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What is a bereavement support group?

By Alice Wilson, Counsellor

I’m a counsellor here at St Barnabas House and, in addition to offering one-to-one support sessions, I facilitate our Connections bereavement support group. Connections aims to bring together people who are isolated in their grief. It is open to anyone over the age of 18 who has lost someone at St Barnabas, whether that be a parent, a partner, a son, a daughter, or a friend.

My goal with the group is to create a safe space where people can forge connections, share their stories without judgement, build a community, and realise that they are not alone in their grief. The idea is to provide a setting where individuals feel safe enough to talk about how they are truly feeling. They can take off the mask and be real with each other, which can be deeply healing.

Grief is a certainty in life – one of the few things we know we will all experience. Yet, in our culture, it remains a taboo subject, and many of us lack the confidence to talk about it frankly. People often struggle to talk to those who are grieving; perhaps they are worried about saying the wrong thing, leading them to avoid the conversation altogether. This avoidance, I believe, can be particularly painful. As a result, people may suffer in silence which – for someone who is already suffering – can be a very isolating experience.

Creating a community

People join Connections at different stages in their bereavement journey, usually from three months onwards. Before that, grief is usually very acute, and we find that accessing support through friends and family or one-to-one sessions is more beneficial. Sometimes, individuals join us after six months, a year, or even several years after a bereavement. In Connections, we find that it can be very helpful for members to talk to others at different stages, both to see how far they have come themselves and to give them hope for the future.

One thing I have seen many times is members benefitting from seeing things from another point of view. Recently, a woman grieving her partner shared that a bereaved son in her group had helped her understand her own son’s grief. Likewise, he mentioned that talking to her had helped him consider his own mum and how she was coping. There was a real understanding: they had both taken their own pain and helped each other understand a different perspective.

I have seen other members of the group offer empathy and compassion to each other. Hearing someone vocalise their own pain and grief so openly, and being received with such kindness and understanding from others, can make a huge difference to someone’s experience with grief and ultimately support their resilience and hope.

Stronger together

The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom identified 11 therapeutic factors for group therapy. One of them is universality, which helps group members realise they are not alone in what they are facing. They see that others are willing to help them, which ends their feelings of isolation and can be profoundly healing. We hope that by coming together, people will learn from each other different ways to help themselves. They might also feel inspired by each other – if you’re someone who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing emotion, watching someone being open enough to sit in a circle and cry can be so powerful.

Recently, a woman in the group was talking about the energy she felt in the room. She said something like “All of you cared so much for your loved ones and I know you don’t feel strong, but I recognise the strength in you.” That was so beautiful to witness, and everyone left feeling a bit better about themselves.

Equally, the act of offering each other support allows members of the group to experience a sense of significance. They realise that, through their own experience of grief, they have a unique understanding and something incredibly valuable to offer other group members.

Time to grieve

The course runs over six sessions, with each one following a different theme. The group lasts for an hour and a half, and the idea is that we speak about whatever feels most pressing for the group. However, we introduce a theme each week that we can explore if it resonates with and benefits the group. Each theme presents unique creative exercises. In one of my favourite exercises, we present the group with a huge selection of plastic animals. During this exercise, participants are asked to choose the one that best represents the person they’ve lost. Their choice might be influenced by something as simple as a love for dogs, or they might choose a lion to represent the person’s bravery. Everyone takes turns introducing that person with their chosen animal and then showing the group their loved one’s photograph. It’s a beautiful exercise because people don’t often get to talk in depth about the person they’ve lost. Suddenly, they have the time and support from others to discuss in depth the person they are grieving— who they were and what they loved about them.

The ties that bind

Although the course only runs for six weeks, the nature of our discussions means that intimacy builds quite quickly. Ideally, we hope people will continue supporting each other even after they stop coming to sessions, and we have heard of many groups staying in contact.

At the final session, I like to finish with a symbolic exercise where we pass around a ball of wool. Participants wrap the thread around their wrist while they share a recollection from our time together. It creates a giant web in the middle of the circle, symbolising the connection they have and what they’ve given each other throughout the last six weeks. Then, I go around and cut it, and everyone is left with their own bracelet. It’s quite an emotional experience.

Finally, every member of the group adds a thumbprint to a canvas. This canvas has been filled with thumbprints from all the previous groups, serving as a reminder that, although we were just one group, there have been many others who have been through Connections. They are part of a much wider community, and although grief is a unique journey, they really are not alone.

Supporting you

Connections is available to anyone grieving a loved one who received care from St Barnabas. To find out more, contact the Patient and Family Support Services team.

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Resources that could help you if you’re bereaved

If you’re not able to access our bereavement services, there’s lots of other specialist supportive charities and organisations that you can also approach for help: