As humans, we are social beings who yearn for connection. We wish to give and receive support. It is no wonder, then, that relatives, friends, neighbors and parish staff draw together in support of grievers, hoping to meet their practical, emotional and spiritual needs. Some will fulfill those requirements, others will not.
One of the key predictors of the successful resolution of grief is the presence of a functional, healthy and appropriate support system. It is fair to say, however, that not all family members or friends have the "gift of listening."
Although friends and family generally form the nucleus of those ready to help following a death, appropriate support can come in many guises. Bereavement support groups have long been recognized as a valuable tool in grief recovery. They can, in fact, be another way of "gathering the clan." Groups can provide connection and understanding in a non-judgmental, confidential setting. They offer information and education about the grief process and understand the challenges of daily life following the death of a loved one.
In support groups, grievers have the opportunity to place their losses in a spiritual context. Mourners are offered respite and are provided glimmerings of hope. Groups allow silence for those not yet ready to give voice to their grief, yet they also permit members to understand that their intense, never-felt-before emotions are indeed normal.
Support-group participants can learn about individual grieving styles and share common experiences and concerns. They can receive emotional support and encouragement and learn new coping skills.
Some may find the support group environment to be a sounding board for their worries and fears while others feel relief from the isolation of grief, taking comfort in those who acknowledge their losses. A wonderful byproduct of participation in a bereavement support group is the opportunity to forge lasting friendships that will translate into ongoing support and connection.
Support groups for the grieving generally have several formats: Closed (limited), Open (drop-in) and Defined (specific loss). Closed groups are time limited but more intensive, meeting weekly for a specified number of weeks. New groups are formed at several different points in the year and participation is limited to those who have registered beforehand. Most parish bereavement groups adopt this format.
Open-ended groups are usually less formal and structured with longer periods of time between meetings. Open groups often meet bi-weekly or monthly year round. Grieving persons may "drop in" to the group whenever they need to. Defined groups limit their participation to those who have suffered a specific type of loss-such as suicide, death of a child, spouse, homicide, etc.-and usually are open-ended.
It should also be mentioned that online bereavement support groups have become an alternative option for some.
The usual online precautions should be taken, however, to find a documented, reputable site hosted by a trained professional. Regardless of format, bereavement support group participants should always be heard, cared for, understood, respected and encouraged within a confidential setting. It is also best to attend a support group facilitated by either a trained professional or a non-professional who has had formal facilitator training.
A bereavement support group is just one option for outreach. Many grievers will benefit from, or will require, counseling to process their losses and will find a knowledgeable, objective listener in the trained professional. Many mental health professionals regard support groups as an adjunct to counseling.
Resources are available for those who have suffered the death of a loved one. A clan is ready to gather in support, but it might just look and sound a little different than you expected.
(Editor's note: Janet McCormack, M.A., is the associate director for Archdiocese of Newark's Family Life Ministries. She can be reached at (973)497-4327)