Thoughts and reflections on group work – Personal work.
This was the first group; I was honestly feeling somewhat nervous as there are no other groups like this in Ireland. I was worried that people might not engage, or that it was a waste of time, or even that people would not show up. Of all the people I vetted for this group I only invited three to join. As it was three people (and me) it was an intimate group. We worked on contracting for the first 15 to 20 minutes and focused on what was important for us to ensure we felt we could be vulnerable in this space.
When the group started, I sensed some apprehension, however, I tried to set the tone to encouraging, kind, confident, and open. As soon as it started, I felt the tension ebb away. This was a safe space, people had come here to share their confusion and pain, to listen to others in a way they wished to be listened to, there was no judgement, instead of reproach for apologising when being overcome with emotion. These people, who were as hurt as each other, were the living embodiment of ‘The wounded Healer’, they listened, cared, consoled and listened some more.
Close to the end of the first session I realised that we had started something special, I was not sure what the next 10 weeks would bring, but for sure I was more than willing to find out. This was, by far one of the most emotional pieces of work I felt I had done in a long time, the reward for the emotional fatigue afterwards was the knowledge that we had all helped each other by carrying the load of grief and burden of guilt for each other, even for a few moments.
Session 2 - Love and kindness
One of the members of the group spoke about their loss. It seemed the ripple effect was this brought on great empathy from all members of the group. Something that was said during this was “what I had to do, was a last act of kindness, one last act of love”, I felt this was a bit of a breakthrough, however, whilst each of the members felt it true for one another, I was not sure they felt it for themselves.
From this, we looked at decisions, the power of these and the power we have as pet owners. Does the power of “playing God” leave us with an over-inflated sense of responsibility when it comes to the loss of our loved ones? Even when it comes to prolonging their inevitable death? All too often we hear “its selfish to keep them alive?”, however, this brings on a plethora of other crises…namely, “did I do the right thing?”, “Who am I to make this decision?”, “Is there a possibility for survival?”, “Can I do anything else?”, all of which eventually lead back to the possibility of it being selfish to keep our loved pets around…I am not sure I can offer the right answer here, but I know of the difficulty of the decision, and the ramifications of either decision can be profound in their ability to take our breath away with pain. Due to this catch 22, people making this decision, including the people I work with, feel a sense of helplessness, are any of the answers right? What is the best thing to do here? To state what was said to me “Ending a life is complex. There is no right. No wrong. Its just feelings”. When I reflected on this I agreed wholeheartedly, deciding to end the life of someone we love so deeply is complex, in this power we are powerless as the decision is made of love, and the decision often means loss, and the sacrifice of peace while we try to convince ourselves we have done the right thing.
We have been looking at the death of our loved ones. Next week I have asked people to bring their pets to the sessions. Be that pictures, tags, memories we want it all. It felt important to share the lives of our lost pets, not just their death. I am hoping this will be cathartic in some small way.
There was someone who unfortunately could not attend this session. I felt this was a shame as the group seemed to be more gelled by this week. As per last week, I mentioned this session was to look at the pets in their living and not just their death. We did not get to this as someone mentioned that she was finding the groups good but difficult. We spent some time on this. We looked further at the power of putting cats to sleep, the theme that came up here was the face none of us wanted the power, that there is humility in it, my thoughts on this were that people that are humble in this power could not possibly abuse it, and that is the message I tried to share.
We looked at the power of ending suffering too, this brought us back to their being a final act of love and kindness, however difficult that might be. We looked at Letting go, and what this meant? It was shared that there was guilt at not letting them go, are we wrong to keep us here even spiritually? I shared that I felt it was good to keep them with us in death. Allowing ourselves to let go of the pain and keep the love with us as they are a part of us, they teach us to love, they teach us how to be loved – this was responded to quite well I thought.
We reflected on how the group was moving forward and what people were getting from it, it was agreed that whilst it is difficult and is bringing up the memories of previous losses it was amazing to have a space where a group of people could be weird together, that there was power in empathy and have someone listen and understand the depth and complexity of what and who was lost. There was a reminder at the last moment that whilst, in Ireland, we “do death well”, as there is a “process of grief”, we are not allowed enough time, that there is an expectation that we are to “be better” and “move on” with our lives, and this can prohibit us from grieving to the depth we need to fully process our loss. I enjoyed this sentiment I looked at the restrictions and limitations we place on people in society to “be well again” after a great loss.
Today's session was a little disrupted due to a misunderstanding with times. I have agreed to send a reminder the day before for the sessions. My internet went again from my office and I felt this had an impact on how the session went, so I will be closer to the modem going forward. However, when I moved a little away from the session’s others stepped in to facilitate which was wonderful, it was a catalyst for people to ask questions and for deeper bond formation to happen.
Today we took some time to review grief as an entity. One of the participants shared the grief surrounding the loss of a family member, we reviewed the trauma of loss, the impact of loss and the powerlessness against grief entwined with guilt. Guilt was probably the main focus of today. I shared that my mother has a terminal illness and I do not get down as much as I should. We looked at what we can do in life to help us move forward from the guilt in grief to a space of acceptance. Acceptance not only of the loss we are facing but the acceptance of our limitations as humans. I was wondering if the age-old questions of “did I do enough?”, “am I enough?”, “Could I do more?”, “why was not I around as much?” could ever be answered, or is that the role of therapy? To see our grief and loss in others and know, the messages we have to offer them are sincere and kind “you could not have done more”, “you did more than enough” “you loved them and they loved you”, are these the words we hear so often without letting them in? I wonder if in group therapy, by sharing these messages with people who we have great empathy for, are we internalising a little and assisting ourselves in the processing of our grief?
A person left the group – they advised that they were not getting what they wanted from the group. I had to bring this to the remaining members who advised they were saddened and commented on the fact they only really felt the change in the depth and trust of the session in week three. We looked at the impact this loss had and looked at what moving forward would look like. All agreed that moving forward and wishing the person who dropped out the very best in their onward journey would be for the best.
The session moved forward to looking at how we have found the group so far, it was nice to hear a mainly positive narrative, and the participants noted that they were feeling better in themselves and that it was helpful to them both. I was warmed by this as the facilitator as that is the purpose of this group, to simply give people a space to feel non-judgmental support while working through the grief of a lost pet.
Each person in the group is losing the shackles of formality and there is certainly a relational depth achieved in the sessions, I am surprised at how open people have been and how open to working through the pain and supporting each other. A theme of this week was forgetting. The question that popped up was, it is better to forget your animal a little bit so that the pain is less. One person shared that when they think of their cat that died they are immediately brought back to the trauma surrounding his death. I shared that I don’t think we ever forget them, they have been the ones to shape how we love, in my mind we get reminded of them at the times that we need them, or the times they are close. That we move forward in the love and through the passing of time and the openness to acceptance we can remove ourselves from the grief and spend some time basking in the love that we have for them and the love they had for us.
This week we looked at self-care, this was prompted by someone questioning my sign-off at the end of the sessions “be kind to yourself”, they wanted to know what this meant, and how do we do “Self-care”, and how can we have self-care in grief? I shared that being kind to yourself is doing something nice for yourself, what is the thing you can do for yourself that will make you feel a little better after the session? This was received well and each of us explored the items that we felt had potential to make us feel better. It seems like an odd thing to focus on, but in the busyness and stress of life, we often forget what it means to be kind to ourselves, or even, how to be kind to ourselves!
This moved the conversation on to ‘having the time to grieve’, in so many areas of our lives we are encouraged to “get on with it”, “get moving”, “death is a natural part of life”, and whilst this all may be true, we often get caught up in it, and may potentially be robbing ourselves of the time we need to grieve, do we allow ourselves the time to even peek beyond the wall of loss and see if we want what's there before we have to charge through it and pick up the reins of our lives? One person suggested that this may have been the case for them, and as a result, was hit with “An avalanche of grief”, this struck me, the sheer power in the image, the destruction, the beauty. It also brought me to consider, is this the price if indeed we are ‘too busy to grieve’?
This session also looked at the feelings associated with grief, and we looked at what they were for each person and how confusing it can be when, even for a moment, we feel good during the pain, or when we forget the pain, even for a moment, and the relief mixed with the guilt that survives after this. We explored what the spectrum of loss and grief looked like for each of us. Looking at grief as a spectrum, like joy, its not defined by a single feeling, moreover, it is not defined by a single emotion. Like joy, it can go from a smile/tear to disassociation or Isolation, and it is imperative we don’t judge our grief by its lows, but that it’s a chronic state what we merely try to coexist within.
Gratitude was the main take from today. I am not sure where this came from, maybe it was a follow on from the self-care focus of last week and that we each looked at our grief and began to understand it a little bit more, we looked at what the feelings were and gave ourselves and each other permission to reflect on the grief we had in a supportive, caring and purposeful way. We looked at what it was like to have such a robust support network and to look at what it was to be listened to and cared for by people that we felt a connection with. From this place of gratitude we each looked at how grateful we were to be in this group together, we looked at what we have each got from this group and how it has helped. For me, this was extremely beneficial, as through this conversation I was able to see what the participants felt was helpful and not helpful. However, the main thing to come from this conversation was a realisation that we should not underestimate the power of connection, that in this group we have people who have felt isolated for a long time and here, in this small setting, found their power and their voices through connecting with others.
I reflected on this and my thought process leads me to the importance of community. It is my view that if we can find a group of like-minded people or even people who can be non-judgemental in their approach, this is where we find our community, this is where we can be part of a tribe and use the love and connection found in this to aid in our healing, and bring joy to our lives, maybe it is this that has been the ‘secret ingredient’ to the success of group work? That it is a space to share, to be shared with, to love and be loved, and deep down, is that not what we all want on some level? Just to be heard, loved and be able to listen and love in return?
This was the first week I asked people to have something prepared regarding their loss. In this, we shared our Eulogy’s for the pets that we loved. Before the session, I was not too sure what to expect. Was this going to be an emotional rollercoaster? Was it going to be received well? Were people going to be open to pulling something together which brought them face to face with the loss of their beloved pet? Going into this session I had prepared myself, I opened it asking if people were comfortable and if people would prefer to do something else. However, each of the participants were more than will to share what they had felt. It seems that in these 8 short weeks we had managed to forge a bond that was as supportive as it was nurturing, and each of them felt they were in a safe space and felt ok sharing their pain with us once again.
We each took our turn to share the feelings we had around our loss, love, pain and grief. It felt peaceful throughout the session. Each of us said our piece and were held gently by the other members, this was not to reach the ‘final stage’ of grief, nor was it a rush to ‘accept’ the loss, it was more a way for each of us to share words of meaning about our loss in a space where others may understand the loss in a way that was reflective of how it was felt. It was a kind way for us to share the feelings that were brought up by each other and to come to some peace about the loss that we faced. There seemed to be some healing in the space and we were able to identify with each other in the loss and how we have moved through our own personal grief.
Today before starting the session I was acutely aware that it was our second last session, I was considering that the depth of the sessions was reached quickly and that there was real caring trust in this group. I had no plan when I started this session, only to check in with people on how the felt after last weeks session.
Today one of the participants had faced some trauma during the week, so asked if she could be a silent participant. We as a group were more than happy to facilitate and we moved forward with the group, this participant safe in the knowledge that she did not need to speak if she did not want to. This mean there was more space in the group to talk, initially, I was worried that this space might not be filled, but there was more talking from the other participants. All of the participants in the group were vert mindful to give each other the space they needed to talk, to reflect, to engage throughout the last nine weeks. This silence from one member however really allowed another member to go deep into how she has been feeling.
This session was a reminder to me that as a facilitator, there are times in the session where we should focus on one person a little more, and that the main consideration should not be that everyone has an even amount of time per session, but that over the 10 weeks, everyone should feel that they have had an equal share of the time.
The final session. For me, the time went very quickly. I felt from the very first session that this was ‘real’ work, that it was real healing and I felt throughout this entire journey that each person that was there got something out of the group. I was unsure how the final session was going to go but I had a close in mind. I wanted people to share what they got overall from the sessions, what did they feel worked for them and what are the things they can take away.
It was emotional, even as the facilitator I knew this group was special, I was reluctant to let go, that might be why it has taken me so long to pull the notes together and send them out. Its almost as though I wanted to be cocooned in this little community that we have created. I know from my experience working in the corporate world that we are told that culture is set from the “top-down”, whilst I do agree with this I might also add, that for a culture or community to work, there needs to be buy-in from each member that makes it up.
The culture we manged to create was caring, supportive, generous, sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always kind. I truly believe that it is through connection, through finding the people who understand us, and who we in turn understand, that will facilitate our growth. Its community that will allow us to feel heard, that will be instrumental in our healing and that will be integral in our joy.
The close was everything I hoped it would be.
Testimonials of attendees
In the middle of May my cat died quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Because he was semi feral I was powerless to help him. It was horrific for him and it was unbearable for me. In the days after I lost him, I was paralysed by grief but nobody understood. Friends sympathised with me, but then changed the subject. I even tried to talk to my vet. He was compassionate but pragmatic and clearly didn't have the time to sit me down, to talk it through. I was riddled with guilt. Why hadn't I done this? Why didn't I do that? I felt that I had let my cat down. I kept tracing back the days leading up to his death, trying to find the point at which I could have changed things, the point where I went wrong. It was a vicious and destructive cycle. The weight of the pain was so heavy that sometimes I couldn't breathe. Then I heard about the pet bereavement group through my cat sitter. I will always be thankful that I signed up. Kevin was intuitive and empathetic. His deep listening skills helped us to recognise and unlock the various hurts and pains that were preventing us from moving forward. Being heard, really heard, was the biggest benefit for me. I felt that my grief was understood, shared, acknowledged. Not only that but I was supported in exploring my grief rather than being brushed off by friends. You see, it's not that my friends and family didn't feel upset for me, they simply couldn't appreciate that my cat was my family. My cat meant more to me than I could express. Kevin understood and so did the other participants, and that made all the difference. Thank you, Kevin, for wanting to make a difference.
I lost my beloved cat to cancer this March. She has been sick for 8 months, and when I finally had to take her to the clinic and spare her of her suffering I was completely devastated. It was like my world had just stopped, like I was looking at everything from behind a thick glass wall - and things looked the same but I didn't care, nothing could reach me behind that wall. This continued for several weeks until I saw a post regarding a pet bereavement support group, and I knew immediately that I had to sign up - to be able to function again, to be fully present for the cat I adopted 2 months after, in May. I did not expect this pain to go away, this wound to heal - and it didn't, but I have learned to live with it. In the group I received support, understanding and help I couldn't hope to get anywhere else. Before, I didn't believe I could ever get out from behind the wall, and the pain I felt all the time was crushing me. Now it has its personal shelf in my heart, and I am able to move forward with it and allow myself to also feel joy and love. I got exactly what I needed from the group - ability to really be there for the cat I adopted - and much more, because I have learned to also take care of myself. I am immensely grateful for this group and for the change the group work has made for me. I hope other people who have lost a beloved pet would be able to get as much help as I did - we tend to care so much about our pets, but we ourselves also need to be taken care of, and this group is the right place for that.