I began these words less than twenty-four hours after the first session of the spring grief support group I lead.
Men. Women. Stoic. Uncomfortable. A few cried. A few obviously held back tears. Though I don’t ask (or expect) them to say much in the opening gathering, several were articulate with their responses. And several barely managed to share their names. One or two slumped in their chairs, most were upright, all appeared to focus on everything I said.
They are over 55 years of age. This is the “senior” death of spouse/partner group. These “strangers” have been with a beloved for as little as a decade and more than half a century.
Have they cared for a husband or wife for years when finally (maybe wishing death and the end to suffering would’ve happened sooner or maybe secretly fearing the slow, anguished dying would never end) their beloved did die?
Were they making vacation plans, awaiting the arrival of a grandchild or wondering if they should remodel the kitchen . . . and then on one awful day a doctor’s appointment led to a hospital room and then became a call to hospice and within a month (or less), their beloved abruptly died?
Death can take a long, long time.
Death can come—how right the Bible is about this line—“like a thief in the night.”
They are strangers. They are not.
I am honest with them. I tell them about my divorce, which occurred in my twenties, but nearly forty years later, I recall the bitterness of loss and loneliness. I tell them I’m a pastor—my goodness, I was ordained in 1977, in the first year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency—and have sat in hospital rooms with the dying, in kitchens with the grieving, and while I have no interest in promoting my version of faith, the professional side of my faith means I’ve dealt with bucketfuls of grief. I tell them Dad died from dementia, and his death took years. I tell them Mom died from cancer, with a harsh death as quick as my father’s seemed forever. Finally, I tell them there’s nothing—no thing—I’ve handled or experienced that approaches their current pain. Until someone has a beloved die, don’t you dare say, “I understand.” Even then, my grief will be different from your grief.
Let me be honest about something else: none of the participants need a grief group. I’ve read enough research to be confident that most folks, whether or not they join a group, “get over” the worst of grief within a year or so. Humans are resilient and adaptable. The blur of life continues. We may rightly desire for the world to pause, and to honor and give thanks to the one who died. Instead life spins forward, a merry-go-round stuck on go . . . and even the grief-stricken widow or widower will likely be swept back into the thick of things.
It’s not about “needing” a group that matters. What matters is joining other stragglers on a journey of grief and longing, with each precious person reminded they don’t walk alone. I believe it helps to have a place to tell and to listen to stories. A group provides opportunities to cry their eyes out or to be comforted that some never shed a tear. It can help to have a weekly “date” on the calendar. It can help to have a leader—say, me—to complain about. It can help to have (and give) a hug or a handshake. “It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding,” Markus Zusak wrote in his novel The Book Thief.
With equal parts honesty and hope, a group can become a place where each one risks building a new future none of them volunteered to confront or construct.
They are strangers. They are not.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
Chairs image comes from here.by