How To Choose The Right Bereavement Group

By Patricia Oelze

Updated December 06, 2018

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If you have suffered the loss of a spouse, a parent, a child, or even just a dear friend, the feelings of grief can seem like an endless black hole. Grief is a messy and complicated emotion that does not fit with anyone's cultural perceptions or timetable. While friends and family may be able to provide emotional support for a short time, they may hit their limit when they find that your grief extends far beyond the time, energy, and patience that they have to give. Truthfully, feelings of loss can last a lifetime, as you adjust not only to the absence of someone you love but to an entirely new way of life as you plan a new course which does not include him or her.

At the moment when the support of friends and family becomes inadequate, you may consider joining a bereavement group, a support group for those who have suffered similar kinds of loss. Depending on your personality, the stage you are in your grieving process, and the qualities of the group, this can be helpful to you as you learn to manage your grief.

But finding the right group for you can be difficult. There is an enormous level of trust necessary in ensuring that you feel safe sharing such complicated emotions.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you decide the right kind of group to attend.

What A Bereavement Group IS (And Isn't)

When seeking any support, it's important to be clear about what you need and what you can expect.

First of all, here is a list of all the things that a bereavement group is not.

  • A place to fix emotional problems
  • A place to change one's values, beliefs, or personality
  • A social group
  • A place simply to "vent" without making any progress
  • A therapy group

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If you are early on in the grieving process, friends and family may be all the support you need right now. Or if other factors complicate your grief, the help of an individual therapist might be more appropriate than seeking healing in a group setting. If this is the case, contact one of our trained professional counselors at BetterHelp to get started on your journey.

Here are all the things that a bereavement group is.

  • A circle of healing
  • A safe place to express feelings of loss
  • A place to feel validated, heard, and understood
  • An opportunity to educate yourself about the grieving process and your place in it
  • A place to learn real skills for navigating the experience of loss successfully
  • An environment where those struggling with grief can help one another
  • A helpful source of referrals to professionals, websites, and print materials to aid in the grieving process

If this sounds like what you need, then it may be time to begin researching the best bereavement group for you.

Doing Your Homework

When you have the names of some groups that seem promising, it's time to dig a little deeper to find out if one of these groups is worth your time.

First of all, how did you find out about the group? The most trustworthy sources of information are doctor's offices, hospitals, therapists, or any health professional. However, if you found out about this group via the Internet or word of mouth, don't discount it. Just make sure you do your research thoroughly.

The next thing that you should check on is whether or not the group has a contact person. A good group will have a knowledgeable point person available to respond to questions and concerns.

One important consideration is location. Ideally, you want a place that's easy to find, has parking available, and is either already familiar to you or has good signage. It's already nerve-wracking enough to go to a support group for the first time without having to worry about searching for a parking spot or possibly getting lost en route.

Convenient meeting time is also important. If you know that you're always tired in the evening after work, a group meeting at this time may not be ideal. Find a time that you know you'll be able to commit to with regularity. You will develop more cohesive relationships with group members and make more progress if you're able to participate on a consistent basis.

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You may also want to ask how many people attend on a regular basis. Generally, 12-15 is the ideal number for a support group to function effectively. This is a small enough group for members to bond with each other, but a large enough group that if one or two are unable to attend a given session, the dynamic remains intact.

Another major factor to consider is the qualifications of the facilitator. Not all groups will have a facilitator with professional qualifications…and these may not be necessary. However, the leader does need to know grief and the grieving process. He or she also needs to be a good and non-judgmental listener. An understanding of group dynamics and the ability to regulate situations as they arise within the group is also important. If the facilitator is a volunteer, ask about the training process that these volunteers must undergo to lead a bereavement group.

If all these details appear to be in your favor, it's time to go check out a meeting or two.

What To Look For When You Attend A Bereavement Group For The First Time

How do you know whether or not a group is right for you? It may take a couple of meetings for you to tell. When you go, there are some things you should look for.

A good bereavement group will have a clear structure in place. This structure helps everyone in the group feels safe and ensures that each in the group gets what he or she needs.

A sure sign of a structured group is the facilitator setting an agenda at the beginning of the meeting. For example, the group might start with a relaxation exercise, followed by a check-in, and then a time for discussion to posted questions, or perhaps to an article.

In addition to a clear structure, look for evidence of established norms in the group. For example, there should be an expectation that each person is allowed equal time to speak, without interrupting others or talking over them. Another good norm would be that members who don't feel like sharing are allowed to "pass" without feeling pressured.

You might also look for a norm stating that advice will not be given unless it's specifically requested. Often, a group dynamic can be derailed by members who want to give advice and help everyone "fix" their problems, but this is not what a bereavement group is for. Members must feel free to express their feelings without having the opinions of others imposed on them…unless they want them.

But the most important norm you need to look for is that of confidentiality. There should be a clearly stated expectation that anything shared in the group remains within the group. If you go to several meetings without any reference being made to this norm, be wary.

More important even than norm-setting is the way you feel after the meeting is over. At the end of the meeting, reflect on how your emotional state had altered (or not) since when you first arrived.

You should be able to honestly say most of the following things about your group experience.

  • I have learned some coping skills for dealing with my grief.
  • I feel less alone.
  • I now have useful information and resources to guide me through the process.
  • I have more positive feelings about myself.
  • I feel less hopeless.
  • I feel that other members of the group are supportive and encouraging.
  • I feel better than I did when I came in.

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If you cannot say yes to the majority of these bullet points, then it doesn't matter if this bereavement group meets all other criteria. Ultimately, if it doesn't accomplish its purpose in helping you feel better, it isn't worth your time.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Bereavement Group

Once you've decided that this bereavement group is right for you, there are a few things you can do to make sure that you reap the maximum benefit from the experience.

  • Be honest. Remember, a good group will hold anything you share in complete confidentiality. This is a place where you can share difficult thoughts and emotions which might evoke judgment when shared with friends, family members, or coworkers. So, be completely honest about the things you struggle with. You may be surprised at how many people share your challenges.
  • Don't feel pressured to talk right away. It's perfectly acceptable to take some time to observe the group and get to know them before sharing your story. There is no expectation at all that you should have to share your entire story at first, or even the second, meeting.
  • Do not ever share anything that is discussed in the group with anyone else. Confidentiality is the foundational building block for a safe space, so never abuse it.
  • Take the opportunity to help others. One of the wonderful things about bereavement groups is that they empower those who are suffering to make a difference to other people in the same situation. Especially as you move further along in your grief, you will feel affirmed by reaching out to other members to encourage and support them.

Grief is a painful journey. But with a good bereavement group, you don't have to take that journey alone.


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