Identify Support Systems
Ask the griever whom they you regard as a possible support system. Who can they you honestly confide their pain to? Is that person realistically able to emotionally sustain them? There are many types of support systems available – family, friends, support groups, and professionals.
Caution: Family and Friends may not support the griever in the anticipated manner. Their reactions may be unpredictable. Some of those reactions include:
- The Strange Reaction – Sometimes people do not know what to say. So, in an attempt to relate to the griever, they make seemingly strange or bizarre comments.
- The No Reaction – Because people may not be able to relate to a griever, or because they don’t want to say something inappropriate, they say nothing.
- The Lack of Compassion from Fellow Grievers – This is a big surprise. Fellow grievers may lack empathy because of their own unresolved grief or because they are emotionally bankrupt from pre-existing stressors.
While the griever, most likely, will initially rely on the support of family and friends, they may not think about support groups or professional help for the long term. Each type of support can be helpful to the griever, but may bring its own idiosyncrasies.
Family and Friends
Grieving is a lonely and solo journey. No two people grieve the same, even if they are grieving for the same person. Family and friends can and do play an important role in the healing process. However, after a death, the normally supportive family and friends may have their own grief work to do and may have to negotiate their own way through the grief tunnel. Because of their own emotional needs, the normally supportive family and friends may be unable to offer any support.
Sometimes, in the adversity of mutual grief, families can experience a new type of bonding or camaraderie. This is not my experience, nor the experience of the majority of grievers with whom I have worked. Often, grief brings up unresolved emotional baggage in a family. Grief adds new stress and exacerbates existing issues.
Caution: It is difficult for family or friends, without professional training, to emotionally support a griever in the long term. Because grief elicits such powerful emotions and the griever’s need is so great, family and friends can only help a griever so long before feeling emotionally exhausted and incapacitated.
A good grief support group provides a safe environment for grievers to explore the full spectrum of issues and emotions. The two most important and desired features of a grief group listed in feedback from my grief groups are:
- the facilitator had experienced grief personally
- they were with other grievers
While each griever’s experience is unique, similarities certainly exist. Many grievers benefit from the group process because their painful feelings are validated.
Caution: Some non-profit organizations offer “Life Crisis” support groups that include people experiencing divorce, job loss, or other issues. While similarities may exist between the death of a loved one and other life crisis, grief issues are distinct from any other life crisis. I feel strongly that grievers need to be with other grievers and NO ONE ELSE! Some questions to consider:
- Is the group leader an accredited bereavement facilitator?
- What kind of experience does the group leader have? (i.e., a personal loss, academic background in psychology, previous group leadership experience…)
- Does the group run continuously, or for a specified time?
- How often and how long does the group meet?
- Is there a fee?
- What is the group size? (I recommend no more than 20 people per facilitator)
Professional grief counseling is the best support system any griever can enlist. A griever needs the benefit of a one-sided therapeutic relationship where no emotional obligation is expected of the listener. The griever has permission to verbalize the same hurts, complaints, and concerns over and over again without feeling guilty burdening the listener. Mutual emotional reciprocity isn’t expected in the client-therapist relationship. Consider these suggestions for finding a therapist:
- Seek a verbal recommendation (Hospice may be a good source.)
- If this is not possible, then look in the phone book and call around.
- Confirm the level of education and training.
- Psy. D. – Doctorate of Psychology
- Ph.D. – Doctor of Philosophy
- MFCC – Marriage, family, child counselor
- LPC – Licensed Practical Counselor
- MSW – Masters in Social Work
Some general questions to ask a prospective therapist include:
- Did you graduate from an American Psychological Assoc. (APA) accredited school? (If no, say good-bye!).
- What is your expertise – grief, kids, couples, clinical? (Most therapists have preferences for which population they enjoy working with. Find out if they are comfortable with grief work. Ask for a recommendation, if grief therapy isn’t their strength.)
- Have you ever been in therapy, and are you currently in therapy? (You want your therapist to have resolved their own stuff before they work with on you.)
- Do you have access to medications, if necessary?
- Will you work on a contractual basis? (A written contract between client and therapist defining therapeutic goals and length of time required to realistically achieve them.)
- What is the average length of time your clients are in therapy? (Once a week for 12 months is reasonable.)
- Do you have a sliding fee? Can we barter skills?