Support groups have become an important adjunct to the work of the medical and social support fields in addressing the needs of patients and families confronting the anguish of imminent death or the bereaved. Self-help groups provide a level of support that assists terminally ill individuals and their loved ones. Although some individuals need professional counseling and therapy, social support is a major element in coping effectively with life-threatening illness and bereavement.
The researchers Margaret and Wolfgang Stroebe suggest three areas in which support groups can be helpful. Groups can provide instrumental support; they offer help in dealing with practical matters such as funerals, household and personal needs, and even financial issues. They also can provide emotional support. In the case of the bereaved, they can encourage the work of grieving. They provide an appropriate place to retell the story as long as the griever needs to do so. Self-help groups give validation support; by participating in them, one discovers what is "normal" in grief and thus understands that one is dealing with the same issues that many others have dealt with in their grief.
Being part of a support group has social importance. It is a way for individuals to maintain social contact. Often bereaved individuals will avoid many of their friends and become socially isolated. Going to a support group meeting and interacting with other people is an important activity for them. In many cases, the groups develop into friendship networks that may continue long after the need for the support system is gone. Phyllis Silverman, who began the Widow-to-Widow program, considers the friendships formed as bridges between the past and the future. She believes that people with similar problems can help and learn from one another. Her program was the first of the peer-support groups for grievers and became the model for most other programs.
Psychologically the groups are helpful because they provide the outlet that grievers and individuals with life-threatening illness need, allowing people to freely express their feelings, fears, and dreams with others. The members of the group are ready and patient listeners. Seeing new members come into the group allows people to recognize the progress they have made. For new members, seeing others whose bereavement has been longer gives them an opportunity to see that one does move on in life.
Support groups take different forms. Some are time-limited, meeting only for a particular number of sessions. Others will go on indefinitely, with some people leaving the group and new people joining. Some support groups may have agendas that entail specific meetings in which a lawyer joins the group to talk about legal issues, a financial consultant talks about money management, and so on. Other groups rely solely on the participation of the group members. Groups are designed to be nonjudgmental and to not provide advice. Rather, they provide the opportunity for everyone to speak.
One of the early support groups for individuals facing life-threatening illness was Make Today Count, started by the journalist Orville Kelly in 1974. Many patients with life-threatening illnesses found themselves without people to talk to and share their feelings and experiences. Facilitators organize and get the meetings started, but the meeting itself belongs to the participants. Make Today Count chapters exist all over the United States.
In a similar fashion, numerous groups have developed to provide support to the bereaved. Perhaps the best known of these groups is Compassionate Friends. This organization assists families toward positive resolution of their grief following the death of a child. The organization has chapters nationally, most of which meet monthly.
Other well-known groups include Mothers Against Drunk Driving; Seasons, a suicide-survivor support group; and Parents of Murdered Children. In addition, most hospices provide support groups for both patients and families prior to a death and bereavement support groups after the death.
It is important to recognize that self-help support groups do not provide professional counseling. Rather, the support comes from the similarities between the experiences of the group members. Through the process of sharing, people can put their reactions into perspective. They have an opportunity to see how others have successfully dealt with many of the same issues they are facing.
Corr, Charles A., Clyde M. Nabe, and Donna M. Corr. Death and Dying, Life and Living, 3rd edition. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2000.
Kelly, Orville. Make Today Count. New York: Delacorte Press, 1975.
Silverman, Phyllis R. "The Widow-to-Widow Program: An Experiment in Preventive Intervention." Mental Hygiene 53 (1969):333–337.
Stroebe, Margaret S., and Wolfgang Stroebe. Bereavement and Health. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
DANA G. CABLE
See W IDOW - BURNING .