Are Grief Support Groups Helpful—And How Do You Find One? Here's What Experts Say
Sharing your emotions with others can make it easier to process your loss.
Grief affects us all in different ways, and asking for help dealing with it can be difficult. For many people, a grief support group makes the process a little easier by building connections with others who are also grieving. A grief support group can have a positive impact on mental health. One study found that these helped to reduce depressive symptoms in people who had lost a loved one.
If you're thinking of joining a grief support group, here's what you need to know, according to experts.
What are grief support groups?
Grief support groups take different forms, but they tend to adhere to the self-help model, Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York City, tells Health. In practice, this means every in the group has the opportunity to share their experiences.
"In most cases, other group members may offer support but not practical help or commentary," Lundquist says. The idea, he explains, is to create a space free of judgment where support is the priority.
"In this way, grief support groups differ from therapy because the feedback of therapy is often initially not a part of the structure," Lundquist adds.
What to expect from your first session
First, you may be surprised by the range of emotions in the room. "Some members will be animated about their loss and give details and use their emotions boldly—crying, anger, even a curse word maybe," New York City family grief counselor Jill S. Cohen tells Health.
On the other hand, some people will simply sit and not be able to speak, not ready or willing to share the most minimal information about their loss. "In a grief support group, there is space for both kinds of people and interactions," Cohen says.
It's a good idea to prepare yourself for feeling a wide range of emotions in response to some of the stories you hear. However, you don't know in advance what kind of losses people might talk about. If you feel upset or triggered, Cohen suggests taking a quiet time out by leaving the room until you feel more comfortable.
You also might be surprised by the kind of details some members of the group share about the deceased—both positive and negative. Sometimes, this brings a sense of relief, Cohen says, if you feel that your experience wasn't as traumatic as another person's.
Finding the right grief support group
Lundquist recommends starting your search for a grief support group online, identifying a few options, then looking into the feedback they get from those who've attended them. Some are affiliated with a church or other religious group, while others are run independently. Often, a group is moderated by a therapist who may take a strong role in leading the group.
Cohen suggests finding a group that matches your specific loss, i.e. spouse loss, child loss, suicide loss, loss to cancer, etc. This increases the chances of interacting with people who understand more of the specifics of what you are going through.
Typically, in-person grief support groups are widely available in urban areas, but perhaps not so accessible in rural regions. In this case—and also if safety is a concern, due to COVID-19–there's no shortage of online grief support groups held via Zoom or a similar platform. While Lundquist believes this sort of work is best done in person, he says many people find online groups effective.
"I think online groups work very well," Cohen says. "Tears and smiles all show up well on screen, just as they do in in-person groups." She points out that the pandemic year has proved the effectiveness of this kind of support, provided the elements are in place for it to work: user-friendly technology, confidentiality between members, privacy in the home or wherever the members are accessing the session, and attentiveness while in the group (in other words, group members staying off their devices and solely focusing on the group).
A good facilitator is also crucial within an online group, Cohen adds, to make sure the members stay on point, give everyone an opportunity to talk, don't talk over one another, and support each other appropriately when feelings arise.
"I do think the convenience of this way of attending a grief support grief and the ability to bring in others from all over at various times of the day or evening—which makes it easier to commit to attendance without commuting time—will make this a viable option going forward after the pandemic times," Cohen says.
Another consideration is that grief is physically exhausting and often leaves people lacking energy and/or motivation, so the opportunity to get the support they need without extra effort is a big plus.
How effective are grief support groups?
A grief support group can show the reality of the grieving process, says Lundquist.
"Often, there is a gap between people's expectations of what the process of grief should look like and reality," he says. "Those who are newly in grief may carry expectations about how long the process should take and how disruptive it should be, which make them feel like their own process is belabored and too severe. This is, of course, a function of how privately grief is organized in our culture."
By showing that grief is often slow and messy, support groups allow people the space and conditions to work through their feelings. "And also, of course, you can see that most often it gets better," Lundquist adds.
Grief groups also reinforce that you are not alone in your grieving. "Grief is a lonely experience, even within a family unit or a community, because everyone's relationship with the deceased is unique and everyone grieves differently," Cohen explains. "So when you're deep in your own grief and wondering why you feel the way you feel or why your body is reacting so physically to the loss, or why you are so different from the way you were before the death, it helps to see that other people are going through life changes as you are, though, of course differently."
It can also be helpful to learn coping skills from others and exchange ideas for handling difficult situations within the group. Having a safe space to release your emotions is a plus as well—many people aren't comfortable doing that with their own family members or friends. "There is comfort in hearing other people's experiences and also, there is a sense of hopefulness when you see people in later time frames in their grief who seem to be functioning in ways that can seem unimaginable immediately after a loss," Cohen says.
For some people, a grief support group is only part of the process. "Individual grief counseling is an important method of support as well," says Cohen. "For some people, if their needs are more complicated, they benefit more from one on one attention, particularly if it was a traumatic loss or a complicated grief." Remember, the grieving process is unique to the griever, and what may be helpful for some is not necessarily appropriate for others.
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