Editor's note: Jean Jasmine is filling in for Mary Cook this month. Cook will be back with a column next month.
When Chuck and I bought an 1,000-acre cattle ranch in eastern Washington in 1971, I rejoiced knowing that the rest of our lives would be lived fulfilling our dream of living on the land, raising our young sons, and growing old together. Receiving the phone call on a sunny harvest day five years later sliced that future from me with searing intensity.
Chuck's death in a plane crash, at the "immortal" age of 34, initiated a long grieving process for which I was totally unprepared. Other physical and emotional losses arising from Chuck's death seemed to pop up unexpectedly on a daily basis. I was suddenly a widow at age 31, and a single parent. I had to move out of the valley, losing my support system there. I had to try and help my sons integrate the unreal, unacceptable reality that they would never again have their dad's big arms around them. A charmed life had become painful, unpredictable and very complicated at the same moment that my major support had disappeared and other resources had dramatically decreased.
If structured bereavement support were available during those first years, I was not aware of it. I could not imagine that there was actually a path through the darkness, or that anyone who did not know Chuck could understand the emptiness and confusion I felt. Days were spent in overdrive; nights allowed me to melt into my writing and talking with two dear friends who could listen deeply. Through reflection, study and travel I began to learn about the grief process, and meet others who had lost loved ones. Although the type of loss often differed, the connection we felt was usually immediate. We shared a "knowing" that often made words unnecessary. Eyes understood, hearts opened, and tears and memories flowed in the safe circle of our friendship.
However, most of what I had learned about grief remained unconscious and largely buried as I tried to navigate a new relationship. When the boys and I moved to a small ranch near Boulder, Colo., in 1983, that relationship ended. With my new loss, all the unfinished grief lying under the surface boiled up with a voracious desire to consume me. One morning, as I tried to face yet another day, I read about a class at the Colorado Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, titled "Death as a Spiritual Teacher." That class and many that followed, while I volunteered on the bereavement team at Boulder County Hospice, led to a master's degree in psychology and counseling. At that time, I was hired as the hospice's bereavement coordinator. I realized that a circle was completing for me, as I was able to create the kind of bereavement support program that had been missing in my early grief process.
The urge to travel and learn Spanish later resulted in my spending the better part of 10 years volunteering at a Mexican orphanage. I came to Juneau in 2003 to be close to family, and here I have found that all roads do lead home. Mary Cook was leaving Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, and I became the volunteer coordinator, then coordinator of bereavement services last month after Jamie McLean left for private practice.
At more than 70 strong, the volunteer program has expanded to offer support to families facing a terminal illness as well as those needing home nursing services following an illness or surgery, and clients of Catholic Community Service care coordination and respite programs. Volunteers also give thousands of hours annually in office support, fund-raising, speakers bureau and holiday events such as the Remembrance Gathering and Light Up A Life. Monthly training seminars, which are open to all community residents without cost or obligation, cover topics from home care to dying and bereavement.
The HHCJ bereavement program offers individual counseling and a variety of bereavement groups for children, families and adults dealing with suicide and sudden loss. A miscarriage/infant-loss group is being considered. The spring bereavement seminar - held on Thursdays, April 21 to May 19 - will be an informational and experiential exploration of the grief process, followed by a final day's training for those wishing to co-facilitate grief support groups.
There is a magical connection between clients and volunteers, in which giving and receiving become one, and both participants benefit beyond anything they have yet experienced. I feel blessed to be in the middle of that exchange.
Jean Jasmine, Ed.M., M.A., is the coordinator of volunteer and bereavement services with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.
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