The good that can come from grief groups

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be extremely difficult, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated. At NAU, a support group has formed to help faculty and staff who are grieving over a lost family member, relative or a friend. The group is holding five virtual sessions, on Tuesdays from noon to 1:30 p.m., and will run until Nov. 23.

Titled “Good Grief: Really, can anything good come from grief?” on NAU’s website, the group  is facilitated by one or two qualified therapists, and typically Assistance Wellness employee Shawnee McDowell. She explained the meetings usually have between six and 10 attendees. With relatively low numbers, the sessions are designed to give each person an equal opportunity to discuss and have individual issues focused on.

“A large amount of grief was experienced through COVID, whether it was related to [the disease] or not,” McDowell said. “The Employee Assistance and Wellness (EAW) department provides some one session workshops on dealing with grief and loss in regard to all the losses.”

During the pandemic, office staff recognized more support was needed for people who lost loved ones and the service grew from there. After learning about how deeply Indigenous communities and reservations were impacted by COVID-19, in particular, the department wanted to offer more support, McDowell said.

The group is open to NAU employees who have experienced the loss of a loved one and was in place prior to the pandemic as well. Each individual is screened beforehand to make sure it is a suitable fit, which McDowell explained as giving an opportunity to ask and answer questions.

So far they have offered three different, five-session support groups. McDowell listed they had one in fall 2019, spring to summer 2020 and one that is taking place during the fall 2021 semester. The groups continue to meet once a month for support even after the sessions, McDowell said. 

“The support group provides some information about the grieving process, and then provides opportunities for the participants to share about their loved one with the group,” McDowell said. “The group helps participants feel things, talk about things and hopefully adjust to this different life without their loved one in it.”

Furthermore, the support group has rules about privacy, respect, listening and not giving advice.

McDowell said the aim is to talk about the process more than the outcome, while the discussion is centered around sharing and supporting each other. Some creative processes are involved, she added, including art and memory boxes to help facilitate conversation.

“Grief is unpredictable,” McDowell said. “You don’t get over it, you learn to live with it. Grief work is not done alone — you likely need people to help.”

In December, McDowell is also offering a workshop for anyone concerned about dealing with grief through the holidays. The group is not entirely COVID-19 focused, however it will address the pandemic’s effects on communicating, losing and grieving — such as not being able to visit loved ones in the hospital.

Senior Health Educator Tricia Fortin, who works in EAW, organizes group meetings and other events. Fortin said she does marketing and behind-the-scenes work, among different responsibilities.

“I really struggled when I lost my mom,” Fortin said. “I was not able to visit her in the hospital, or even be there when she died. It was really hard to process. It’s been hard, as we haven’t been able to be with our loved ones and even attend their funerals. The grief group came about to really address that and these issues.”

Fortin said she found it extremely helpful to be around other people who were experiencing similar forms of grief and loss.

“It was comfortable being in a community where other people understand how it feels like to be in your position,” Fortin said. “There is a mixture of people, from [those] experiencing the pain of death recently to [others facing] longer, such as five years. It helps you understand that the daily pain gets better, and over time feelings will change. It’s hard being around people that haven’t experienced it, as they’ll just make comments like ‘surely you knew it was coming, she was old.’ So I feel as if the community aspect is really important, and there are no judgments.”

Fortin said she had meetings once a month for alumni as well. Despite the current group being last on the schedule, McDowell said these groups can continue if there is further need this spring.

Minimum in a group is three participants. To have a good group would be between three and eight people so it remains intimate. There are also one-on-one support sessions — however currently there is a waiting list for these sessions, Fortin said.

Patricia Wheatley, administrative services assistant in EAW, said the office does session planning a few times a year to organize and orchestrate groups like this for university employees.

“During the pandemic we identified that there were a lot of people dealing with grief, and so it was something we decided would be meaningful and beneficial, so we started an early one at the beginning of July 2020,” Wheatley said. “Any kind of grief or loss can be discussed in the grief group — anything that is able to support people that are struggling. The number of participants is limited because of the nature of the grief group.”

Even though this group is only offered for employees at NAU, there are also options for students. According to Counseling Services, the university has a variety of resources for those facing sadness or struggles during the pandemic, including one-on-one meetings, group sessions and telehealth appointments.

Grief can be extremely challenging to deal with, especially alone, and the pain of losing a loved one is capable of being overwhelming. Reaching out to counselors could help and, despite people facing death, depression and other difficulties in different ways, no one has to be alone through it. “Good Grief: Really, can anything good come from grief?” is an example of the effort it can take to overcome loss and is one way to find the strength to carry on. 

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