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Results from Support Group Research Study

Study by Dr. Pamela Malone, Ph.D., LCSW-S, Fellow in Thanatology, Clinical Director/Interim Executive Director


Results from Support Group Research Study


Clinical Director Dr. Pamela Malone, LCSW-S, Fellow in Thanatology and Dr. Heather Servaty-Seib, HSPP (Purdue University) gathered and analyzed data from a research study of Austin Grief’s support groups. There were three primary aims for this study:


  1. To determine which of Yalom’s 12 therapeutic factors related to group participation ranked highest by grief support group members.

  2. Explore possible associations among Yalom’s factors, elements of sense making and complicated grief.

  3. Identify themes regarding members’ perceptions of the helpful and hindering aspects of the support group experience.

Background Information

  • Bereavement centers around the U.S. offer support groups facilitated by trained volunteers

  • Systemic reviews of professionally-facilitated support groups indicate small post-treatment effects sizes (e.g., Maass et al., 2022)

  • Little is known about the main factors associated with grief for individuals who attend volunteer-facilitated grief support groups

  • Findings regarding these main factors could be used to enhance effective and efficient provision of service through:

  • informing the training of volunteer facilitators, and

  • clarifying key areas of emphasis in their facilitation


Participants

There was a total of 26 participants, ages 28-71. Of those who responded, 19 identified as female and 3 as male. Of those who responded 19 identified as White, 1 as Hispanic, 1 as Eurasian, and 1 as Asian American. Of those who responded 18 identified as Heterosexual 2 as Bisexual, and 1 as Queer.


Therapeutic Factors

The three main therapeutic factors ranked highest and evident in the support groups were universality, cohesion, and altruism.

  • Universality is defined as the importance of recognizing one another, and the sense of not being the only person to feel a certain way

  • Cohesion is defined as a sense of belonging to the group and being understood and accepted

  • Altruism is defined as group members helping and supporting one another.


Associated Factors

Associations among Yalom’s 12 factors, elements of sense-making, and complicated grief revealed that participation in a grief support group:

  • Protects against the development of complicated grief

  • Allows for secure emotional expression which emerged for those participating in death loss groups as well as those in divorce loss groups

  • Offers a safe community in which to vent and express feelings


Group Themes

Themes that emerged about the most helpful aspects about participating in the support group include:


Being understood due to similar experiences

  • “Meeting others traveling the same road.”

  • “Being in a group of grievers in the same boat.”

  • “Meeting people that are experiencing what I'm experiencing.”

  • “Having a space with other people who get it.”

Talking about emotions

  • “I don’t feel like a burden to my group members when I have emotions.”

  • “Verbalizing my emotions and not needing to hold back tears or pain I'm feeling.”

  • “Realizing that there are "themes" in our reactions to the suicide of our loved ones.”

  • “Having a safe space to talk about experiences with like-minded individuals.”

Not being along due to connection with others

  • “Learning that I am not alone in my grief. I am not the only one hurting. I am not the only one struggling.”

  • “Knowing that I am not alone in my grief.”

  • “Having a sense of community and shared experiences.”

  • “To have an empathetic group of people who genuinely care about me and my experiences and who I care for as well.”

Healing

  • “Helping others with their pain also helps you with yours.”

  • “Seeing that healing is possible.”

Gaining insight

  • “Gaining insight and new ways to think about things from participants and facilitators.”

  • “Exchanging expertise with others that resonate.”

  • “Our group facilitators always bring great topics and questions for discussion.”


Themes that emerged about the least helpful aspects about participating in the support group include:


Not enough time

  • “Long break over the holidays. Maybe there could be a single combined “check in” group for anyone needing extra support during the holiday season?”

  • “I often feel like there isn't enough time.”

  • “Sessions are only 1 hour long and if many join, I don't feel each participant gets the time that they need to participate.”

  • “I wish it met once a week. It’s more difficult to get connected in a new group that only meets every other week.”

Group monopolizers

  • “When one group member monopolizes the discussion.”

  • “Sometimes others may talk more than others in the group, possibly leaving limited opportunity for others to talk.”

  • “Encountering group members who use the group "space" as their own personal therapy session without cognizance of the other members of the group who also may want to share or who are uninterested in receiving feedback, guidance, or reassurance from the facilitators or other group members.”

Discomfort

  • “I’m a mother who doesn’t have sole custody of her children so it’s difficult being around other parents who DO have theirs.”

  • “Being asked to speak when I was quiet.”

  • “I feel so sorry for others that are hurting. Particularly those who have lost a child and those that have lost someone to suicide.”

  • “Sometimes the discussion topics do not generate enthusiastic discussion, but usually someone brings up something relevant.”

Virtual nature of group

  • “Doing it on Zoom.”

  • “Being virtual has been really difficult -- having been in other group therapy settings, I feel that in-person groups are much more effective.”

  • “Zoom - not being able to be together.”


Themes that emerged about the most satisfying part of participating in the support group include:


Reflection and resonation

  • “Intentionally taking time to reflect on issues related to my divorce and gaining so much insight from others.”

  • "When something I say resonates with others. It makes me feel validated for better or worse.”

  • “Feeling like you're helping one another.”

  • “Seeing your feedback or your experience helping someone is incredibly satisfying and makes me feel valued.”

  • “The progress that I have made in my own healing journey.”

  • “I also like to hear others’ perspectives.”

Connection and bonding

  • “Making genuine connections with others who have experienced a similar loss.”

  • “Making real friendships with my group members.”

  • “I feel a strong bond with and trust in my group. We have gotten to know each other very well and enjoy being together. We have a group text message string where we check in with each other, celebrate birthdays, and share happy events.

  • "We even meet for a long breakfast once a month so we can visit with each other in person.”

  • “Feeling less alone.”

  • “Making new friends.”

  • “We are meeting together for breakfast and becoming friends.”

  • “Wonderful people.”

  • “Having a group with many of the same people from week to week and consistent facilitators who are compassionate and understanding.”

  • “Meeting people who I care about and who care about me - even if our paths never cross outside of the group setting. When "regulars" don't attend sessions I wonder how they are doing and have received the same messaging from others.”

Being understood

  • “Receiving understanding, empathy, and connection from others who have lost a parent. It helps me not feel so alone. I know these group members get it."

  • “Just feeling understood.”

  • “Talking to people who truly understand.”

  • “Sharing the grief together in a trusted space. The others in my group are also very supportive and validating of what I am going through.”

Release of feelings

  • “Having a release of emotions to look forward to.”

  • “The occasional bursts of laughter that we share.”


Themes that emerged about the least satisfying part of participating in the support group include:


Group fit

  • “Sometimes the posed discussion topics aren't in line with what I'm needing at the moment.”

  • “I am in my second group after trying out my first grief group. In that group, there was an individual that I felt spoke out of turn/inappropriately and I often left the group feeling frustrated. I wish the moderator of that group would have said something."

  • "When I asked to join another group, the organization was accommodating, and my experience completely turned around.”

  • “When people go off on tangents.”

  • “Although others may talk more than others, it’s still nothing that isn’t manageable. I also know that at times others may need to get more off their chest than I might.”

  • “Sessions with no other attendees - just myself and the facilitator. The ACGL facilitators are wonderful, but the main reason that I go to the group is for the "group" interactions and collaborative discussions and learning.”

  • “The meditations are not my cup of tea, but others seem to find them helpful.”

Negative feelings

  • “Feeling ashamed.”

  • “Feeling sadder when it's over.”

  • “There are sometimes things that just feel unrelatable and it's frustrating.”

  • “That there is no magic button to make me feel better.”

  • “Having to start over/go back to the bad place/ re-tell your loss every time someone new enters group.”

Virtual nature of group

  • “Not being able to be in person and form real relationships with other members.”

  • “Zoom - not being together.”


We thank all who group participants who responded to the surveys and scales. The results are being used to enhance and improve Austin Grief’s support group program as well as the ongoing training of our volunteer group facilitators. Additional applications of these results include their use as topics for consideration in clinical supervision of therapists as well as explaining the benefits of group participation to potential group members. The study results were well-received at the ADEC conference by an international audience of grief therapists and researchers.


For more information on this study and findings please contact info@austingrief.org

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