It’s not easy to join a group of strangers, especially when you’re in pain and feeling vulnerable. In a sense, the uncertainty is normal. Don’t these thoughts and feelings sound reasonable?
- I’m not a group person.
- I’m different than the people in the group.
- I don’t want to sit and listen to everyone’s pain!
- I’m afraid that I’ll cry.
- I’m a very private person and I’m not comfortable sharing.
- I’m a strong person and don’t need to wallow in my feelings.
- I can’t sleep. I can’t cry. I can’t concentrate and am too depressed to talk.
- My spouse was sick and I grieved for many years. I don’t need to grieve now.
- I have my children and friends around me. They’ll help me through.
Fortunately, group members often tell us that their fears, while seeming to be reasonable at first, were unjustified. We often hear from people who, after joining a group, share what amounts to a revelation.
- We’re more alike than I knew. Everyone here has had a loved one die.
- It’s not easy to hear other’s pain but as you heal, it gets easier to hold the space.
- It’s okay to share feelings. Group is a safe place to share and not be judged.
- I can share if and when I’m ready.
- I’m strong but even strong people feel the pain of losing a loved one.
- The group can help me to find balance again and live my changed life.
- I grieved while my spouse was ill. Now I grieve my changed life and unfulfilled dreams.
- My friends and children are loving but they don’t quite understand. They have their own grief and it’s different.
How do people who have been reluctant to join a group come to understand the healing power of groups?
To understand that, it’s good to first acknowledge that we’ve actually spent our entire lives in groups. We are born into a group called “family.” As we grow, we participate in other groups — school, church, temple, sports teams, clubs, volunteer groups, 12-step groups, activity circles (i.e. playing bridge, clubs), friendship circles and eventually we create our own little group again — family.
It’s also good to admit that it’s normal to feel anxious about joining a group, any group.
The group and the individuals in it are an unknown, and that’s especially unsettling at a time when everything feels strange and surreal. Feeling so vulnerable can throw us into survival modes of fight (i.e. angry, resistant and forging forward alone), or flight (i.e. distracted and busy), or simply cause us to freeze (i.e. feeling depressed, apathetic, unmotivated, isolated). We don’t know which will show up until we’re thrown into that “trench” of grief and loss. No matter what we feel or believe, the thought of being with strangers in a group can be daunting.
A man in our spousal loss group is a perfect example of someone who had all the typical misgivings about groups, and then grew to understand their power.
At first, he struggled with attending the groups on a regular basis. Each week, he found another reason (usually work) to be absent. Finally, he made a decision to attend weekly.
Over time, he discovered some things that surprised him. “I was hesitant and uncertain about what to expect at the beginning,” he said, “but I now know that the group setting, along with the individuals, have given me hope. Although we come from different backgrounds, we all share the same underlying experience of having lost someone very dear to us.
“I have learned a great deal about myself by listening to others and staying focused. In the end, one of the most important things I am realizing is that the act of giving to others in the group (and elsewhere) brings hope to me.”
Grief is complicated by many factors: past losses, your relationship with your loved one, your personality, your resiliency, your belief system about life, death and grief, your support network, just to name a few.
Group helps you sort through these complicated issues by embracing you in a community that truly understands and will walk beside you while you grieve and heal.
The poet, Mary Oliver, says it so beautifully:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver