by Catherine Ryan
The Bethany Bereavement Support Group (originally known as the Bethany Support Group) was set up in Dublin in 1984, to provide a listening and support service to people who were bereaved and grieving for any loss. Parish based groups have been established throughout the Dublin area and offer support through their group meetings, over the telephone or on an individual basis. It is a voluntary group and the service is available to persons of all age groups on an inter- and non-denominational basis.
Loss is a natural part of life. Grief is a natural response to loss and is experienced by the whole person – physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. According to recent research, reactions to serious loss are numbness, distress and recovery. Colin Murray Parkes who has carried out much research on bereavement has set out a normal process of grief as:
1. THE IMMEDIATE SYMPTOMS OF SHOCK – This includes numbness, feelings of unreality or depersonalisation, confusion, bewilderment, fear and panic, acute episodic pangs of grief and severe bodily and mental pain.
2. THE PHASE OF YEARNING AND SEARCHING – This can be the longest phase with pining and longing for the lost one and feelings of emptiness. Within this phase there are two sub-phases:
a) FLIGHT, WITHDRAWAL, APATHY – Distancing the pain in order to cope, repression of all feelings as a way to deny the loss and
b) ANGER AND PROTEST – Between episodic outbursts there are intervals of depression. There may be guilt and self-reproach and a need to blame someone. Memories arouse “bitter-sweet” recollections.
3. THE PHASE OF MITIGATION – Illusions of feeling the presence of the deceased, adjusting to the change, giving meaning to the death, severing the link with the deceased and spasmodic experiences of true joy of recollections.
4. THE GRADUAL GAINING OF A NEW IDENTITY – Possibly the most difficult phase – adopting new roles, a new identity without the deceased.
The popularly known stages as set out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages of grief are not orderly but alternate and intermingle. Each person’s grieving is always individual and unique. It is the process by which we adapt to our changed circumstances. Failure to work through grief results in deeper personal and relational difficulties including physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual suffering.
Grief is not an illness. “It is a normal human healing process for which most people have adequate resources – resources that they can be helped to mobilise by pastoral caring.”1 It was for this reason that the Bethany Bereavement Support Group was set up.
Usually the bereaved person has support at the time of the death and funeral. But often after the funeral, because of societal expectations in a death denying culture, the reduction of support from extended family and community, the fact that close family members are also grieving, or for whatever reason, bereaved people can feel unsupported, isolated and unable to grieve.
Normally, volunteers are selected from among those who have themselves been bereaved. Training in basic listening skills and bereavement support is given at a central location by qualified personnel and further training is available to parish groups who have been in existence for some time.
The group aims to provide a place where the bereaved person can grieve, where they can tell their story time and again as they try to realise or make sense of their loss, where they can feel valued and appreciated as they are and where they are accepted and understood in their own right without judgement or advice. It is in this environment that a caring, trusting relationship can be established which enables the bereaved person to experience and express the myriad feelings and attitudes which may otherwise be denied or buried, thus mobilising their own inner resources.
The group offers support, not therapy; support in the sense of staying sensitively and caringly with the bereaved person as they explore and work through the reality of their loss, their fears, their ambivalent feelings, their irrational or real guilt and any unfinished business which they may have with the deceased. The bereaved person needs someone who can be there with them to hear their pain, to facilitate their grief, to encourage and empower them through what may be a slow and painful journey into a new life without the deceased.
Bereaved persons can choose to be seen individually or, if they wish, they can choose to attend a group setting where once again they can speak to a volunteer on a one to one basis whilst at the same time having the benefit of meeting other people who are also grieving. In my opinion there can be great opportunities for healing in such encounters and may be the first move in relating to others independently of the deceased. Confidentiality is, of course, of the utmost importance and in my experience the atmosphere created by volunteers is warm and informal.
The group with which I was associated meets once a month for approximately two hours. Anyone is free to drop in without prior arrangement and may continue to attend for as long as they choose. The meeting begins with a cup of tea and informal chat and the volunteers are, at this time, sensitive to the needs of each individual so that each will have an opportunity to be heard at whatever level they wish to share. This often requires adopting a one to one approach as some people in this vulnerable position may be swamped by another who is more forceful.
The facilitation of the normal grief process is the purpose of the support group. Grieving can be affected by many things: previous psychological health, the nature of the hurt, personal support systems and the conditions or situation of the loss. Complications can arise from the fact that bereavement tends to bring up previous losses and unresolved traumas. In this situation the bereaved person will need professional therapeutic assistance and will be encouraged to seek it.
The aims of the Bethany Bereavement Support Group are implemented by parish based groups and, within those groups, by individual volunteers. The extent of their effectiveness is dependent upon each volunteer and the degree to which they have worked through their own grief issues. Naturally this will vary from one person to another but a bereaved person seeking assistance is free to choose a volunteer with whom he or she can establish a rapport and with whom they can work. It is very important that this right to choose is recognised and utilised.
Both the voluntary and professional helper has a contribution to make in the area of bereavement. “People seek physical and mental health care without necessarily recognising that there may be a grief issue underlying their particular physical or mental condition.”2 A potential benefit to be derived from the work of a group such as the Bethany Bereavement Support Group is to “normalise” the natural grieving process which has been denied in our modern society. “… mourning is both healthy and necessary. In the absence of mourning, complete emotional healing is impossible.”3
1. Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling, pg.227
2. J. William Worden, Grief Counselling & Grief Therapy, pg. 1.
3. J. William Worden, Grief Counselling & Grief Therapy, pg. 7.