As I left my apartment one morning last week, I was greeted at the door by the unmistakable smell of fall. I took a good look around and saw the drooping stalks of foxgloves and my car covered with cottonwood leaves. I also noticed a weight in my chest and recognized it as the sadness that descends, along with those cottonwood leaves, every year right about this time. My friend, Joyce Sarles, says she, too, feels that seasonal malaise. Joyce and I have something else in common - we both lost a loved one during the month of November. I feel better knowing I can share my feelings with someone who understands how the smell of wood smoke on a September morning can break your heart.
I met Joyce for the first time in 2001 at a Hospice and Home Care, "Healing After Loss," bereavement support group. Joyce's husband, Dale, had died about three months earlier, on November 29, 2000, after a ten-month struggle with cancer. Although many people wait longer before joining a support group, Joyce said she was glad there was one available so soon after Dale's death, believing she might not have attended later down the road. When I asked Joyce what she found most helpful about the group, she said it was being with people who validated her feelings and receiving reassurance that she was not going crazy. "It helped to hear other people's stories. I could see that we shared many of the same feelings and thoughts, even though our losses were unique and the feelings and thoughts were often manifested in different ways."
Normalization and understanding are two important things grief support groups can offer. Healthy grief often feels chaotic and crazy. The group process offers us the opportunity to learn from others' experiences, as well as to receive information from a knowledgeable facilitator. Telling our story is a way we can begin to make sense of our loss. In the telling, we bring some order to our thoughts and feelings, and may find the way to resolving some of the Why's and What If's that are usually a part of a loved one's death.
Along with the chance to share their story in a safe environment, group participants are encouraged to write about their feelings and to work on collages as other means of expressing their grief. Joyce told me that these activities brought her deeper insight. "We were asked to write a letter to our loved one. I wrote my letter and it felt good to do that, but it was much too personal to read out loud. I was glad we were always given the choice to share or not." Sometimes people hesitate to join a group, because they're shy or don't like to talk about private things with strangers. As a group facilitator, I've seen how even the most introverted people often find themselves speaking from the heart when they're in an environment that is non-threatening and free of expectations.
A bereavement support group is not group therapy. Rather it is a safe and confidential environment that can nurture and encourage the healing process by offering a place to talk without fear of judgment and the opportunity to laugh about things very few other people would ever find funny. We should never underestimate the healing power of laughter. Author Stephanie Ericsson terms it "mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," and if you've ever been there, you know she's not exaggerating.
A group can provide some structure at a time when our lives seem unrecognizable, and can be an excellent place to share information and resources. Being with people who have found ways to survive and thrive after a loss can offer hope and encouragement. Almost five years after my own loss, I am deeply grateful for all that I continue to receive from the extraordinary people who attend our groups.
Hospice and Home Care of Juneau will begin its Fall 2003 Bereavement Support Group on Oct. 22. This group will meet every Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Hospice and Home Care office, 419 Sixth St.
Enrollment is limited to 12 participants. A commitment to attend all six sessions is strongly encouraged. For more information, please call 463-6134.
When I asked Joyce if she had any final comments about her group experience, she said, "I think it is very important to remember that being in a group will not fix anything, but it will give you a place to feel normal and to speak without criticism."
Mary Cook is the volunteer coordinator and a grief counselor with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.