Establishing a Support Group

Widowed parents can feel isolated and overwhelmed. The circumstances of raising younger children after the death of a co-parent are fundamentally different from those of divorced single parents or people who lose a spouse later in life after the children have grown into adulthood. Many widowed parents report that others, even members of their support system, cannot truly understand.

Since 2010, we have offered a monthly support group for widowed fathers and have witnessed how parents benefit from the authentic and ongoing exchange of shared experiences in an emotionally supportive environment.

Over the years, we have refined our approach to conducting this group. This section serves as a guide for professionals interested in starting a support group for widowed parents.

The UNC Approach

We believe that parents benefit most from the advice and support they offer one another. In a very real sense, widowed parents are the true “experts” on their situations.

Consequently, our support group meetings are designed to promote as much group discussion as possible. There is no fixed agenda and members bring to the table the issues they find to be most pressing and pertinent.

Group leader(s) do play an active role. They facilitate group discussion when needed, comment on important themes as they emerge, and periodically share relevant research-based information about grief and parenting. Specifically, we weave the following into the group discussion:

  • Basic tenets of the Dual Process Model of Coping and Bereavement (Stroebe & Schut, 1999; 2010). This conceptual model provides a compelling and easy-to-understand framework to account for how members are adjusting to the challenges of widowed parenthood.
  • A child-centered parenting approach. Group leaders encourage parenting practices that optimize adaptation in grieving children. We assist parents in problem-solving; ways to be emotionally available to their children while maintaining structure and consistency at home.
  • A developmental perspective on how children understand death. A child’s conceptualization of death depends critically on his or her age and developmental status. Group leaders should be prepared to help parents appreciate their children’s grasp of death and customize their parenting accordingly.

Logistical Considerations

Incorporating the following practical suggestions may increase the likelihood that parents will attend group meetings:

  • Meet monthly. We have found that weekly meetings can be overly taxing for many parents given busy schedules and increased demands at home.
  • Offer on-site childcare. Arrange for sitters to watch the children in a nearby room. This eliminates the obstacle of parents having to find and pay for a babysitter.
  • Meet during early evening hours. This allows working parents to attend and is less disruptive to children’s bedtime routines.
  • Serve dinner. Providing dinner is a gift of both time and work, and will be appreciated by overburdened parents. Sharing a meal also promotes group cohesion.

Our Model

A common challenge for any support group is the tension between maintaining cohesiveness among existing members and welcoming new participants to the group.

The first support group that we offered for widowed fathers turned out to be a single, stable cohort that ran for nearly four years and was not open to new members. This worked remarkably well for the seven original fathers, but that model also meant that a new group would be needed whenever new parents were interested in joining.

Rather than repeatedly start new groups that would operate in parallel, we designed a more sustainable model. We now offer a single, ongoing group that meets monthly and includes designated months when members either join or exit the group. The model is shown in the figure below:

Under this format, there are designated meetings during which new parents are either welcomed to the group or those “veteran” members who are ready to leave can say goodbye in a thoughtful way that does not compete with one or more new member’s introduction. This approach also ensures that transitions do not dominate every session.

This model has several strengths:

  • Facilitates new member engagement. New parents are welcomed every four months, thus no parent has to wait too long before being able to join.
  • Integrates “new” and “veteran” parents. Including recently bereaved parents in the same group with those who are further removed from their spouse’s death creates a mutually beneficial dynamic. Recently widowed parents receive invaluable comfort and perspective from parents once in their position but have had more time to heal. At the same time, “veteran” parents often appreciate the opportunity to give back and can appreciate their own growth as they meet and offer support to peers still reeling from their loss.
  • Allows for individuation. Every parent grieves differently. As such, some parents remain in the group for an extended period, while others benefit from a shorter intervention. This model allows for a more individualized “off ramp” for parents ready to conclude their participation.

Future Directions

In our experience, the support group format has been a very effective way to support widowed parents as they re-imagine their lives. Group members consistently report that the support they receive from — and offer to — their peers has been invaluable.

Nonetheless, there are several factors to consider when looking ahead. First, we have not empirically tested this group intervention against other approaches (e.g., a more structured format or group based on an alternative theoretical model). Thus, we cannot say with certainty that this particular support group is efficacious. We plan to empirically test this model and would welcome colleagues who are interested in collaborating with us on this project.

In addition, our experience with this intervention has been with a very specific population: widowed fathers, most of whom lost a wife to cancer. This leaves open the question of whether this intervention would serve a more diverse group of widowed parents.

We suspect that most widowed parents would benefit from a support group. Certainly, widowed mothers face many of the same challenges and would be expected to benefit from participating in a support group, just as the fathers have.

We have asked the fathers we’ve worked with for their thoughts about various aspects of the group. The men have consistently shared our view that the common denominator for participation is being a widowed father. Group members should be welcomed regardless of sexual orientation or the cause of their loved one’s death.

Interestingly, the fathers have consistently told us that they thought that they would have been less likely to join a mixed-gender group or less open about their feelings if they did. Some men specifically noted their insecurities about perceived parenting failures or imagined discomfort discussing issues related to dating.