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.

I Got Kicked Out Of My Grief Support Group

I got kicked out of my grief support group. During the last meeting, the facilitator told us there was going to be a big influx of new people to the group, though why there would be an influx and how he knew this, he didn’t say. What he did say was that if we were able to function, if we were able to go about our daily activities, we were supposed to leave the group. He also said the group was too social, but isn’t that the purpose of a group? To support each other? We did talk before and after the meeting, but during the meeting, we stuck to the subject — grief — which was why we were all there. It was the only place we could continue sharing our sad tales and talk about what we were feeling. The rest of the world has passed on, leaving us alone with our emptiness and our tears.

In order to break up the group, the facilitator said he was going to cancel meetings for a month so we could evaluate ourselves, and then if we really, really, really needed the group, we could return. This stunned the heck out of me. Because he thought some people had overstayed their welcome, he was going to leave the newly bereft without any support for a month!! With Father’s Day almost here? He finally agreed to cancel only a single meeting, but still, the whole concept is appalling.

Apparently, a group in another town turned into a social gathering, and to change the focus, that group was cancelled for a month. Only two people returned after the meetings resumed, and the facilitators congratulated themselves on a job well done. But no one checked to see why the others didn’t come back. Perhaps, like me, they felt betrayed. A place that was supposed to be safe suddenly became dangerous. Sure, I could go back, but I’d never be able to open up again. I’d always be wondering if I was being judged, if I wasn’t going through grief fast enough to suit the facilitator, if I were depriving some other poor soul of a say, if I were being too social or too articulate. (Apparently, my ability to talk articulately about grief is a drawback. Though why, I don’t know. Just because I can put into words what others feel does not mean I’m not feeling grief myself.)

The facilitator kept saying, “This is hard for me.” He never even looked at the shocked faces of the group participants, just kept saying how hard it was for him. Who cares how hard it was for him? He shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. (I’m not supposed to talk about what goes on in the group, but since I am no longer a participant, I can say what I want. Besides, it was more my group than his. I understood what people were going through. He didn’t. How could he? He still has his spouse. Until you’ve lost a long-time mate, you cannot know, cannot comprehend the vast physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual changes such a death brings to one’s life.)

We were originally told we could keep attending meetings as long as we needed. In fact, Medicare demands that hospice provide bereavement counseling for a minimum of thirteen months. Nowhere in that regulation does it say grievers are prohibited from attending if they could function in the world. Besides, if we couldn’t function, we never would have been able to attend in the first place.

I’d stopped going to the bereavement group for a while, then returned to help support a friend through the worst of her grief, but it’s come full circle and I need the group for me again. I was okay for the first two months after the anniversary of my life mate’s death, but the truth — that he is irrevocably gone — has seeped into the depths of my being, and I am feeling heartbroken. I need to be with those who understand this upsurge in grief. Who don’t mind my tears. Who know that the calendar means nothing when it comes to grief. Who realize that yes, the newly bereft need support, but so do those who are further along.

The Healing Power of Stories

I attend a bereavement group every week, which surprises me, considering that I’ve always been a do-it-yourself sort. I only started going to the meetings because I wanted to know how to survive the terrible agony of grief I experienced after the loss of my mate. I didn’t learn how — it’s something no one can teach another — but I learned that one could survive those first unbelievably painful weeks when I met people who had survived them. I keep going to the group because of those same people. We have something in common, a shared understanding, a survivor’s respect. And now, after five months, I am one of those who, just by being there, show the newly shell-shocked bereaved that one can learn to live with the devastation of a major loss.

Each meeting begins with a lesson, and today’s lesson was about the importance of stories and how they help us heal. The people who attended the meeting today all happened to be women who had lost their mates after decades of being together, and the counselor asked each of us to tell the story not of our mates’ deaths, but of how we met. We all knew the end of each of our love stories — over the months we have told the story of our grief many times. But this is the first time we talked about the beginning of our love stories, and in those stories we found hope, comfort, smiles, a reconnection to our past.

According to the handout we were given, the benefits of telling stories are:

  • Searching for wholeness among our fractured parts
  • Coming to know who we are in new and unexpected ways
  • We can explore our past and come to a more profound understanding of our future direction
  • We can seek forgiveness and be humbled by our own mortality
  • We can discover the route to healing lies not only in the physical realm, but also in the emotional and spiritual realms.

An unexpected result of today’s lesson was a new understanding of the importance of writing. For me, anyway.

These past months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I have always tried to lose myself — and find myself — in fictional worlds during periods of trauma, but this time it’s not working the way I hoped. I’m not finding healing in current books. The authors seem to be going for the shock effect of not-so-good versus unbelievably-outrageous-evil, for story people who have identifiable characteristics but no character, for fast-paced stories with little substance or truth. How does one find wholeness in such stories? How do we come to know each other or come to a more profound understanding of our future in trite mysteries and unrealistic thrillers?

Perhaps it’s not important. Maybe entertainment is all that counts when it comes to fiction, but I want something more. And I especially want something more when it comes to my own writing. I don’t know where grief is taking me — it is changing me in ways I cannot yet fathom — but I hope I will end up writing stories of truth, of understanding, of healing. I hope I will make people smile. I hope my words will matter.