March 26, 2012

When You’re the One Left Behind

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I just never saw this coming,” explained Susan Dennison as she talked about her husband’s sudden death in 2009. As a social worker by profession, Dennison wanted to model healthy behavior for her students by seeking professional support. So she turned to Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro (HPCG). “I assumed that one-on-one counseling would help me with my deep sense of loss and the impact of this horrific life-changing event,” she said. “But what surprised me was that joining a grief support group actually became a life-saving event.”

Several of Dennison’s fellow support group members nodded in agreement. Bill Fulmer added, “No one can understand what it’s like to lose a spouse until you go down that road yourself.

Being in the group has helped me feel like a normal person, when I didn’t feel normal at all.” Joni Park commented with a smile, “I’m surprised you all let me stay in the group. While most everyone was pretty emotional those first few weeks, I cried every week – for many weeks. Never once did someone make me feel uncomfortable for expressing myself the way I did.”

“Life-changing losses are overwhelming. They inhibit us, even as adults, from thinking the same way we have before,” explains Marcia Vanard, HPCG’s Director of Counseling and Education. “The group dynamic allows people who are in the same place to put their grief on the table … they’re all there for the same purpose.”  “Well meaning friends and family members want so badly to help,” added Joanne Williams. “They offer advice on many topics, like the importance of staying busy. Sometimes you just need to be still … so you can process what’s happened.” In Williams’ stillness, she rediscovered her joy for playing the piano and now plays two hours each day.

Marion O’Brien explained that she desperately needed to find some control in her life. Despite the objections of friends and family, she put her dog in the car and drove cross country to visit her two children inCalifornia. “It felt so good to know that all I needed to do was get up … get in the car, and drive.”

“In our culture we are given such little time to grieve,” explained Vanard. “Shortly after three months, our counseling clients share that family and friends begin pressing them to ‘get on with life.’ But at three months, most grieving people are still in shock,” continued Vanard. “Feelings can’t be processed until the numbness of that shock begins to wear off.  It is at that point, that being in an HPCG support group can be the most beneficial.”

A place to feel secure is a cornerstone of the support group. “I feel safe to be who I need to be within this group,” shared Sue Davis. “No one judges anyone. In fact, one of our members shared she’d eaten an entire container of Cool-Whip in one sitting, and no one even reacted. Being in the group has allowed me to feel hopeful – I wanted more.”

As Andrea Summers, HPCG Grief Counselor, brought the eighth and final support group meeting to a close, she announced that some groups continue to meet on an informal basis. That was all Rick Stanford needed to hear. He stood up, asked for a show of hands and announced the time and place for the next meeting. The “Hospice Family Group” has been meeting regularly for the past fifteen months and continues to use email to stay connected.

“Celebrating one another’s little victories has been important to everyone,” explained Mary Susan Ross. The group was so proud of Rick Stanford, when he took a trip to Las Vegas– an annual trip he and his wife had been making for 20 years. While his journey was bittersweet, it was an important accomplishment for him.

“I would never have felt brave enough to go to that first Carolina basketball game without Bobby had it not been for Rick’s story,” continued Ross. “I think our group has become a touch stone of sorts, offering each of us encouragement, insight and validation.” Vanard explains that because grief is such unfamiliar territory, people join support groups to learn how to find their way in such a foreign place. “It’s actually not that different from the way young mothers seek out other young mothers,” she said. “One will say how are you managing with ‘such and such’, and they learn from one another, while validating their own feelings.”

“There are tremendous commonalities in how each of us feels,” reflected Susan Dennison. “But what has been surprising is the vast differences in what energizes each of us and helps us cope. That has been a very powerful lesson,” said Dennison. It has helped us feel more tolerant of others – most especially our own grieving children.”

“It has been two years since my husband died,” continued Dennison, “and I still struggle. But I can’t keep looking back. This is reality … my new normal. When you’re the one who’s been left behind, you need help rebuilding your life and stretching past your comfort zone. I am less afraid because I have my ‘Hospice Family Group’ friends by my side. They will help me and we will help each other.”

Article originally published in August 2011 HPCG Newslines

Our Counseling and Education Center at HPCG has numerous support groups for bereaved spouses….

Starting in May, the “Finding Our New Normal” group is for those who have done a lot of grieving already over the death of their spouses. This is for bereaved spouses who are ready to look forward toward the next chapter of their lives and continue the healing by engaging in new activities and finding new meaning.

For more opportunities and registration information, click HERE