“I don’t want to belong to any club that wants me as a member.” Good ol’ Groucho Marx pretty much hit the nail on the head about my reluctance to join groups. Just ask my hefty posse of friends who know me all too well. They’ll tell you I’m just not much of a joiner type. It has nothing to do with the groups. Maybe I’m just allergic to meeting minutes, or having to commit to regular times on the calendar. That being said, though, I have made exceptions.
After my husband died, my church’s pastor suggested I jump into my parish grief support group, so I went – once. To be fair, it was a good idea in theory and there were lovely people there. They also seemed a lot older and their memories longer since their entire adult lives were spent with one partner. Still, I could have worked with that, since grief is always a common denominator. No, the deal breaker was the fact that the meeting was held in the same exact room my husband and I sat for 9 years when we ran a cancer support group. Fidgeting a few spots away from the very same couch we sat on, month after month as facilitators, I kept glancing at the now empty space. I couldn’t help envision my husband, animated, always gracious and thinking to myself ‘what the hell am I doing here?’.
I couldn’t leave fast enough.
Having escaped to my car, I realized, uncomfortably, that I incongruously yearned to be back in that cancer group. How twisted is that? Subconsciously, I guess I supposed that if I was there, in that room, on that couch, with that cancer support group — my husband would still be alive. (Sounds reasonable, if a bit outer limit Twilight Zone) He’d be sitting right next to me on that well-used flowered couch. Damn.
Loss isn’t nearly that easy. In the months and days of the ‘after’, you find yourself struggling to swim through crashing waves, often finding yourself flat on the ocean floor. It seems like miles between your inert form and the fractured light glimmering through the water above. Those are the times it’s good to find a fellow snorkeler, someone with a towline – or, maybe a few of them. When you’re struggling just to reach the surface, you need people who can help you swim. Getting through the grief that loss brings sometimes takes a village. Which village is your choice.
Encouragement and inspiration live in support groups. Having facilitated two of them, I feel grateful to have learned as much as I tried to impart, felt humbled as much as I tried to lend support. I know they can be a place of hope and blessing but, like life itself, they also are multi-faceted. Having gotten close to many of the people who shared so much of themselves, a cancer support group also brings concern and sometimes, yes, even loss. Still, with all the patchwork of emotion, and long years of energetic commitment, I have absolutely no regrets. Love, true care and spirit lived in that room, and I suspect it still does in the grief support group – just not for me.
If you a bereavement group as your lifeline, make sure you are far enough along your own journey to hear others’ stories of loss without becoming uncomfortable or more depressed. That being said, simply being part of the shared stories of grief in a group can be exactly the right place to begin your journey back. Though I swam in another direction, we are all in the grief boat, just trying to stay afloat. Whatever life preserver fits, grab hold.
I’m super lucky to swim through this life with amazing, generous spirited friends. I love each one too much to plop the entire suitcase of all my complex grief feelings on their heads. I didn’t want to drag them under with me. I need my buddy system to once again on those pool floats with a fruity drink in hand. So, life jacket in place, I swam toward my own alternative bereavement go-to, a grief counselor. She was and is a perfect fit for me. As most bereavement counselors, she not only understands the grief process, but allowed me to unload my grief without worry. She’s offered clarity, sensitivity, and understanding without judgement and with a thoughtful down-to-earth connection. Because effective bereavement counselors are knowledgeable about the grief process, they offer witness to your experience, as well as real-time certainty that you will indeed survive, and move forward.
Whichever you choose, life preservers are within reach. Along with family and friends, add a support group or grief counselor to your ‘village’ to help you get from sorrow – to tomorrow. As tough as any of us think we are, death has a funny way of knocking us right out of the canoe. And I don’t know about you, but I vote for all hands on deck to pull my sputtering self back into the boat again.
I never did learn to breathe underwater.