The bereavement support group has wound down after about an hour and a half, with folks talking in small groups or milling around the table with homemade cookies and muffins, provided by the participants. Jack baked the bran walnut raisin muffins just the way he did when his wife was alive. The top of the muffins have been abundantly sprinkled with sugar. Jack would slice the top off for his wife, Diane, who liked the sweetness; he would eat the bottom half. Jack shares a muffin in this fashion with one of the women.
The only male member of the day’s 12-person-strong support group, Jack also participates in a weekly men’s-only meeting, where he is part of a very special brotherhood. I want to talk to Jack about this, but first, he tells me, he wants to talk with some of the women in the group that just broke up. The men in his support group, I have come to learn, encourage female company. The idea is that the companionship that’s been lost should be replaced, even at a much more casual level. It is a start.
Ten minutes later, Jack and I are talking about the men’s group.
“We are like soldiers who have been in a foxhole. We have developed a love that is hard to explain,” Jack says, cutting to the chase. He credits the men’s group with aiming him toward light at the end of the tunnel when he couldn’t, he says, even see the tunnel.
After Diane died suddenly of a heart attack, Jack was lost. After days in a haze of sadness and inactivity, he found himself looking for help. A friend suggested a Hospice-led bereavement support group—even though Diane hadn’t died while under Hospice care. (Bereavement support is available to anyone at all who wants this help.) Jack called the number he was given and got to speak to Lindy Barton, Talbot Hospice bereavement coordinator and social worker. She leads support groups at the Talbot Hospice office in Easton. Her wisdom and kindness are profoundly healing.
“Grief exposes people to a different state of being and vulnerability,” says Lindy. In the group, the participants deeply support each other. “They are in a place of feeling safe to share concerns, emotions, and thoughts. They learn that it is okay to give themselves permission to grieve and that each of them will grieve in his own way, in his own time frame.”
“We five guys share our souls,” Jack says. Lindy also shares book recommendations with the group. “The green book, Understanding Your Grief by Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D., she suggested was the eighth I’d read that touched on the subject of grieving,” he tells me. Finally, a chord was struck. Lindy had hit a home run.
“What I learned in the very first sentence,” Jack continues, “is that grief is a process of adjusting. Yes, I’d had 54 years with my wife, and then she was gone.” The book reinforced that the loved one who is gone is honored when the one left behind resolves to take care of himself or herself. Jack has marked up the margins of the book with his comments and, here and there, a smiley face. Serving as the book’s bookmark: a photograph of his wife.
“We are more than classmates,” Jack offers. “We have developed nearly brother-like relationships while we help each other recover from loss.” They encourage each other to take action—to fill their time with things that will gratify, such as spending time with family.
“The group participants learn that if the grief process is delayed, it is more difficult to discover hope and joy again,” Lindy adds. “I have appreciated watching participants come to the understanding that it is okay to accept that life will never be as they once knew. We talk a lot about reconciliation and transitioning.” Lindy underscores, “The grief never fully goes away but it can be changed.” However, she says, “As long as you can mourn, then you can dance again.”
Jack shares that the men’s group has moments of lightheartedness interlaced with the sadness that comes with devastating loss. The darkness certainly can overwhelm. Jack tells of learning that one of his cohorts was in such a black place that he was contemplating suicide. Jack listened. He asked questions. He gave support, love, and the assurance that he was there for him. His friend pulled through.
In the end, as Lindy explains, the men’s bereavement group is a collection of individuals moving toward a new normal. “Their communication with each other is heartwarmingly realistic as they express their concerns, hopes, dreams, and fears while learning that what they are going through is sometimes normal during periods of sorrow.
Weaving throughout many of the men’s discussions is the concept of mindfulness—“of being in the moment,” as Lindy explains it, offering that the best way to be in the moment is to “be kind, patient, trusting, accepting.” Certainly a good way to move through the healing process.
Sheila Feldman Buckmaster is a staff member at Talbot Hospice in Easton. For more information about Talbot Hospice’s various bereavement support groups, call Lindy Barton or Jody Gunn at 410-822-6681 (116).