Support groups of any type can help an individual overcome many past traumas. The collective sharing of trauma can help mutual members heal and learn from each other. Individuals with any type of mental or emotional trauma sometimes find the social outlet of support groups to be beneficial. These groups can be from basic human loss to more complicated issues as PTSD and other trauma. Individuals seeking support group help should already be somewhat past the initial shock of loss. In other cases, they should not be a danger to themselves or others. Support groups should be narrowed to their most basic needs to have the most maximum benefit.
Support groups provide an excellent opportunity for the bereaved to be introduced to like wounded individuals. It counters the isolation and shaming within society and opens a new door of acceptance and sharing. Groups provide emotional, spiritual and physical support in a safe and trusting environment. Furthermore, groups allow individuals to explore their feelings but also to help others. If one is emotionally ready and able, support groups can be the final touch of healing to help a person adjust to the loss and continue in a healthy fashion on their grief journey.
The first step in facilitating a support group is to discover the group that one wants to reach. Many independent programs are sometimes founded by an individual who shares a similar loss and wishes to not only help one’s own self but others. Some families of school shootings, will start groups in memory of a lost loved one as a way of continuing one’s name. Other established societies or institutions will create groups and assign trained professionals to guide the groups.
Groups can be led by one person but it is really important to have a reliable co leader who shares similar values and understands the importance of the maintaining group structure. In addition to leadership, most groups are held within the organization premises, but independent groups may meet in public places such as churches, schools or libraries. It is important to find a spot that is quiet enough to allow privacy and a sense of the sacred. Lighting and sometimes music can be employed. An area that has the necessary academic tools is also important. White boards and other educational tools should be part of any group’s resources to explore issues of grief.
The group should be no more than 12 as to avoid overwhelming the leader and not permitting enough time to help each individual. It is also important to pre-screen potential group members to discover if they are ready for group support. Some members may be reluctant to join and are being forced, while others may not be ready to join a social group to discuss loss. Still others may require personal counseling due to deeper trauma that a group cannot help heal properly.
Within the group it is also critical to establish rules to each member. Meetings should be close ended with a start and end time and regular weekly or monthly cycle of meetings. In addition if utilizing online meetings to supplement or replace physical meetings, it is important to keep the same structure of start and close and maintain routine. Issues of privacy may arise and it is important upon utilizing various online resources that individuals partake knowing the critical element of privacy and be in a closed off room from the noise of their respective homes.
Other ground rules should include the importance of confidentiality. What is said within the group cannot be shared with others outside the group. It is critical to build this sense of community and trust. It is important to share one’s grief account, but it is also important that other people may resist. It is critical not to force others to share until they are ready. Likewise, for those who choose to share, it is important to set up time designations for each to talk to prevent the more out going from monopolizing the time. While it is good to help others, it is also important for group members to understand that advice is only to be given unless requested by another member. In addition, interruptions must be avoided and forewarned as unacceptable behavior.
It is to be understood within the group that grief is unique to each. It is important to understand that grief is part of life and not a disease. Finally it is important to emphasize that there is no true recovery in grief but it is an ongoing process. Communication and sharing grief is a life time commitment.
Most grief support groups are close ended, education based and open discussion. These three elements are key to their functioning. The educational element is key in teaching the individuals about the science of grief and how grief works in the body but the open discussion allows for the more subjective element to emerge. Most grief groups have texts, materials, and home work assignments, especially journals. Individuals are encouraged to write and share, as well as bring pictures, and other key objects of the loved one on certain days to share. Evaluations are also utilized on the final day.
Individuals who are looking to promote a grief support group who do not have an institution’s support, can find multiple ways to advertise their group. Word of mouth, online chat, facebook pages, posters and flyers, email lists of professional leaders, local free media and direct communication with professionals within the field can help individuals discover your group.
So far, we have discussed the basics of the group itself, but leadership will determine the success of the group. The leaders ability to be a companion in grief but also an educator in the field. Education, experience, and commitment to helping the bereaved is key for ultimate success. Excellent programs do not bloom over night but are the product of meticulous planning. Every meeting should be flexible but have a plan and topic.
First, the leader must possess some basic qualities. Without these qualities, even the best presented material will come across as uncaring and superficial.
A leader must possess empathy. The ability to perceive another’s experience and communicate it back. It allows the person to feel the other in an emotional sense and allow one to truly understand the feelings of another. A leader must also possess respect. Everyone in the group must be respected as special and unique and have inherent value. Finally, a leader needs to present himself or herself as genuine. They must be sincere in their teaching, listening and companioning.
Communication skills are key in this respect. Certain counselors and teachers learn various nuances of the trade through time and practice, but the skills of being a good listener can be learned over time. The ability to enter into communication and value the person is the first key. Listening can take the form in many ways. Attention and attending to each person one at time is the first key. In this paraphrasing can be a key skill to help others. This not only ensures one correctly hears, but also ensures the other person hears what they are saying. Clarification of issues is also key to clear up any confusing issues. Furthermore perception checking can be a key tool in addressing the individual and allows them to reflect and respond. Sometimes, leaders will needmake observations regarding an individual, and other times, a leader may need to provide some type of acknowledgement. From a group setting, a leader must also help others focus on topics, provide necessary information and help others stay on course. When problems occur, it is always best to deal with at the end of the meeting. Any leader will face various issues in a meeting ranging from the nature of sadness itself or problem members. Learning how to cope through these issues is a key development in any leader. There are a variety of skills that make a support group leader a good leader and learning more about communication and ways to help others be heard and open, are key to support groups.
Any group goes through phases of growth. A good leader will be able to identify the growth. The first phase is the warm up phase. In this phase, the group is feeling each other out. Individuals are trying to see if others think like themselves. Other personalities are emerging and whether to trust remains a question. It is important in these early meetings to give time for individuals to get to know each other and share small stories. These boundaries are further explored in the second phase and following meetings. Individuals tentatively begin to test the water and explore boundaries within the group. They should also begin to start seeing themselves as part of a group.
As the group develops and becomes closer, there is a deeper exploration phase. The work of grief begins to take shape. Instead of why, individuals are helping each other work through the grief. Following this phase, is the most important phase of a commitment to continued growth and healing. Others will take active interest if another member is absent in this phase. The final phase is preparation for ending the group. For some, this can be a loss in itself but it must become something of accomplishment. Others within this phase can share information, numbers and continue to form friendships beyond the group itself.
In any social event, there is a social psychology that is played out. Within a group of any type, these things will be played out. It is important for the leader to respect uniqueness of individuals but also guide the overall theme of the group to work through grief. A successful leader understands the nature of grief but also possesses the qualities to help others through grief. The group can become a great healing device is properly led. Preparation and commitment are the keys.
If you would like to learn more about AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Certification, then please review AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Program and see if it matches your academic and professional goals. The program is online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification in Grief Counseling.
Source: The Understanding Your Grief Support Group Guide: Starting and Leading Bereavement Support Group by Alan D Wolfelt, PhD