ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006
Support groups for the bereaved are often divided by age or type of loss or even simply the time when the loss occurred. Though there is value in these small gatherings, bringing them all together in a larger community can promote a special kind of healing.
It began with an off-hand remark from one of the participants in our Young Widowed/Life Mates Support Group: "I wonder whatever happened to Jill? Has anyone heard from her since she left our group?"
I immediately thought that what we needed was a gathering sometime in the upcoming summer that would bring together all those who had been a part of our five support groups over the last few years.
As the idea began to take form, I realized that the focus could easily be patterned after an old-fashioned summer family reunion. Others would want to know what had happened to the people who had been their companions in grief, and I myself would love to see again some of the faces that had become familiar through our support groups and individual counseling sessions. I also was curious to find out how they were progressing in their individual healing journeys.
Mary Lou Hughes has suggested that "bereavement support groups are a form of magic. They are made up of an assortment of unrelated people who have only their loss and pain in common. An alchemy takes place, and the individuals develop close emotional bonds. The mutual support and understanding helps them emerge from the group in a more positive state of mind."
Was there an opportunity here to expand this support group concept? The idea was actually not new. I had, in the autumn previous to putting that summer event together, planned and implemented our funeral home's first event centered on the holidays and grief.
In the following weeks, I formulated and implemented the three basic principles that would govern my successful format for larger community event gatherings. I had already integrated some of these principles into my ministry during my 23 years as a parish pastor: Educate them, feed them (literally) and send them away with something of substance.
Key components of a community event
1. Education. Grieving people, especially those who are bereaved for the first time, want to know what to expect. It's a good idea to have a trained bereavement counselor to provide some education, but a panel of folks who have dealt with various aspects of grief has even greater impact.
People love to share stories, and this type of sharing helps maintain participants' interest. They can relate to people who, like them, have experienced loss, and are often willing to engage them in conversation.
Also, create a packet of helpful handouts. People need to read as well as hear about grief.
2. Create opportunities for intentional community. This is most easily done over refreshments, when participants are more likely to rub elbows with folks who've had other losses different than their own. James Miller says in his 1997 book, "Helping the Bereaved Celebrate the Holidays," that "refreshments encourage people to mingle, to take their time, and to talk with one another. It also gives people something to do if they're feeling uneasy or nervous ... [it] adds to a sense of community."
3. Include a closing ritual. It has been said that rituals con best express what lies within our hearts when there are no words. "A ritual is an outward gesture or action that expresses, often symbolically, an inner human reality," Miller says. "When words are used, it can name what's difficult to name. When symbolic actions are used, it can help give expression that goes deeper than words can convey at that moment.
Rituals in and of themselves can be transitions." Elaine Childs-Gowell reminds us in "Good Grief Rituals" that "in the ritual you create a small event in order to reflect bigger events in your life."
I had begun to realize that it is positive, even essential, to bring together a broader community of bereaved folks who had different experiences. I remember receiving a number of comments following some of our programs about how helpful it had been to meet with folks who had dissimilar losses. This was the larger community providing healing in a way that the individual support groups could not.
Comparing grieving styles and exchanging stories of how grief was processed and worked through proved to be invaluable for some people. The bereaved found something uniquely comforting in being with a more expansive population.
One of the comments I kept hearing over and over again was: "I wasn't aware of so many people having lost loved ones." It was said not so much with sadness as with a sense of surprise and of belonging to a special group. It was clear that these events were meeting a need that wasn't being met any other way.
Stephen Levine reminds us that "grief has a quality of healing in it that is very deep, because we are forced to a depth of emotion that is usually below the threshold of our awareness." Support groups encourage that quality of healing. They make space for that kind of healing to happen. Our larger community events continue that healing process.
Three programs for all
Our funeral home sponsors three wider community events for our support groups and those who have come for counseling.
• In April, close to the first day of spring, we hold our Hope, Healing and Renewal event. This program is aimed at people who are beyond the initial stages of grief and looking for signs of healing.
• In August, we have our Summer Support Group Reunion. This event emphasizes fellowship and interaction rather than a formal program.
• In November, we hold our holiday grief program, featuring our Tree of Light and Life. This is our best-attended event for healing, and its popularity keeps growing. In the future, we hope to offer our event at different times, one in the daytime and one in the evening.
Each program has a unique focus and theme, with its own educational and closing ritual components. Each attempts to provide healing with a unique focus and each is eagerly anticipated by the larger community of mourners.