By Erica Quinones
Counseling Services is exploring the utility of group workshops to address topics like grief.
After being approached by several students, Counseling Services invested in hosting a weekly grief support group, according to Director of the Counseling Center Dr. Miranda Altman.
The group, which is now closed to new members, met for the first time on Feb. 20 with its facilitator, Ann O’Connor, a local grief counselor who worked as a part-time social worker and counselor at Washington College for a decade.
O’Connor was selected because she is “someone who knows our college, loves our college, loves our students, and has tremendous expertise in this field,” Dr. Altman said.
Grief may intensely affect students, not only because they experience loss — some for the first time — but because grief can be intense and overwhelming, causing students to struggle focusing on anything but their emotions.
While people respond differently, some gain a sense of control by maintaining routines and others struggling to engage as they once did, there is a moment at which grievers must reckon with what they are feeling, according to Dr. Altman.
This reckoning and the coping process may be assisted by a group setting because students are exposed to others who share similar experiences.
“[Groups are] the ideal place,” O’Connor said. “If people are brave enough to come forward to join a group, they find that they are with other people who really understand how they are feeling and it can be very comforting.”
Peer groups can not only make the grieving process less lonely, according to Dr. Altman, but also help participants develop bonds with one another and encourage ongoing support outside of meetings.
“People are around you at the beginning when somebody dies, there to support you. But as time goes on, all the supports are gone and you are left with this great emptiness, this void. You really need people to be able to talk with and support you,” O’Connor said. “It is what has kept me going — I have been doing this for 28 years now. Groups, they inspire me because I see the strengths in people and how they can help each other.”
The group is not only a place to discuss emotions but to be educated on grief over the course of eight weeks.
O’Connor provides participants with information on common emotional or physical reactions to grief, including trouble sleeping or eating, crying sporadically, and depression.
When participants gain the language to communicate their reactions, they identify, discuss, and explore why they have those experiences.
“It validates, and the more they can learn about [grief], hopefully the more comfortable they become with it,” O’Connor said. “Not having [language] or not being able to explore those feelings can isolate people even more.”
Not all students are attracted to group settings, however. Especially at a small campus like WC, they might feel exposed and worry about peers knowing about their private lives.
O’Connor said that at the workshop meetings, confidentiality is important. While participants can share grief education or coping mechanisms they learn within the group, she stresses that personal information cannot be shared outside the group.
“I think that people who are in pain appreciate that and respect each other,” O’Connor said.
She said that students should be encouraged to try groups because they do not know how they will like it until they try.
“Groups [not only] give their participants a safe place to share and learn about grief, but also it can give them hope and encouragement to go on with their lives incorporating happy memories of their loved ones,” O’Connor said. “Loss is very much a part of life. It is important that we learn and grow from our experiences.”
When the workshop ends, Counseling Services does not believe it will be the last of its kind. Dr. Altman said that they are looking towards hosting another grief workshop in the fall and are interested in facilitating other workshops with currently open topics.
“We do not have an agenda,” Dr. Altman said. “We want students to come to us. We want them to tell us what they need, and we will do our best to provide whatever support is necessary. But it does mean being an advocate for yourself or others… We do not want to decide what is needed. We want students to tell us, to share with us, what they want.”