With a terminally ill loved one, you begin the grieving process long before the person actually dies, vacillating between anger, frustration, devoted care giving and guilt. Guilt both because you can never do enough and because you feel so bad that the person you love is going to die and you get to go on living. And there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it.
After a solid year of intense care giving for Tom, my husband of 28 years who died of brain cancer almost two years, I felt like I fought a war and lost. Initially, I was physically and mentally beat, lost and very sad.
So given this scenario, I was open to listening to people, a few of them widows, who told me to join a grief group. “It really helped me,” said my cousin, whose husband died in a tragic auto plant accident more than 10 years ago. Give it a try, recommended my sister who joined one after our mom died. Because I had been going through anticipatory grief for the last six months of Tom’s terminal illness, I had a head start on grieving. Still, I thought, why not. I’ll try a grief group.
Little did I know the challenge that lay ahead.
My first group was a session at the hospice office, which was recommended to me by a hospice social worker. Still feeling emotionally tender, just a few weeks after Tom’s funeral, I headed to the other side of town on an unusually sunny, warm Michigan March evening. Upon arriving, I was told that they didn’t know anything about a grief group. When I said I talked to someone that the group was here, a woman directed me to the back of the building. Out came a thirty-something social worker who said, in no uncertain terms, that no one was coming that evening. He asked if I’d like some one-on-one counseling? I didn’t. I wanted a grief group – other people going through what I was going through, more seasoned widows who could empathize and give me coping tips. I almost started crying on my way out. How dismal to go to a grief group and nobody shows up.
After some web research, I found another one – in a different suburban setting at one of the mega churches, where you walk a mile from an ocean-sized parking lot to a meeting room deep within a massive building. I was a bit uncomfortable as I walked late into a dimly-lit room, where seven people sat at a u-shaped table and warmly welcomed me.
Not to dismiss the grieving members of this group (but I sort of am), I felt that every person in the room should have moved on in their grief process. There was the dutiful 30ish son who, after a year, was still struggling that his mother was gone and could not babysit his kids while he and his wife worked. “She was supposed to help take care of her grand kids. We were relying on her as the babysitter,” he lamented. I was slightly appalled.
An 80ish widow, grieving for her second husband, was accompanied by her daughter, apparently grieving for her stepfather. Finally, an older woman shared with the group, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks, that she still was not over her dear mother’s death.
The vibe here was all about using prayer to get through loss. I was the only one in fresh sorrow and, while spiritual and Catholic to an extent, was completely turned off by the evangelical mood in the room. The topper was a movie featuring people who had lost a loved ones. It was very much the TV evangelist model with well-dressed people talking about how God helped them through it. Problem was there was no other piece of advice to be shared.
I left early to have a drink with my cousin.
The third group was in my city, just a 10-minute drive to a protestant church. It was offered through a local hospital health care system once a month. This was going to be my last try. I was greeted by a 60-something nun who was kind and welcoming. A few others were there – again an elderly man whose wife died a year ago, a middle-aged woman who kept crying about her deceased mother, and a middle-aged couple whose son apparently committed suicide. Very nice people all of them.
Again, I was the fresh one, so I wanted to listen more than talk. Sister invited me to the six-week grief program they offer a few times a year. I wrote it in my calendar and was on my way.
A month later I tried it – went to one session and planned to attend all six. I found myself giving people in the group advice and sharing some of my coping techniques. The nun was nice but repetitive, and her point of reference for loss: a long-time friend who died three years ago. I just couldn’t relate.
Each Wednesday I thought about going, but had social offers come my way — dinner with a friend, a movie, a night out with my sister. I never went back. When I think about it now, the grief group was a chore, an obligation. And I felt in every case that I could do a better job of conducting a grief class than these people who were in charge.
It’s been almost two years since Tom died, and I’m long past the need for a group. Perhaps having those three very different experiences, in some weird way, helped me grieve.