|Grief Recovery Online
By Jim Kennedy
The subject of grief, as a result of the death of a loved one, has usually been an afterthought in the field of medicine. As a matter of fact, in the death and dying community, the delivery of treatment for grief is called “Aftercare”.
Such is the attention given to grief. But, that is to be expected. After all, isn't it true that grief is generally not life threatening? Isn't it true that it is a condition which lessens over the passing of time without attention? Perhaps it is just as well to let grief take care of itself because “This, too, shall pass.”
It was not until the early 1980’s that a formal request for research on the issue of grief was made to the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine by the National Institute of Mental Health. The resultant report, Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences and Care, was delivered in 1984.
The Project on Death in America (PDIA), one of many participants in the George Soros’s family of Foundations, is presently underwriting an update of this report as part of its project with the Center for the Advancement of Health. The March 2001 issue of the PDIA Newsletter discusses some of the aims and purpose for further comprehensive study of the bereavement subject. Ultimately, the studies will be used to define care programs for the bereaved. “There are big gaps in our understanding of what happens when people grieve – how the psychological and emotional experiences associated with bereavement manifest in some individuals as biological/health outcomes, including compromised immune function and other types of physical ailments.”
Obviously, these professional studies are incredibly important and will define in precise detail cause and effect valuations and may very drive policy and legislation for many years to come. The benefits will be enormous; the information, invaluable.
We can only hope that the new findings on grief will bring new understanding of what is happening to people not only in their minds and bodies but how it effects what goes on in the household, the work place and in the class room. Unquestionably, grief will follow the individual through the daily routine and affect every thing they do.
The documentation of these professional studies will give grief a credence and legitimacy that are already intellectually understood by members of the death and dying industry and will also point out the shortcomings in how it is being treated today by the medical community as well as the general public. It is generally acknowledged that only Hospice and grief specialists have awareness and appropriate programs dealing with grief recovery.
Despite the enormity of this significant task, the role of peer support may well lag behind in terms of studies. While it is certainly a component of the total understanding of the condition of grief support, for a variety of reasons, it may only receive cursory attention.
It may well be many years more before peer support receives the attention and credit it deserves. This is not a deliberate attempt to downplay or criticize its role in grief support. It is simply a matter of fact. Peer support programs are difficult to measure in an empirical manner. Yet, no one can quarrel with the success of programs as effective as Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance. While programs such as AA might not be formally recommended as required in treatment of alcoholism, as a matter of practicality, if not science, it is strongly suggested, simply because it works.
There is something truly special about sharing with someone who is in the same circumstance, a communion of hurt perhaps. Somehow there is a relief of sorts when sharing takes places among the grief wounded. Good peer support programming does not come routinely from the professional community. It has to come from pain. It has to come from personal experience, not data.
A wonderful example of peer support success can be found in the programs of The Compassionate Friends, a worldwide nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people after the death of a child. Hundreds of chapters all over the world offer support and comfort to parents, grandparents and siblings. Founded in England in 1969, TCF has Chapters in more than 600 sites, just in the United States, providing resources to tens of thousands. The Compassionate Friends have found their way to the Internet, as well.
The Internet is taking peer support to a new and distinctive
venue. On the Internet one can find resources on any subject and at any
time – and grief is no exception. The Internet might be the most appropriate
grief setting since the pain and reality of the loss come so often like
the proverbial thief in the middle of the night and the Internet is never
closed; you don't need an appointment.
Non profit grief support Internet sites, such as WidowNet, GriefNet, and GROWW (Grief Recovery Online) are providing a wonderful service. The unique features of the Web offer an unusual resource to the bereaved. And the dynamics of web interactivity are simply amazing. Seeing the words on a message board, getting and giving feedback to people in similar circumstance, finding a group or individual which understands what you are going through, learning you are not alone in your journey, having helpful resources at your fingertips on demand – these are just some of the features of grief support on the Internet.
Grief recovery is sometimes hindered by society's view of grief. Many think that grief is a condition that should be handled in a specific period of time and should not affect one's ability to move beyond the loss. The mourner might even think that grief might be considered a weakness (particularly men) and they stifle “good grief” in order to show their strength.
The Internet mourner can circumvent this perception because of the anonymity facet of the web. Whether in email communication or message board tête-à-tête, or chat room interaction, the “Netizen” can openly and fully disclose feelings they could not unveil face to face. There is no shame, no fear of reprisal, just the ability to unload thoughts and feelings that might need expressing and feedback. The liberation of inhibitions, that may be present in personal communications, can be incredibly advantageous to healing in this very trying time of grief.
Anonymity has its drawbacks, too, as does the psychological vulnerability of the bereaved. It is important to be aware of these factors in finding or recommending a dependable grief website resource. Because the dynamics of internet interactivity can be so genuine and sincere, it is imperative that the Netizen be made aware of the negative aspect of the medium and it is incumbent on the web community leadership to educate its visitors to this effect.
GROWW www.GROWW.org, has taken the matter of security very seriously. In addition to providing an Awareness page, GROWW has developed systems and procedures to protect its community from predators and visitors whose aims are not honorable. Together with law enforcement agencies, web specific security organizations, Internet tracing and investigation software, and a comprehensive training program for volunteers, GROWW has provided as safe a site as feasible under present circumstances
GROWW is a child of the Internet. It was “born” because a widow found comfort and solace through interaction with other widowed. Judy Divers was widowed in 1992. Bill had died from pancreatic cancer. Although Judy was surrounded by supportive family and friends, she was often more concerned about THEIR grief. It was not until she “met” other widowed that she could experience true connectivity, real understanding. Judy took this experience and expanded it to the entire bereaved community by creating GROWW, a place for caring and sharing.
Peer support or self-help, though, is not for everyone. In fact, members of these groups will be the first to express that further professional help might be in order. And the admonition might be better accepted because it is delivered with no purpose in mind other than care and concern.
So, peer support is a viable, valuable resource for those who are bereaved. It is a powerful supplement to professional intervention. Some even say that peer support can be as powerful as peer pressure because the support comes from a personal perspective rather than a “study”.
That's what GROWW can bring to the study – not Aftercare but WeCare and NOWCare
Originally printed in The American Funeral Director, June 2001. Used with permission of the author.