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10 Ways to Uplift The People In Your Support Group

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If you have a chronic illness or live with chronic pain, it’s highly likely that you have attended a support group at least one time since your diagnosis. Did the experience go something like this?

Despite feeling exhausted and in pain, you decided you would attend the group anyways. By the time you got there you were running late, couldn’t find the suite number, and finally just parked and hiked to an upstairs room in a dark wing of the hospital. You quietly found a seat, a hard, sticky seat. People smiled at you, but soon they got back to their discussion and it seemed no one was feeling encouraged by it. They argued over the side effects of medicine being worth the benefits, two people tried to convince you to buy a juicer from them, and soon you were ready to run screaming from the room. It’s too depressing!

Aren’t support groups supposed to be valuable in learning how to cope with illness and encourage one another?

Yes! David Spiegel, MD, has proven in his studies that support groups improve the quality of life for the participants. While recent studies have shown that the patient may not live longer due to the support groups themselves [See the Sept. issue of CANCER, the journal of the American Cancer Society,] there is no denying that having your feelings validated by those who understand will help you sleep better at night. So here are some icebreaker games for small groups to perk up the people!

You may attend a support group, or perhaps even lead one, but regardless of how long you have (or have not) participated in one, it’s likely that you’ve seen the slippery slope of how quickly people can go from sharing honest, vulnerable feelings to a session of complaints and even quarreling. Looking for fresh and fun icebreaker games for small groups to perk things up?

Whether you lead a support group or just participate, chances are you’ve noticed how slippery the slope is when people start talking about their illness. These ideas will work for any groups, from an Aspergers support group in Dallas to a bipolar support group in Birmingham. Alabama. And they are excellent to have when you are creating a proposal for starting up a support group. Here are 10 ways to make your illness support group get some giggles back between the trials.

1. Make faces on sticks. It may sound silly, but sometimes getting back to basics works best. Cut out smiley faces and sad faces and glue them on each side of a stick or plastic knife. As people take turns sharing about their week, make sure they can show both sides of the faces. For example, Kim may hold up the sad face while she says “getting ready for surgery and all the therapy afterward has been stressful.” (Then she can flip the face over to a smiley face) “But I’ve really appreciated how many family members has volunteered to help with childcare.”

2. Rethink your concept of what counts as indoor games for small groups. For example, have everyone bring things for a JOY box and then have everyone choose something to take with them out of it at each meeting. It could be a rubber frog, a favorite poem, a note someone sent, an encouraging book, a silly or sentimental DVD. Have everyone return them by the next meeting to share again.

3. Here’s a unique icebreaker for small groups. Make a silly theme song that you use to start the meeting. You can pick a song and make up new lyrics too. Check out comedian Anita Renfroe for some good ideas about how to make a song your own at her web site.

4. Bring some corny things to use during your meetings. Avoid making anyone feel pressured to use them. (If you force someone to wear a clown nose she may never come back) Have them available, however, and encourage goofiness before getting down to the real reasons you are there. Oriental Trading supply is the source of thousands of funny items guaranteed to spur a giggle.

5. Don’t allow the group to turn into a platform for any one member who talks incessantly about her illness, the treatment, the alternative treatments or even her complaints. If you have someone dominating the conversation, tell the group you are implementing a timer and set your own guidelines. (For example, can people vent for 60 seconds about anything they want? Can they share about an alternative treatment they want the group to try? Give them a time limit.)

6. Have everyone bring something to put into a basket of encouragement for someone else. It may be someone who is having surgery from your group or a friend of someone in the group who has just been diagnosed. Brainstorm together about what items people would like, and be sure to remember sometimes the personal notes mean the most. If it’s appropriate consider including family members.

7. Have a fun night out. You can act your age and go to a nice sit-down restaurant or head over to Chuck E. Cheese for some pin ball. It can definitely be a successful icebreaker for small groups because people who haven’t opened up much in the group may feel relieved to have this environment to get to know others.

8. Have items on hand that will encourage people to thrive despite their illness. For example, National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness week has fun things like bumper stickers, pins, mugs and stickers that have themes like “My illness is invisible but my hope shines through.”

9. Invite guest speakers who you trust will speak positively. Inform your speakers that they can “tell it like it is” but that you always want people to leave the meeting feeling energized; not depressed. Let them know they can use props, tell a joke, or do whatever it takes to keep people paying attention.

10. Focus on things that your group can actually do that will change things, since they may feel so unable to control their illness. If you can’t physically participate in the local walk for charity, could you work at a table handing out snacks or doing registration? Find events your group can participate in to feel like they are doing more than just complaining about their predicament. Take advantage of the energy that teens with chronic illness often have to motivate support groups to get involved in outside projects.

Support groups can provide some of the most influential relationships that can help one live successfully with chronic illness. The environment of the group, however, can make or break its usefulness. With these few simple tips, your group can be a refuge and a place of true relaxation, creating an special group for people to create friendships that could just last as long as the illness, perhaps indefinitely.

Don’t start your group until you’ve read How to Start a Chronic Illness Small Group Ministry, the new book by Lisa Copen, founder of Rest Ministries. These 320-pages will gear you up and address all your concerns.


Written by Lisa Copen

April 19th, 2010 at 9:40 am