Friends in Grief, Support Groups and Social Meet Ups:
One Social Modality I want to support and talk about here in some detail is something I and a group of “friends in grief” have been building and sharing for over two years.
The local hospice that helped us in the final months of my wife’s illness also had a very well organized and wide ranging set of grief programs including individual counseling and support groups for various grief situations. I began attending their bereavement support group for spouses and partners about a month into my bereavement. I went very hesitatingly, not expecting much but feeling I had better try something to help me to not feel like I was so alone or that I was “going crazy” with all the things going through my mind. I want to acknowledge this wonderful organization for all they did for me and a large number of people in our local communities. The organization is Pathways for Grief and Loss in Fort Collins, Colorado and they have my unending support for the good work they do and the hope and healing they provide during some very difficult times in our lives.
In the end, this group turned out to be one of the most important parts of my grief journey. I heard a lot of things I needed to hear and because the group was made up of people in all stages of their own grief journeys, I got many different perspectives along the time line of grief to think about and use to help me grow and learn. Our once-a-month meetings also gave me a sounding board for my own ideas and the things I was learning on my own and so there was a lot of validation and evaluation I could get and then do in the weeks between meetings. One of the more important parts was listening to some of the people who were years into their grief talking of how it had changed through time and that the intensity I was feeling was part of the “early grief” stage and that there were other, less intense parts of the journey ahead that would not be nearly so debilitating as I was finding the early parts.
Much of what I’m writing and speaking about throughout this blog has its roots and its origin in those meetings. Many of the topics the meetings discussed are mirrored here and I am grateful for the model they provided for my thinking during my bereavement and in the creation of this project.
Near the end of my first year of attending the group, someone suggested we try to begin getting together outside of the formal meetings and have a potluck at peoples houses once a month. Another questionable start for me, I wasn’t sure I was ready to socialize yet when I was still crying every time the waves hit me but I agreed to participate and for the next year, one Sunday a month, we found someone willing to host and then we would gather at their house and spend a couple of hours eating and talking and getting to know each other. We had lots of tissues and lots of hugs for when anyone got caught up in their grief and needed some comfort and through it all, we learned that sharing our grief and being with people who understood what we were going through, who “got it”, was a very healing activity.
And an unexpected consequence of the process of both the support group and the potlucks was that we were becoming what I’ve come to think of as “friends in grief”. In the normal course of our lives we often take many months and years in the making of friends in the various places we meet people. It takes time in the short conversations we share to build commonality and shared experiences and open up about our thoughts and feelings until, gradually, we become friends.
In our support group sessions, however, we often very quickly began to share very deep and personal and often intense parts of ourselves and through that we learned in a relatively short time a lot about each other, we compressed perhaps years of getting to know one another into a very short time. And surprisingly to me, when we started meeting in a social environment, the pathway to friendship was accelerated by both our common grief experiences and by the opening up of ourselves we had done and experienced in the support group. I suspect there was also a very strong need for friends in all of us as old relationships and friendships began to slip away for all the reasons I have written about earlier.
So after a year or so, what began as a small group of 6-7 people began to grow as we invited more and more people to join us to expand on the support group experience. We have grown to as many as 30 people at times and before we became unable to gather in person, we’d ended up moving our potlucks to a local wine bar that allowed us to take over their space on that one Sunday a month.
From talking to people in the group and from my own feelings, it appears that the socialization of these get togethers has been in its own way as large a part of our continued healing as the support group was in the early parts. It has been a very definite growth and moving forward for all of us who continue to meet once a month.
And it turned out that wasn’t all of it. After a while, we tried going out as a group to a wine bar or a restaurant that was quiet enough for us to still be able to visit and talk on first a one evening a month basis and then before the pandemic stopped us, it became two evenings a month. After we could no longer meet in person, we moved our get togethers to a video conference meet up and had “ virtual happy hour” get togethers on Friday early evening and surprisingly had much of the same conversational and social enjoyment we had in person, just without the hugs…
Now that we are able to meet in person again, we have found a local winery with a large outdoor space where we can get together, keep our social distances and we now meet once a week to continue the growth of our friendships and to enjoy the on going conversation (and the wine).
I highly recommend anyone who is part of any type of bereavement group to try to duplicate our successful move to socialization and out of the isolation that our grief can brings us. The hardest part at the start seems to be finding someone who wants to organize, coordinate and gather a group together. Once we had a “facilitator” and a list of people and their email contacts created, it got much easier, the hardest part at the beginning was finding people to host each month without imposing on the same one or two people each time. As long as everyone was willing to take their turn, I found organizing it to be a very doable thing. When the group got to be too large to allow us to meet at someones home, we were able to try a number of different venues around town until we found a place we were comfortable and most importantly, where we could talk in a relatively quiet environment. While the weather is nice and we can be outside, a large outside venue is working well for our get togethers. I guess we will deal with whatever the changing situation requires us to do as it happens and as it gets cooler here in Colorado, we will have to try to find another inside location that is safe and comfortable for us to meet at.
When and How Should Socializing Begin:
Just a short general note here that socializing, like so many other parts of our grief journeys, happens at a different point and at a different rate for each of us. We each come to a place when we feel the need to have other people in our lives, when we want some company and a chance to interact. Most of the conversations I’ve had suggest that it is best to go slowly, to not immediately or right at first jump into “high intensity” situations like bars and clubs and singles meet up groups. Although as always, if that’s what you feel you want or need, perhaps because its something you remember from before you entered your marriage, then absolutely you should try it.
But going slowly and meeting people in a “low energy” and not an emotionally charged environment seems to have a benefit of allowing you to actually get to know and be around people for itself, for the social aspects of making new friends perhaps and not as a coverup of our feelings of grief. Our social pot luck and “wine bar” group bridged the gap between our isolation and finding a gentle way to edge back into socializing that I highly recommend and urge groups of like minded widows and widowers to try in their communities.