, Gloucester, MA

August 23, 2013

Working through grief in a support group

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — “I feel like I’m going crazy or having a bad dream that continues every day. Some days I can barely get out of bed.”

The middle-aged woman sitting across from me is not crazy or dreaming. She is in the debilitating grip of grief for her dead husband.

Few people are prepared for the experience of grieving. The death of a loved one is often an unexpected and traumatic event. And the grief that follows a death can be just as traumatic. Although grief is a normal and appropriate reaction to death, it is a powerful human experience involving, not just emotional impact, but mental and physical effects as well.

For many, a grief support group can be very helpful. With the gentle guidance of a trained grief counselor, and with the support of others who are grieving, those coping with the death of a loved one can learn to work through their grief by learning healthy and constructive coping strategies.

Through a grief support group (and in individual counseling if you feel too uncomfortable about sharing your inner thoughts and feelings with others) you will learn about the debilitating effects of grief-related stress on the immune system. You discover that many physical changes, for example: fatigue, loss of appetite, body aches, and even skin rashes and shortness of breath, are not uncommon.

You will learn that no, you are not losing your mind. You are stricken with grief. And, your anger, poor concentration, feelings of helplessness, and inability to make decisions are all generated by the fact that both your mind and body systems are on ‘overload’ from the shock of the death.

One of the best means to begin to heal this shock to your system is to talk about it.

A grief support group gives you the opportunity to talk among caring others who are undergoing the same difficult process, and who will truly listen to whatever you need to say. Expressing anger about a loved one’s death is often the most difficult, but it is crucial to the healing process. Most people suffer varying degrees of anger over the deep loss: “How dare he leave me alone to live the rest of my life!” “How could she leave me with young children to raise on my own!” “He (or she) should have taken better care of himself! How selfish of him!” “Why is this happening to me now?” “This is not fair!!” “I’m a good person. I don’t deserve this terrible loss — she was my whole life.”

By sharing your feelings, even the ones you don’t like, you will become more in touch with all your true emotions — not just the most socially “acceptable” ones — which is the first major step in the healing process. You will learn that many others in the group experience the very same feelings of anger, sadness, deep loss, emptiness, and fear of what lies ahead, and that there is no shame in these feelings. Feelings are not right or wrong, good or bad. All of these, and any other feelings, are the human response to losing someone you love, and need to be honored by expressing them in a caring environment.

A support group can also help with another major step in the healing process: beginning to face the realities of your new life. In group sessions you may talk about handling the disposition of your loved one’s possessions, learn the best means of dealing with holidays and first year birthday and other anniversaries, and finding ways to cope with everyday feelings of loneliness.

Overall, a grief support group can help you feel less alone as you move through the grieving and healing process — denial, anger, depression, acceptance, healing and growth. It is important not to become emotionally “stuck,” especially in the anger and depression stages. In the supportive environment of the group you can gradually heal as you redefine yourself and your future.

Grief support groups are often offered through hospitals, religious organizations, social service agencies, senior centers, YMCAs or YWCAs, and by some private practice counseling clinicians.

Based in Rockport, psychotherapist and life coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at or 978-546-9431.