The morning after my first session of a grief support group.
I had wanted to stay at home in bed all day, but I couldn’t. I had two children to take to school and a paycheck to earn. I had awakened that morning with a horrible headache, a dark depression and a deep despair that was worse than I had ever experienced.
Forget that stupid grief support group last night. I am not going back. I had expected these “group people” to make me feel better, but instead I was disappointed and angry the next day. Sitting in my office nearly twelve hours post group, I felt twice as bad as I did before entering that circle of mourners agonizing over their losses.
My supervisor popped into my office doorway, smiled and asked, “How was the support group last night?” I thanked him again for referring me to the group. Then I explained how the group that he had suggested was one of the worst experiences of my life. I told him in detail how bad I felt and how this group was just not for me. I am not proud to say that in my emotional state then I may have included a few expletives deleted to define and punctuate my rage and disgust. Years later I understand that under all that anger were my fears and feelings of hopelessness.
You have to understand my boss was two things: an encourager and an eternal optimist. My grief temper tantrum that morning was not going to dissuade him from being present to comfort me in my pain. He hung in there even in the face of my furious protests of how my life was deteriorating after the deaths of my wife and daughter.
I can say the following statement because I have been and still am a person in grief. People going through grief are some of the most difficult people to support and help. Many mourners early in grief are not able to hear or accept comfort due to the unspeakable pain they endure. Thank goodness there are people like my old boss who did not take my rejection and berating of his attempts to help me as personal attacks.
Calmly my supervisor told me that maybe the group was not for me, but that I needed to give the sessions a chance to work. “Of course, you hurt this morning, “ he said, “ Last night for the first time since your accident you exposed feelings and emotional wounds that need to be addressed. When you hurt in grief, the pain experienced shows that you are beginning to heal.”
I hated to admit that what my boss said made sense. As I sat in silence and in the sadness enveloping me, he asked that I go to at least two more sessions before giving up on the group. I did. After completing the six week group, I attended two more grief support groups in the area. My supervisor had been right. I needed to acknowledge and sort out the painful emotions of my grief in order to start healing. Obviously the grief support groups worked for me. For the last twelve years I have facilitated similar grief support groups and witnessed hundreds of mourners start healing by acknowledging and expressing their pain.
How many mourners have started their grief journey only to stop when the process of dealing with grief thoughts, experiences and emotions becomes too painful? Would they have continued their progress toward healing in grief if they had only had someone there to cheer them on? Would they have stayed the course of their grief journey if they had known that hope and healing were just around the corner and within reach?
Mourners who choose to avoid grief are paralyzed by the pain of the moment. They give into the myths of our Western culture that pain of any kind is unacceptable at any level and at any time. They truly believe that they should never hurt. When the going gets difficult and painful and there is any possible escape, they give up and bolt.
One sweet woman who had come to the first session of a grief support group that I was facilitating stood up just minutes into the meeting and declared, “This is just too painful!” She darted from the room and was in the parking lot starting her car before any of the stunned members of the group could respond. No one could comprehend what had motivated such a sudden, extraordinary reaction. All that I had done before her abrupt departure was to welcome and congratulate the participants for being brave enough to show up.
This sudden, painful exit proves that Sigmund Freud was right. Freud said that people run toward pleasure and run away from pain. I think Freud’s statement is definitely a no brainer, but I will give him credit for stating the obvious. No person seeks out pain; they avoid it at all costs. Most mourners use the same tactics when pain looms ahead in their grief journey. They run from pain, avoid pain and deny pain.
Pain serves a purpose. Physical pain protects the person by signaling that something is wrong and needs to be addressed now. Emotional pain in grief does the same for the mourner. Pain seeks to protect the mourner’s well being and emotional safety by indicating that some aspect of the person needs attention and special care. Pain in grief is also a signal that mental, emotional and spiritual healing have begun.