having been in our lives.

Both mourning and grieving are needed to help us process and integrate the loss. Outward expressions, although less accepted in mainstream culture, are necessary for healing. Grieving without mourning puts our mental, spiritual and physical health at risk.

One helpful way to actively mourn the loss is to attend a grief support group. The non-linear grieving cycle will be apparent as people share stories of moving forward and then having bad days. All feelings are validated and embraced.

If you need help with grief, Anchorpoint Counseling Ministry provides a weekly grief support group. And if you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness, anxiety, depression or other struggles, give us a call at (412) 366-1300 or use our Digital Intake Form to schedule an appointment today. Hope is only a phone call away.