The Theory of Support Groups

Explanation of the theory behind how support groups work and why some people find support groups very helpful.

A Boat Full of Misery

I'm not much for support groups. I never really bought into the old "I've got misery. You've got misery. Let's paddle around the same boat and talk about how miserable we are" notion.

When my mom died, I was 23. I don't know if it would have been any easier if I had been 93 (although I guess I'd have to have forgiven her for dying at 132). Some people say it was easier when their mom died than their dad. Some say the opposite. My theory is that if you're close to both your parents, the first gone is the hardest. It's an unfathomable event.

In the '80s, everyone loved to talk about "denial." "He's an alcoholic. He's just living in denial." "She knows that relationship is a dead end. She's just living in denial." I thought "living in denial" meant you saw something wrong in your life but decided you would be happier not acknowledging it. Your friends would say: "He's a loser." And you'd say: "No, he's not!" And keep on dating him.

Then my mother died and my brain turned off for a year. I left ATM cards in machines that must have been beeping. A friend asked me a while ago if I felt weird still being his friend considering we once dated. I'm sure I boosted his ego with the response every guy yearns to hear: "Dated? When did we date?"

Months later, I was able to verbalize my feelings, or maybe I should say non-feelings, in this way: Having a parent die is like having someone you completely trust tell you: "Oh, by the way, there will never be sunshine again. The sun exploded in the middle of the night while you were sleeping." You know this person would never lie to you or play such a cruel joke. You totally believe him or her. But you'd still look out the window every day for a very long time expecting to see the sun in its usual place. Every day of your entire life the sun was in the sky. How could it be gone?

Six months after Mom died, someone suggested I try a bereavement workshop. Backstroking a moment to my boat analogy: I was always a lone paddler and had no real interest in floating around with a bunch of strangers. But I went.

There was a girl my age whose mom had also had cancer. She lingered for several months, deteriorating in a convalescent home that they visited for hours each day. Another girl had lost her kid brother, part of a strict religious group in Georgia, to AIDS. A man in his fifties had lived his entire life with his mother who had recently died at 88. Now he was a lost soul.

My mother had been diagnosed with cancer in June and lived reasonably okay for another six weeks.

There's an old Yiddish saying (there are no new Yiddish sayings): If you and all your neighbors lay all of your problems on your respective front lawns, you'd look them all over, and end up taking back your own. And thus began the first support group.

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 6). The Theory of Support Groups, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: July 3, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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