If you found yourself lost and injured in the remote Colorado wilderness, you would want to have a satellite phone with you. You would want to call for help and mobilize the first responders to come for you quickly. They would attend to any physical injuries on the scene and get you to safety so that the next round of responders could begin attending to your emotional scars and bruises.
Being thrust into the wilderness of grief is similar. The death of a loved one due to drug overdose is perhaps one of the most shocking and difficult types of losses to navigate (see my blog “Why Grieving an Overdose Death Is So Hard”). Disbelief, panic and shock hit you all at the same time. In fact, the nature of the feelings associated with this type of loss are frequently so intense that your natural grief coping mechanisms become overloaded, short circuit or shut down altogether (see my blog “Why Overdose Deaths Cause Complicated Grief”). Additionally, the stigma associated with addiction and overdose often leave you feeling alone, ashamed and reluctant to reach out for help. The intent of this particular post is to provide my readers with information on why grief therapy groups are so beneficial for those who have lost a loved one in this way.
Before we go any further, I think it is important to note the distinction between a “therapy” group and a “support” group. While a support only group may be quite effective for those experiencing a death from disease, natural causes, etc., research shows that sudden loss due to an overdose falls into the category of complicated grief. Complicated grief is best treated in the therapy process versus support. Thus, the grief groups facilitated by my practice are process groups for individuals who have lost a loved one due to overdose – grief therapy within a supportive group of people who have experienced a similar loss.
The human spirit is extremely resilient. However, there is a point at which the severity of the experience causes coping mechanisms to fail in some individuals. It also is true that individual therapy aimed at supportive interventions and helping the bereaved find meaning after such experience can be very helpful. There is also ample evidence that bereavement therapy groups that focus on evidence-based therapeutic interventions led by a skilled therapist actually have a very good success rate in long-term studies. Simply put, individual therapy and group therapy in the hands of a skilled therapist are very important to the process of traversing and making sense out of these tragic life experiences. In this post we will focus on the benefits of bereavement therapy groups.
Irvin Yalom is a contemporary psychiatrist and educator who has published articles and several books based on his research on the effectiveness of group therapy. He looked at what factors in the person of the therapist and in the process of the group to help people heal. I will never forget my excitement as a graduate student when I first discovered his research, and then began to see first-hand in practice that live group therapy offers unique healing properties naturally with the proper facilitation. Following are some of the helpful qualities that Yalom identified exist naturally in a properly lead treatment therapy group.
The experience of being in a group with people at different stages of processing their bereavement allows newcomers to see what other people have accomplished. When a person is just beginning the journey of grief, there are so many overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear being experienced that it often leaves them feeling hopeless. Just the experience of being in a group and sharing and listening can give hope. This is one of the most powerful aspects of healing that a group provides.
You Are Not Alone
The experience of a tragic loss of due to overdose throws a person into a state of feeling totally alone, abandoned and lost. Being in the group and experiencing other people there who care and understand help abate the feeling of aloneness. In essence, it is a process of receiving healthy support which is a very important factor for healing.
Develop Healthy Relationships
Over and over again, research, literature and my experience as a therapist reveal that healing only occurs in healthy relationships. Let me say that again - healing only occurs in healthy relationships that are genuine and include empathy, listening and compassion. In the case of a loss to overdose, even close family and friends are often just not capable of providing the level of support required.
A Sense of Belonging to Something Bigger than Yourself
Most of us at some point in our lives have had a feeling in certain moments that we were connected to something bigger than ourselves and served a purpose in the bigger picture. One of the most important aspects of a successful bereavement process is regaining a feeling of purpose. As a matter a fact, individuals who are successful in moving through their grief indicate that finding a purpose for living beyond the grief was the key factor in their healing.
Unity and Universality
There are many reasons that I conduct groups for individuals who have lost a loved one due to overdose. The homogeneous experience of the individuals brings a common understanding and creates a common bond. Frequently clients in my groups share how they’d tried other groups that included a variety of people, circumstances and types of losses and just couldn’t connect with the process in a way that was really helpful. They have also said that being in a group where there is simply a common experience allows them to feel united. This is extremely important for the bereavement process to move forward.
Propels You Forward
When I read this particular aspect of the research, I thought not only about all of the healing properties above, but also about having cheerleaders on your side to encourage you in facing your fears and healing. I have the privilege of seeing this happen every week in the groups I conduct.
As a fellow human being, I want to assure you that there’s hope that can be found even in the most tragic and upsetting of losses. As a scientist and therapist, I want you to know that there are now some really effective ways to help you travel through the bereavement process and find new meaning. Although you may not see it now, there are gifts that can come out of a really deep, deep sorrow that changes you forever. Believe it or not, in the final analysis the choice to be propelled forward instead of giving up often opens the door to a higher purpose that can benefit so many people. Think for a moment of the students in Florida who became active for gun control after the horrible massacre at the school. Reflect on the mothers that formed Mothers Against Drunk Drivers after the tragic deaths of their children at the hands of inebriated drivers. And there are countless other stories of people who navigated this horrible experience and then became an inspiration to others.
Researchers generally agree that complicated grief such as the loss of a loved one to overdose, tragic accident or suicide requires therapeutic interventions to process and travel through the grief. Evidence clearly states that therapeutic interventions tailor-made to the individual do in fact create long-lasting results in the bereaved.
Additional Information You May Be Interested In:
Why Grieving an Overdose Is So Hard
Why Overdose Deaths Cause Complicated Grief - And Why You May Need Help
My Son’s Battle with Addiction – Letter from a Mom
UPDATE: The response to my blogs on Overdose Grief has been phenomenal! People from all over the US and even some other countries have responded and wanted to know how they can receive the help they need. Although my professional license only allows me to offer counseling services in the state of GA, my Intervention Services often include finding local services nationwide to assist those in need. The best way I can help those of you experiencing overdose grief is by serving as a Mental Health Resource Finder. If you are interested in finding qualified and highly skilled specialists in your local market who can help you, please contact me at 678-316-3991 or at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about this service.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional who specializes in bereavement to help you and your loved ones process your loss constructively and effectively. If I can be of assistance to you in any way, please feel free to reach out to me through my website.
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