[Start at Part 1 and read an important notice]
I hope I've convinced you to reach out and find some peers. It can be a major pain in the ass to find a support group, because we're so rare, and as I said in part 1 of this series, just any old group may not be a good fit for you.
I'll go through the steps I've used in finding groups for folks outside my area. Then, I'll talk about some alternatives if you can't find an organized support group that meets your needs.
Another important note: Joining any new group is stressful, and things can get pretty intense among grieving people. I was advised to attend group for 2 or even 3 sessions even if I didn't like my initial visit. I'm not saying that every group is perfect for every person, only that it might be better if you don't decide based on only one impression. (Particularly if different people show up each week, as they did in my group).
(1) Work your Google, baby. I’ve had luck with “Young widows groups,” “bereavement groups,” “grief support,” plus city name, state name, region name (like, “Central PA” or “MD Panhandle”) or zipcode [or "near" zipcode].
Look at, or better, call the social workers at hospice organizations or the chaplains at hospitals. Even if they don't offer what you're looking for, they may know what similar organizations are doing. Very important: most hospice organizations offer excellent grief support groups. In most cases, you do NOT need to have used that organization (or hospice at all) to receive this support, and it's usually free. Don't be afraid of the word Hospice. These organizations have been helping people like you for years, and before the Internet, and they can be pretty terrific.
We are a small and dispersed population and appropriate services are hard to find. You may have to travel. It may be worth it.
(2) Don’t sweat the details. From what I’ve seen and heard, age and parenting status seem to be the main indicator of how well a group will connect. (In my experience, widows and widowers as old as 55 may share many of the above factors with “young widows and widowers,” but may face resistance joining a younger group.) While every grief, every situation, every widow and widower is unique, the following differences did NOT seem to affect how well my group jelled:
-- Whether the death was "anticipated," sudden, or slow
-- Formality of relationship: married, engaged, otherwise securely partnered
-- Sex. Yes, men experience grief differently, but the widowers in my group seemed to get a lot out of it. (They’ll always be outnumbered: in a small population, there’s still just 1 young widower for every 7 young widows).
-- Amount of time lapsed since loss
-- Religious, ethnic, or cultural background (unless the group leadership shows a preference)
-- Personality type: if there’s a mixture of types, there’s more room for you.
(3) Religion can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, pastoral counseling and church communities are the backbone of support for people and families in crisis, if they were members of those communities before their loss. I found my interfaith community an endless source of hugs, appropriate sharing, ideas, and activities as well as support for my needs as a parent. And I made new friends, as well as easy paths to help others in need (which was really, really helpful in my “recovery”).
If you don’t belong to a religious tradition (or don’t like the one you’ve been with) you might try visiting a Unitarian Universalist or Quaker meeting to find if this “time aside,” contemplation, or community are restorative. These faith traditions generally welcome folks with any "creed" (set of beliefs) or none (atheists, humanists, agnostics).
But I’ve also heard of diverse Christian church support groups that simply offer Jesus as the solution to all grief needs. And for many of us -- even those who have always considered themselves faithful -- that just doesn’t work during a crisis like the loss of a spouse. Religious leaders may not have training in complicated grief, and you may feel judged by the community (even if it’s just your own baggage). Church friends -- even familiar faces -- don’t always create the most accepting environment for talking about the complex and often ugly feelings brought up in grief.
I know a lot of people who said they felt “let down” by God after loss. Platitudes about heaven or God's purpose rank high on every list I've ever seen of "annoying things people say after a death." Many widows and widowers are willing to look pretty much anywhere else for kinship.
(4) Don’t expect the group to be your only lifeline. If you need therapy or individual grief counseling, and if you can get it, DO.
(5) If you can’t find a formal support group, you may be able to find a meetup, Tweetup, or get together of some other kind. In my area, there is a county group that gets together once a month for dinner at a restaurant, and a regional group that meets “somewhere fun” every few months. To find them, I had to go to group to meet other people.
All right, Supa, I looked. There’s zero, zip, zilch, nada for me. I’m alone.
Don’t start eating worms just yet.
(1) Rustle the bushes just a bit and see if you can find a few special people near you. Ask around. Read the obituaries and write letters to people whose stories you identify with. (Yes, I have done this on Facebook. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. They’re looking, too).
(2) You may be able to organize a peer group in your area. I can guarantee you that folks with complicated grief will come out of the woodwork if you stomp your feet a bit.
(3) “Widow Match,” offered by the folks at Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, sets you up with a peer for e-mail or phone communications. If you don't find the relationship (which is voluntary and unmediated) satisfying, you can apply for a second match. Again, sometimes it takes a while to get comfortable.
(4) Go online. In person support is awesome but the fact is, many people just never make it to an appropriate group. You should still find some peers to connect and share with! I created Widowed Village as an outgrowth of a community that grew up around me on Facebook a few years ago. We've grown to more than 2,000 people (as of August 2012).
Widowed Village welcomes men and women of all ages, of all faiths and traditions, gay and straight, those who were married and those who weren't, any amount of time after your loss, and with any parenting status. We have MANY people in their first few weeks and months. The site is public; check it out and see if it sounds like a good place for you. We are the only online community for widowed people that checks that applicants are actually widowed, so please allow us a little time to process your membership. Widowed Village is run by Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation (SSLF), a non profit organization, and it is always free. We are also the only organization with both online and in-person programs. Read more at CampWidow.org and SSLF.org.
(5) Consider contacting a grief counselor. I’m “online friends” with several very knowledgeable grief counselors who were widowed themselves, and some offer very useful resources on their blogs and websites. Many work with people over the phone, sometimes in groups, or on specific topics like beginning to date again. I don't have experience working with any of them, but they are everywhere, so try it out if it calls to you!
I hope this is helpful. Please let me know what you think, or send questions in a comment or DM.
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