What to do When Grief Support Group Members Never Leave

Two years ago, I Got Kicked Out Of My Grief Support Group. It’s been bugging me lately, thinking about how traumatic that whole situation was (the facilitator even told me if I ever came back, he’d call the cops. Sheesh.). But today I finally got my say. Not to him, of course — he’s long out of my life — but to another facilitator who found my blog and wanted to know if I had any Canadian Geesesuggestion about how to deal with a group when it turns social, when the members hang around for two to three years without moving beyond the group.

This is my response to her:

I am so glad you asked! I’ve had a lot of time to think about that group, how good it was for me and how badly it ended, and what an idiot that facilitator was. Truth be told, he was a preacher and not a grief counselor, and he had no experience with support groups, which makes the whole situation even more upsetting. He had no business running the group.

It was a small group. At the most, there were fourteen people, but generally only six to ten. Two old ladies who had been coming to the group for three years had no friends or resources and they came to be around people once a week. One of those women suffered a significant loss each of those three years, and so had every right to still come, regardless of the reason. The other old woman was gradually losing her hearing, her sight, her autonomy, all of which needed to be grieved. The rest of us ranged from one month to fourteen months into our grief. Yes, we bonded, and occasionally we went out to lunch together, but we weren’t a social group. We were there for one reason only. To find support with our own kind. There was no one else to talk to about our problems with grief.

I especially bonded with one of the newest widows who had lost her husband a year after I lost mine. Her experiences mirrored mine, and I knew what she was going through. I could see it in her thousand-yard stare. She would look to me for answers to her questions because she knew I had been there and could understand. The facilitator hated this. He’d read a couple of articles about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and tried to fit everything anyone said into that grief model, even though it wasn’t at all what this woman was experiencing. He hated that I had a different perspective than he did. (He was still married, often talked about how supportive his wife was, and didn’t have a clue that one of the things we were grieving was that lack of such support.) And he hated that I printed out my blogs that showed the new woman what I had been going through. As I said, he was ignorant of support groups and didn’t understand that it was the nature of a group for the “older” members to help the newer ones, to be co-moderators in a way. And seeing how the newly bereft are dealing with their grief helps the older ones see how far they have come. This is why it’s important to have everyone in all stages of grief to be in the same group rather than to separate them out into special groups.

If most of the people in your group have been there for two to three years, you do have a problem. If you have no new members, you can do what my group did — cancel it for three to four weeks while everyone searches their conscience to see if they still needed the group. If it is not feasible to cancel the group for a while because of newly bereft members, it would be better to talk to each person individually, asking how they are dealing with their stage of grief, ask them what they want from the group and how you can help them move beyond the group.

Or you can cancel the group for three to four weeks, but still continue with the newest members during that time, saying you need to give the newly bereft special attention. (The people who have been around a long time should respect that — they themselves had once been so bereft.)

The newly bereft should never be penalized by long-term members. Those first weeks and months are so horribly painful that sometimes the only way to survive is through the support of a group. They are the ones who need special consideration.

Other things you can try:

When new people come to the group, focus on the new people. Have each group member introduce themselves to the new person, tell them who they lost and how, and how long ago it’s been. Then have the new member tell his or her story. Focus on the new member. Let the new member talk as long as s/he wants while the others keep their mouths shut. They all had their opportunity to tell their stories.

Make the group more focused. Set up a specific question, and have people answer only that question, starting with the newly bereft. Making sure the newest people get their say first in case there is not enough time for everyone to talk. (You can get some sort of “cards” with topics and choose a separate topic each time.)

Set up the group like a grief-orientation class. When I first started with the group, it was set up as a ten-week class, each class focusing on a different aspect of grief. When one set of classes was finished, the series began again. Gradually, the older members get bored with the repetition and leave the group.

Have the members only address the moderator or the person who is telling their story, not each other.

Make sure only one person talks at a time. If any of the long-time members have side conversations, ask them to take the conversation outside.

Do not allow any conversation that is not strictly grief oriented. Do not let anyone but new members (who desperately need to talk) to monopolize the group.

If it sounds harsh to focus on new members and pretty much ignore the members that have been there for two to three years, keep in mind that at these later stages of grief, vocalizing isn’t as important as it is at the beginning. In the group I was in, most of us who had been there a while had no real need to talk about our grief. It had all been said. But we did need the comfort of being with our own kind. (And in my case, I needed the comfort of passing on what we had learned so that all my pain didn’t go to waste.)

Many in the later stages find just as much comfort by listening. And if they don’t, if they only want to talk (or talk among themselves), then they don’t belong in the group.

To give you the short answer to your question: drastically restructure the group.

I hoped this helped.

Let me know if I can be of further assistance.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

10 Responses to “What to do When Grief Support Group Members Never Leave”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Sounds like the preacher needed training to lead the support group. Didn’t seem to be doing God’s work there, did he?

  2. web mamma Says:

    Wow it’s too bad that anybody would disburse a group that is working, or encourage older members to leave at all

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s sometimes necessary with a grief group. Sometimes members get dependent on the group in an unhealthy way. Sometimes they bond so strongly that they make new members feel out of place. Sometimes they are past their grief, and their laughing and joking makes a mockery out of the grief of new members.

  3. Juliet Waldron Says:

    The transition out has to be tough, both for participants and facilitators. Sounds like the first Facilitator you had was out of his depth, both with the grief, and with the depth he encountered in the group, and you in particular. (I’m often amazed by the folks who take religious orders who really possess no sense of real compassion.) Your advice really strikes me as sound, tho I’m no professional. Perhaps the ordinary process of finding friends in the group and then being able to “move on” should be something that receives more focus when would-be facilitators are trained. Then, the path out the door would be one with clearer markings.

  4. Ree` Edwards Says:

    A question before a comment – (And hopefully I didn’t miss reading this if you mentioned it, I would feel really ashamed if I did.)
    How long was it after your mate passed that you started attending this group?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I started with another group one month after he died. The pain kept growing and growing and I just could not handle it. I had to move away from there, and started with this other group about three months after he died.

  5. Shauna Norman Says:

    I believe this is why 12 step meetings work so well. There is a set agenda – a format. No leaders, but trusted servants. The reasons for people being there are similar and the support almost unconditional. The following is a section of the preamble which is read out at ALL meetings… be they AA, NA, AL ANON, GA or one of the many others… words of course are interchangeable according to which fellowship it is…. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose…. etc . Great article Pat.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      As admirable as twelve-step programs are, bereavement is something completely different. By nature, bereavement support groups need to be a bit more informal and more “therapeutic” (most are run by grief counselors or social workers), and are not meant to be a permanent way of life. They only need to become more structured when the members who have moved beyond the needs of the group still hang around and make it uncomfortable for new members.

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