In our almost 20 years of working with grieving families at the Children’s Bereavement Center (CBC), while often bearing witness to great tragedy, we have also watched children and adults adjust to loss. Families have found renewed hope, resilience and, often, a new purpose.
The CBC’s free grief group experience provides children and adults with the opportunity to not only survive the loss of a loved one, but also thrive in its aftermath.
The power of the group enforces a common bond that traditionally has served as a buffer through challenging times. Consider that, 100 years ago, most people lived their entire lives in small villages, towns or neighborhoods. Family, neighbors, and friends all suffered their losses together. Today, much of that has changed, with family members living in isolation, and with less opportunity for such vital connections. The CBC, www.childbereavement.org, provides peer support groups to children, families and younger and older adults.
From their very first session, CBC participants identify with their peers through their common bond of loss. That bond enables children (grouped by age) and adults (parents, family members and caregivers) to connect, regardless of cultural or socioeconomic differences. Death becomes the great equalizer.
Peer group support, although not therapy, can be extremely therapeutic. It offers the opportunity to gain perspective on one’s loss, affording an experience that may be difficult to create in one-on-one therapy. The CBC model of integrating new participants into the groups monthly let participants recall how they experienced their loss early on, and realize the changes they have made over time.
Similarly, participants who have been in group for only a few months may look to those who have been there longer and recognize their further adjustments, despite the challenges of their losses. The gift of perspective helps to create hope and a vision of life in the future.
Group participants, along with experienced CBC facilitators, share concerns and exchange information each week. This exchange helps to normalize the grief experience. For many, the intensity of grief may make them feel like they are out of control, and many interpret this reaction as abnormal. But hearing that others have endured such pain — that their peers have also felt diminished and less capable by loss — becomes reassuring. Suggestions and advice by group members may resonate or be ignored, but the interest, compassion, acceptance, and validation of one’s grief is comforting and, ultimately, appreciated.
One common activity for the group is sharing rituals and memorializing the loved one who died. Participants plan how to recognize the most challenging times of the year — in particular, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Addressing the “elephant in the room” and formulating a plan reduce the fear and anxiety of difficult days. Ritualization offers a vehicle with which to focus these energies and remain bonded to the deceased. And the encouragement of the group enables families to adapt their rituals to provide comfort, connection, and renewal.
As the group becomes a familiar and safe place, participants learn to process difficult emotions, such as guilt, anger, fear and blame. The acts of telling and retelling one’s story, of practicing the phrasing and of having others bear witness create a narrative that may evolve into self-awareness, self-acceptance and positive growth.
Finally, empathy that evolves from peer group support often enables participants to notice their own strength and endurance. Guidance, understanding and encouragement, as well as truly listening to one another, are reassuring for the one being cared for and the person offering support. Caregivers recognize their new resilience and reconstruct their lives with purpose, meaning, and fresh possibilities.
For many of our participants, giving back to others who are suffering a loss becomes their new purpose, and one that creates an enduring legacy in memory of their deceased loved one. Some stay after they complete group, others come back when they are old enough to volunteer, and still others return after college. Our past participants become volunteers, facilitators, and board members. Their commitment to the CBC underscores the power of the group.
Mindy Cassel is co-founder and senior clinical and program adviser of the Children’s Bereavement Center in Miami.