[Important notice: I'm not a professional. I have ZERO background in social work, psychotherapy, or sociology. My widow wisdom was earned "on the street," not from books. I've been there, I came out the other side, but my friendship and words can't substitute for formal counseling. Many young widows and widowers suffer from depression in addition to grief, and some of us "self-medicate" with substances. If this is you, no amount of comradeship is going to get you out of the hole unless you receive support on these (medical!) issues too. I give what I can because this shit is hard and we all need as much help as we can get. Got? Good.]
The number one factor in my healing from the loss of my husband was my weekly attendance at a free, peer-run, open-format support group specifically for people around my age who had lost a spouse. So I tell everyone to do it. My group saved my sanity, my life, and my child’s life.
But I know people who “don’t do” groups. I hear so much resistance - and I’ve heard stories about bad experiences.
The bad stories I’ve heard about groups have been, almost without exception, the result of bad fit: people going to a group with people they simply couldn't relate to. They come to me saying: “There was an 80-year-old woman grieving the loss of her cat.” “I felt like I was being rushed, one week for each stage of grief!” “None of them were working or raising kids. They were all retired.” It helps a lot if you and the people in your group are at a similar stage in life... it's not necessary, and you shouldn't expect them all to be people you love instantly or even similar to your other friends. But having shared priorities, spending your time in similar ways, helps you feel among your peers.
It shouldn't matter, experts will tell you. There is a truism that "all grief is the same." In a way, this is true. But it doesn't matter: grief is also not the only thing in your life and not the only thing you will talk about. I would not have been able to stand my group if it had been all grief education, all sharing of tears, all Kleenex-all-the-time. No one wants to attend a pity party and fewer really wish to host one.
A good group, though, is not strictly a "grief group." You talk about your lives, your feelings (which are contradictory and rich in grief, as they are at many other times in life), your memories, and your dreams of the future. You talk about your communities and your faith and all the changes in you and around you. It's not simple. It's not boring. It's who you are.
Don't let anyone cut your group down to a place where the “five stages of grief” is the only acceptable topic. That can be helpful, but you will still be a widow when you are at work, watching a movie, and when you start to consider what happens next in your life. Grief isn't simple, and neither is your life.
And finding a group of diverse people who "get" at least a little bit of your experience and your feelings is a good start to getting a grip on what you'd like to do next. Seeing them in person -- being in a room together -- is an immensely powerful force and one that Facebook cannot provide. There are ways -- I'm sure you can imagine! -- that connecting with two or three people can be much more meaningful than connecting with hundreds. You need rich data. You need real life. You need some people near you to hand you the Kleenex.
And once in a while, it's awesome to get out of the house.
In Part 2, I’ll share with you the “top 10 ways my young widows support group helped me.”
In Part 3, I’ll help you find a young widows support group – or another way to reach peers in grief.