Joining a support group can be an intricate component for healing and finding comfort following the death of a loved one. Don't let not knowing what to expect keep you from this valuable resource. A sample group session may help you become more comfortable in this setting.
Types of Grief Support Groups
Support groups fit into two categories: open and closed groups. An open group comes with no attendance commitment and doesn't have a finite start or end. These groups allow participants to drop in at any point and include people at different stages of grief. Closed groups feature a specific curriculum that lasts a definitive amount of time, usually six or eight weeks with one meeting per week. These groups focus on specific topics related to grief or types of loss and require all participants to begin at the same time. Both group formats can include structured activities like watching films on relevant topics and completing in-group assignments. Either type of group could also be unstructured where the facilitator asks participants to discuss any topic on their mind that day.
Open Group Session Structure
Groups are held in churches, hospitals or other public locations with intimate meeting rooms and are generally free. Meeting times are posted in a public format tell you what type of group it will be. The American Psychological Association (APA) says a typical group session lasts one to two hours and occurs on a weekly basis. Psychologist Carrie Hill shares typical structure of a grief group session may include pre-meeting mingling, a loosely structured format, and post-meeting mingling. Since each group is unique, the structure will vary, but most include these basic elements.
Welcome and Announcements
While seated in a circle, the group leader or facilitator welcomes everyone then explains the group's purpose, ground rules and structure within the first five or ten minutes. He will go over meeting dates and times so you can jot them down if needed. This is a great time to ask questions about attendance, potential topics or other information you'd like to know. In some groups, this information will be presented in every successive session if there are new group members.
The facilitator may ask participants to go around the circle and state basic information like their name, where they're from, who they are grieving the loss of and what they hope to gain from the group. Anyone who doesn't want to share details can state her name and pass to the next person. Some people will have a lot to share while others may not be ready to open up.
Call for Conversation
Once everyone is acquainted, the facilitator may introduce a topic then ask for volunteers to share relevant personal experiences. Other times the facilitator will open the floor for discussion and ask for a volunteer to share anything that's on his mind. After the first person shares, others can jump in and offer words of support or start speaking about their experiences as they relate to the last person's. This part usually lasts up to forty minutes in a one-hour session. Depending on the specific type and format of the group, topics cover a wide range of emotions and personal experiences. Some common grief support group topics include:
- Handling the holidays or other special occasions
- What to do with the loved one's possessions
- Meaningful rituals to keep the deceased's spirit alive
- Establishing memorials like gardens or online websites
- Handling coworkers and family members
- Dealing with depression
- Reinvesting in life
- Coping with change
- Understanding emotions and the grief process
Closing the Group
For the last ten minutes, the facilitator may recap the overarching themes of that day's discussion. She may also take this opportunity to hand out or mention resources related to the discussion such as other groups, organizations or recommended reading. Some groups end each session with a ritual such as a phrase like "let the healing continue" or something more physical, like a group hug.
Closed Group Session Structure
In a closed group, participants receive more information and resources in the form of presentations during each session. The group follows a specific theme and curriculum tailored to fit the needs of participants. Most elements are the same as an open group, however, the major difference is the bulk of time in a closed group session will be spent watching presentations rather than having an open discussion.
Welcome and Announcements
Participants sit in a classroom setting where they all face the front. The facilitator welcomes members and introduces the themes, structure and ground rules for the group. This may take ten or fifteen minutes as the facilitator will only present this information during the first session because all participants begin on the same day.
Group member introductions may only take place during the first session because the expectation is everyone will start on this day and attend each subsequent meeting for the allotted time frame. The facilitator may ask each person to share his name if she's attended a group before and what type of loss she is grieving.
Presentation of information
Participants may watch a video, listen to a speaker, take part in role-play scenarios, complete work sheets and journal entries or engage in other activities related to the presentation of information by professionals on specific topics. This part of the session may take up to half the time in a one-hour group.
Open discussions take place after hearing educational information and relate to the topic presented. There may only be about twenty minutes for discussion time in a one-hour group.
Closing and Homework
In the last five minutes of a session, the facilitator may present group members with an assignment to work on before the next group session. Homework assignments may include journal entries, exploring other resources or more active and emotional tasks like sorting through a loved one's belongings.
Support Group Atmosphere
In a group, you want to feel comfortable sharing, crying and talking. Grief groups don't promise to help people stop grieving, but to help people meet others who understand their feelings as a way to normalize the individual grief process says the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Others in the room are like you; they have lost a loved one. Some may want to talk, others will only cry. The atmosphere is nurturing and warm. Attendance is a choice and some people attend for months or years while others find they need to only go a few times.
Role of the Facilitator
A good facilitator, or leader, is empathetic. This person may have lost a loved one or has experience dealing with the emotions related to grief. The NASW points out facilitators don't have to be professionals, but should at least be:
- Aware of community resources
- Knowledgeable about the grief process.
- Warm, compassionate, friendly and caring
- Able to guide group discussions
- Have resources to provide useful, factual information
The facilitator should also actively be making sure everyone respects the boundaries of the group.
Role of the Participant
Each participant has experienced a loss and is looking for support and understanding from others. There isn't a wrong way to participate in a support group. The APA suggests an ideal group size is from six to fifteen participants. Smaller groups offer more individual attention while larger groups create more diversity and offer participants a wider range of examples to see how others are dealing with grief. Participants should all feel free to:
- Share personal feelings and stories
- Cry and express other emotions like anger or frustrations
- Remain silent and listen to others' experiences
Ground Rules for Support Groups
In order for a support group to be successful, all participants, including the facilitator, must agree to follow specific guidelines to keep others feeling safe. All members of grief groups should aim to:
- Be on time
- Refrain from starting side conversations or taking phone calls in the group
- Keep all shared information confidential
- Listen actively when others speak
- Refrain from arguing or making offensive comments
- Respect the opinions of others and reserve judgment
- Limit time speaking to give everyone a chance
An Individual Experience
Every support group is unique, but many follow the same protocols based on research and professional experience. The beauty of these groups is you decide how to participate. If the group isn't working for you, it's OK to leave and try another form of healing.