Sunday, October 11, 2015

In Praise of Support Groups

Though I’ve mentioned them only briefly on this blog, support groups have been a crucial part of the grief journey for me and many others after suicide loss. I’ve been part of four very different groups led by several facilitators, with the number attending ranging from two to 30. I can’t imagine having come this far without the love and understanding of these groups. 

The most formative experience came from the first group I attended, starting three months after Noah took his life. It was a comfort just knowing there was a time and place every week to focus on my loss, voice my grief, and be with other survivors. Unlike other times and places, I didn’t have to worry about whether the people around me could tolerate my pain, whether I felt safe, or whether I would be able to function. All I had to do was bring my grieving self into the room. 

When I was most lost and distraught, that group showed me a way forward. It was led by a therapist and a trained volunteer, both survivors who were well-versed in grief, suicide, and suicide loss. They offered not only compassion but invaluable perspective and resources that helped me begin to make sense of what happened to my son and what was happening to me and my family. Through them, I saw, dimly, that healing was possible, though it felt remote and unreal at the time. 

In listening to and affirming one another, group participants normalized an experience that seemed so abnormal beyond that room. When I recounted an insensitive remark made by a relative, they were instantly appalled and protective on my behalf. When someone talked about not being able to go back to the house where the suicide occurred, everyone nodded. We shared our dread of holidays, anniversaries, packing up our loved one’s things, going back to work. We congratulated each other on every small step. For 90 minutes a week, we didn’t feel so crazy or alone.

In that group and others, I’ve especially appreciated: Bringing in pictures of our lost ones. Doing relaxation exercises and meditation together. Hearing inspiring readings about grief and healing to close each session. Lighting a candle for our shared losses. Hearing just the right words at just the right time. Turning all our care and attention to a new member who had just lost her brother and couldn’t stop crying. Exchanging hugs with strangers who are no longer strange.

I’ve struggled at times, too, with these groups. I didn’t meet as many other mourning moms as I had hoped. I got impatient with monopolizers and facilitators who didn’t stop them. In the early stages, it was disturbing to hear about some methods of suicide or types of mental illness, histories of suicide attempts and hospitalizations, severe abuse or family dysfunction. I was burdened enough with my own story and not always up to hearing another tragedy or letting in someone else’s bitterness and anger when it was out of sync with my feelings. So I tuned out for a while at some sessions. Fear of being overwhelmed with others’ troubles, along with fear of exposing their own, keeps some people away from support groups. I’m glad I persisted. 

It takes all kinds of support to move through the pain of suicide loss. I say, get as much support as you can from as many sources as possible! If you want to learn about support groups in your area, you can find listings here or here . Try a group a few times to give it a fair chance and allow yourself to get used to it. Many groups do pre-screening so you can talk with someone first before attending; they may advise you and your spouse or partner to attend separate groups, like my husband and I did. Groups meet weekly or monthly; some are led by trained volunteers, others by mental health professionals; some are open (drop-in) and ongoing, while others are closed and time-limited; some people attend for months, some for years. 

Your experience in a group will depend on the qualities of the facilitators and members, as well as your stage in the grief journey and your willingness to share, learn, and ally yourself with this “club no one wants to join.” I see joining a support group as another step in "coming out" as a survivor and chipping away at shame and stigma 

It's a privilege to meet people from all walks of life who share your pain and share their stories in a safe space, led by skilled facilitators.These fellow travelers can become your teachers, comforters, cheerleaders, and friends. 

With deep thanks to all the suicide loss survivors, facilitators, and organizations that make these support groups possible. To my fellow survivors: I’d love to hear about your experience with support groups—and if you haven’t tried one yet, may you find your way to a good one.

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