When Distress Seeps into Your Life, Support Groups Can be a Lifeline


When difficulty has entered our lives, we each learned there can be safety and support in numbers. We each found a support group to help us cope with our distress and teach us invaluable lessons.

You’ve probably seen support groups on TV with members sharing their challenges, from addition of drugs or alcohol to dementia and loss of a partner, spouse, parent or child through death or divorce. Everybody promises not to reveal names and scenarios outside the room.  Why it can work is that the support group becomes a circle of folks with the same concerns who offer one another encouragement and comfort by sharing their very personal stories.

Support groups usually come in three flavors and are either virtual, in person or both: 12-step programs that are free or low cost and take a spiritual approach. There are mutual support groups that are conversational and free. A facilitator is typically in charge. Or there’s group therapy based on a therapeutic model and headed by a mental health professional with a charge required.

If you are dealing with an issue whether a disease, gender identity issues, addiction problems, grief over loss of a loved one or any number of challenges, a group might be one step to take to heal. It offers the feeling of belonging, being part of a community that’s a safe place, where you can learn how to cope with others in the same situation and share experiences. Feeling isolated and alone as if you are the only person with a particular problem is detrimental to your physical and mental health. And that sadness can have a ripple effect on your other family members and other relationships.

The good news is that there are hundreds of support groups; the bad news is that success usually depends on the member’s attitude to listen and share, on the other members and the experience of the leader if one is present. The size of the group can also make a difference, as can whether it’s in person or virtual.

After her husband died, Margaret joined a grief support group recommended by a grief counselor to help her heal. Barbara joined an Alzheimer’s support group when her father was diagnosed with the illness since her mother didn’t want to; There were few good books to read at the time about the disease, and she craved information. In a support group, Barbara thought she would pick up tips and could share them with her mother. For each of us, doing so helped fill the emptiness and offered a safe place to spill whatever emotions we were feeling.

Those in the support group were allies and going through the same range of emotions. Both of us needed feedback from others going through exactly what we were experiencing. Through the dynamics of these groups, and the fast track to intimacy and friendship, we connected with those in these groups on a level we hadn’t experienced before and made some strong, lasting friendships.

Margaret recalls her hesitancy about attending the grief support group about six months after her husband’s death. It was around 7 p.m. on a chilly fall evening when she arrived to join the group. She was nervous. She didn’t know anyone. She chose a seat around a long rectangular table in a stark high-ceilinged room in a hospital annex building. There were 10 members each of whom had lost a spouse or partner. A facilitator sat at the head of the table and began asking leading questions: “Margaret, would you like to tell us something about your late spouse and how he died?” This was repeated nine times.

Everyone had a story to tell—some partners had died suddenly and others of a protracted illness. One young woman talked about her husband’s suicide. On some level, it felt liberating to share. Margaret hadn’t really talked much about her late husband with anyone up to that point. All members bared their pain; it was okay to lose control and cry. What was said there stayed there. These were among the rules and there were a few others such as being mindful of others--no judging, no interrupting, no criticizing someone’s feelings or ideas, no advice. Listen and hopefully learn.

It is because of these strangers with their incredible stories, sadness and warmth, that she began to heal. After several months, meeting one night a week, each member in their own way, was moved by the sparks of possibilities ahead. Members came to accept that life would never be the same. After about a year, Margaret was able to move on but kept up many of the deep friendships she had made in the group.

Barbara found her support group through the Alzheimer’s Association, which cited a few local possibilities. For her it was an eye opener to learn what might occur in the future as her father’s disease progressed. She heard stories of parents and spouses wandering, waking up at night, not recognizing loved ones, becoming belligerent and verbally and physically abusive. Members talked about hiring aides or having to find a facility that could manage care on a part- or full-time basis.

The group gelled so well that a few years later when everyone’s family member or friend had died, they got together to remember their loved ones and share joy in other parts of their lives. But one reason for the success of the group was a compassionate smart leader who had experienced her own grief over her father’s illness. She also encouraged every member to talk. Because of the help it provided her, Barbara urged her mom to try one near her home. She did but quickly dropped out; she wasn’t ready to share her sorrow with strangers.

If you can open yourself to the idea of healing with like-minded others, you may find that in a support group momentum builds and helps bolster you in the long run. Here’s the catch…how do you find a group that’s right for you? Here are some tips.  

--Ask a professional for their suggestions whether a medical doctor or a therapist/social worker, go online and Google the challenge at hand, adding in support groups to locate one, find books on the topic you’d like to address that might list groups or tap into a national organization that might have recommendations.

--Check out the organization sponsoring the group, whether it is a hospital, a non-profit or whoever. Make sure it’s legit.

--Look for reviews and read testimonials about the group usually found online, but not always.

--Email the organization, the facilitator or call the helpline and ask if they think you’ll fit in—the mix of people such as their ages, problems they’re facing and whatever you think is applicable can make a difference.

--Attend a couple of meetings to see if it’s a fit. Start with a newcomer’s group. If virtual, go on early and give a summary of why you’re interested in the group. Ask questions if you have them.

--Once you recognize the group for you, focus on listening to the others’ ideas, gleaning strategies and forming friendships as an additional support.

--Shift your thinking from victim to a more positive stand—life beyond. Pat yourself on the back for being courageous in joining the group and facing your problems head on.

--If you don’t feel a connection to the group after a session or two, it’s okay to drop out and find another group or other sources of healing whether at church or temple/synagogue, by going for individual therapy or doing lots of reading about what’s distressing you.

--If you join, be forward thinking if you can. It’s important to move beyond the problem and not let it define you and become part of every conversation. Many friends and even other family members may care in the beginning but will stop wanting to hear your woes. The support group remains the safe place to share, however.

Most of all, never give up hope!


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