TAPS Care Groups: Finding Safety in Numbers

Author: Zaneta Gileno

Sadness and grief are normal responses to loss. For many, especially those who suffer the unexpected or traumatic loss of a loved one, post traumatic stress compounds the grief response, making it even more difficult for surviving loved ones to integrate the loss into their lives. The need to be understood and to connect with others who understand is a key to finding hope and healing.

Survivors Embrace

TAPS staff members in the Community Based Care program work to help survivors determine the level of support they need and make the introductions for the survivor to the appropriate service providers within their local community. This program provides all surviving loved ones, regardless of their relationship to the deceased, with tailored connections to individual grief counseling, support groups, and inpatient/outpatient substance abuse treatment, if needed. The program also creates and supports grief support groups known as TAPS Care Groups around the nation.

TAPS Care Groups are informal gatherings of surviving military families and loved ones, co-hosted by a TAPS Peer Mentor and a mental health professional. These groups are not therapy groups, but they are therapeutic. They meet at safe, easy-to-find locations with available parking. All those who are grieving the death of a loved one in service to America, without regard to circumstances, relationship to deceased, branch of military service, or geography of death, are welcome to attend. There is no charge to participants, and the meetings are set at a regular time and date that best accommodates those desiring to attend.

Grief support groups serve several key purposes. The consistent opportunity to connect with others who have experienced the loss of a loved one can help survivors to feel that they are not alone, that there are others who have walked some of their same path. In a group setting, survivors learn that they share emotions and experiences, and normalizing these feelings with others can be a powerful impetus for hope and change.

TAPS Care Groups afford survivors with a truly understanding environment. We are a family of survivors and our TAPS Care Groups are a part of that tradition. We follow the companioning model of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author, educator, and grief counselor for more than thirty years, who maintains that "companioning" rather than "treating" mourners is important, walking alongside of those who grieve and giving them the supportive relationship they need in order to grieve and mourn and find hope. We share the journey with you.

René Adams, surviving mother of Marine Sergeant Mark Adams said, "I really enjoyed getting together and sharing. It was a big help to me to meet other people with the same feelings. You felt their pain and they felt yours. You felt like a family dealing with the same pain. Everyone may deal with it differently, but the pain is the same."

"The group offered me a place of understanding and a feeling of belonging," said April Shoemaker, surviving spouse of Army Staff Sergeant Russell Shoemaker.

Tammy Eakes, surviving mother of Specialist Lance Eakes added, "My son was Army National Guard and we attended their Gold Star retreats twice a year. Although it was good to get to see the families from my son's unit, my real support came from the monthly TAPS Care Group. As time went on, and life as well, this group became my lifeline. It is where I learned I wasn't going crazy, and that it was okay to feel the way I was feeling. The people in this group accepted me and understood, but most of all they just listened to me. I'm so glad that TAPS is here for all branches of service and all military survivors."

Care groups are facilitated by a TAPS Peer Mentor in conjunction with a mental health professional. These peer mentors have undergone special training to support survivors as peers, as well as completing TAPS Care Group Facilitator training.

Kimberly Taylor, surviving fiancée and peer mentor facilitator at the TAPS Headquarters Care Group, shared, "I am a peer mentor and group facilitator for TAPS. Attending the Care Group in this capacity has allowed me not only to share my love, Josh, but also to provide the safe venue for others to share. In the community formed by the group, healing begins. From sharing our loved ones as well as the turmoil of grief, we create a connection that is deeply felt. In that connection, we heal. As a facilitator, I get to be a part of that healing journey, to experience my own growth in healing and to support others in their healing. Providing this embracing environment which allows others to express their feelings safely and confidentially, gives me strength, while encouraging and supporting my new family."

For each group we match peer mentor facilitators with mental health professionals who understand grief and loss, and they lead the group as a team. One of our valued volunteer mental health professionals wrote, "Volunteering with TAPS and helping with the Care Group has been very valuable to me. I enjoy supporting the mission of TAPS and sharing my expertise with the peer mentor and the group. The time commitment is minimal but the rewards are far reaching. We lead as a team and together support the members in their grief journey.  It is truly an honor."

Another valued professional and TAPS supporter, VA psychologist Dr. Gregory Inman of the Raleigh Vet Center wrote, "The care group gives an opportunity for people at different places of the grief process to both seek and provide support in their journey. I found that as one person would talk about what they were going through, it would resonate with the other group members and lead to good discussions. It was helpful for others to hear another group member say what they were thinking, and know that their own thoughts weren't crazy. Group members often felt like this was one place where they could talk and have people really 'get' what they were saying or experiencing."

All TAPS Care Groups are listed on our website. We are expanding our reach every month, so please check the website often. If you are a TAPS Peer Mentor interested in the possibility of assisting TAPS in launching a Care Group in your community, please reach out to us. We would be happy to discuss this with you.  We are also recruiting skilled mental health professionals with the desire to help.  Likewise, if you have space that can be donated on a monthly basis to host a TAPS Care Group, we would love to hear from you.  

See TAPS Care Groups for more information.

Zaneta GilenoBy Zaneta M. Gileno, LMSW Director, TAPS Community Based Care: Zaneta M. Gileno graduated with her master's degree in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University. She has been with TAPS since 2011 and works from the national headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. She comes from a military family and is honored to bring her education, passion, and experience to serve the families of the fallen at TAPS.