H.O.P.E. for the bereaved, even years later

Four years after Shirley T.’s husband died, the anniversary of his death was more painful than she could have anticipated. She spent the day before cooking the foods he loved and somehow navigated emotionally through the anniversary itself.

The following Thursday evening, she was quick to share that experience with other members of her grief support group.

“Thank God for this group and these friends,” she said, referring to the H.O.P.E. Unit Foundation for Bereavement Loss and Transition, the oldest and largest grief support organization in the Los Angeles area.

For people like Shirley T., whose spouses have been deceased for two or more years, the gut-wrenching grief has mostly dissipated. But an anniversary or holiday, or the death of an elderly parent or relative, can often blindside them, triggering familiar feelings of loneliness and sadness.

What Shirley T. has found comforting, as have other widows and widowers who have participated in the H.O.P.E. Unit Foundation’s weekly grief support groups for two or more years, is to continue meeting monthly as an alumni group, convening at Valley Beth Shalom or Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Irmas Campus.

“Grief shows up when it shows up,” said Dr. Jo Christner, a licensed clinical psychologist who facilitates the Valley Beth Shalom alumni group of 18 people in their late 50s to late 80s.

Christner explained that many people need more time to rebuild their lives in a caring and comfortable environment, especially as well-meaning friends and family members suggest that they need to “get over” their spouse’s death.

As Marie K. told the group about the “little crying spells” she has even five years after her husband’s death, “It’s not just the person who you loved who is gone but your whole life.”

H.O.P.E. Unit Foundation (which stands for “hope, opportunity, participation and education”) was founded in 1970 originally as a nonprofit cancer support group for patients and their families. Now it is primarily a grief support organization for widows and widowers and other family members.

For those in the first two years of mourning, groups meet weekly at Valley Beth Shalom on Thursday evenings and at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Irmas Campus on Tuesday evenings. Alumni groups meet monthly at both locations. H.O.P.E. also sponsors parent loss groups.

Although H.O.P.E. is nondenominational, approximately 90 percent of the participants are Jewish, representing 23 different synagogues in the Los Angeles area. They come from as far away as San Gabriel Valley and Orange County.

The foundation helps people whose lives were shattered by the death of a spouse to regroup and rebuild, according to Dr. Marilyn Stolzman, H.O.P.E.’s executive director and co-author, along with Gloria Lintermans, of “The Healing Power of Grief” and “The Healing Power of Love” (published by Sourcebooks, Inc.).

“Our goal is to help people come back to life and heal,” Stolzman said.

She added that while she and other therapists previously thought that two years in a bereavement group was sufficient, they are finding that many people need more time not to grieve but to transition back into the community in their new role.

What makes H.O.P.E. unique, according to Stolzman, is that licensed therapists with additional training in bereavement issues facilitate the groups.

Plus, the groups of 10 to 15 people are organized according to months of mourning, enabling the participants to experience similar concerns as they move unevenly through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of mourning: shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance.

For this last stage of acceptance, however, Stolzman substitutes the words adjustment, transition and integration. “I think those words more aptly describe what people go through,” she said.

And it’s the work of this final stage that is done in the alumni group as they move into what for them is the “new normal.”

After 24 months of grieving, the issues change. While the participants in the alumni group continue to process the memories and sadness triggered by anniversaries and holidays, more often the discussions focus on such issues as adult children, health, elderly parents, traveling and, yes, dating and sexuality.

“It’s connection. It’s a place to process ongoing life problems,” alumni group therapist Christner said.

Part of the growing now includes mentoring the newcomers, a new program that came out of the participants’ desire to give back to others by welcoming the newly widowed and encouraging them by sharing their experiences. The alumni are in the process of preparing a booklet, titled, “We Have Walked in Your Shoes,” which describes their own pain, as well as how the group bereavement experience helped mitigate it and move them forward.

The group participants almost invariably become close friends, going to dinner on a weekly basis, socializing on the weekends, attending religious services together and calling each other, sometimes when they’re crying hysterically at 2 a.m. They also understand one another in ways their family and couple friends can’t.

Geri M., who joined H.O.P.E. in October 2003, several weeks after her husband’s death, views the group as a crucial part of her new life.

“For me, the most important thing was making single friends. Before, all our friends were married couples and I felt very sad,” she said. Geri plans to remain in the alumni group and is working as one of the inaugural mentors.

H.O.P.E. is a nonprofit organization, funded by a suggested fee of $27 per person per session, by small grants and private donations and by occasional fundraisers. But the fees and donations don’t cover operating expenses, mostly for modest staff salaries and insurance. And while Stolzman would like to maintain the current level of service, she admits that “this has been the worst year ever” in terms of contributions, which she attributes to the sagging economy.

“It’s a great mitzvah for the Jewish community to be able to provide this,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who refers many people to H.O.P.E. He added that after the death of a spouse, especially if you’ve been married a long time, “You don’t know who you are in the world anymore or where you belong.”

This was certainly true for Shirley T., who contemplated suicide after her husband died. She recently marked the fourth anniversary of his death and credits H.O.P.E. with literally saving her life.

“I don’t think I would be alive if it weren’t for this group,” she said.

For more information or to make a donation, call (818) 788-4673.

A date for three

I’m always hearing about a surplus of widows and divorced women, but recently I realized that I have been meeting widowers.

I got a call from my photographer
who asked if he could fix me up with one of his actor clients, “Moe,” who had spotted my photo and wanted to contact me. The last time I’d seen him was several years ago, and he was married then. Now he was a widower. I spotted his picture in the photographer’s sample book and kept flipping the pages. The photographer was pleased — he thought he was making a shidduch (match) and was surprised when I told him I’ve known Moe for years.

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Moe, acting like he didn’t know me, sent me an e-mail, containing a few silly one-liners — and he asked me to call him. I told myself I have nothing to lose — if nothing else I’d get a lunch out of it. I played it straight. I wrote back and asked him to tell me about himself and what it was about my headshot that caught his eye. He responded that it was the sparkle in my eyes, and he asked for my phone number.

He called and we arranged to have lunch on a Tuesday. At lunch I saw a totally different Moe. He was a little more serious. He talked about himself, and about his late wife, which brought tears to his eyes. She had died of a brain tumor, and he was her caretaker. He has grown children from a previous marriage. And, of course, we talked about our careers and how we keep busy between auditions.

Although we are both in a good age category, neither of us gets many auditions, but we keep plugging. We parted with “let’s stay in touch.” I called him about a week later, and we had a friendly chat and left it at that.

In 2003, I got a call from a friend in Chicago telling me that a mutual friend in Maryland had died of a brain tumor. I sent her husband “Joe” a condolence card. In 2004, as I usually do, I sent a Rosh Hashanah card. Then I get a phone call from Joe. A weekly call turned into a daily call. We reminisced about the old days and caught up with the present. He was still hurting after his wife’s death (it was a 45-year happy marriage). Our phone conversations cheered him up. Joe decided he wanted to visit Los Angeles. He had been stationed at Camp Pendleton in the Marines in the 1950s and had not been here since. I had not seen him since I left Maryland 30 years ago.

When I met him at the airport he looked the same — a few wrinkles, a little gray hair. Then I noticed a shaky hand (an uncontrollable tremor), and he had problems with his dentures. The two weeks in January that he stayed in my guestroom were the rainiest in Los Angeles. In between the raindrops, I tried to show him the sites. We did see a lot of movies, and ate out.

He hated to leave: He was having a good time and it was cold and snowy back East. Joe beamed when his flight was delayed by two days. Before he left, he accepted a wedding invite in May in San Francisco and invited me to go. His unmarried adult daughter was also invited.

When they came in May he rented a car, and was planning to do some of the driving. But once was enough for him, and L.A. traffic was not his thing. His daughter was no help, so he handed me the keys and I drove the entire trip up the coast. We stopped at all the famous sites. Having lived in the Bay Area for many years, I was familiar with the area.

During one of our phone conversations we had talked about what I would do if I had lots of money — my response was to travel. Well, he asked me if I wanted to go to Israel (the rabbi from his temple was going to lead a mission at the end of June 2005) — something I wasn’t expecting. Of course, I said yes.

He paid for the entire trip including separate rooms. Jerusalem was our home base and we were kept busy from morning till night. We took lots of day trips from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea — including what seemed like every Israeli museum. I had a wonderful time and made 30 new friends instantly. As much as we both enjoyed the trip, it felt like his late wife was with him in spirit the entire time. Bottom line: we still talk twice a week. I’ve seen Joe a few times when I’ve gone to Washington, D.C. to visit my kids.

I feel sorry for both Moe and Joe. Although they say they are healing, I don’t think either one will get over the loss of their wives. The jury is still out. And, yes, I do feel somewhat cheated — maybe the next time I meet a widower I should give him a questionnaire asking “how far along are you in the grieving process?” before I date him.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

Stepping Out

Time does move on.

When Irwin Greenfield’s wife died 16 years ago, he figured he had two choices: either stay alone behind closed doors curled up on his couch or get out and mingle with the rest of the world. He chose the latter, and he hasn’t looked back.

After checking out a few singles groups, Greenfield, who lives in Fountain Valley, discovered a newspaper ad for Harbor Jewish Singles, one of Orange County’s only groups for older Jewish singles. It has proved an enriching experience for Greenfield, 70, a seven-year member. “I knew that I had to make an effort to get out after my wife died, so I pushed myself to get up and go,” said Greenfield, who was married for 26 years. “I think as we get older, it’s harder and harder to meet people because we’re not at a college or a place where lots of people the same age congregate.”

Harbor Jewish Singles, established 15 years ago, is an independent group for those 55 and older that meets weekly for a variety of activities ranging from evening walks around Balboa Island to attending a local playhouse production.

In a era when many Americans are outliving their spouses, more seniors are finding a need for groups such as Harbor Jewish Singles to develop new relationships, platonic and otherwise. Federal statistics show that one in eight Americans (35 million) are 65 or older. And the older population itself is getting older. In 2000, the very elderly, those 85 and older, stand at 4.2 million, 34 times greater than at the turn of the 20th century.

Susie Forer-Dehrey, the associate executive director of Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles, noted that today’s seniors want to remain active. “These aren’t just the ‘golden years’ anymore,” she said. “They have become the years when seniors can take charge and perhaps do some of the things that they missed when they were younger.”

Greenfield, like many other members of the Harbor Jewish Singles group, defies the stereotype of a senior citizen who spends his day feet up, watching television.

“I think the common misperception about seniors is that we’re are old, cranky and just sit around,” said Greenfield, who is vice president of the group and works in sales at JCPenney in the Westminster Mall. “This group is anything but. We go to all sorts of places, and we always seem to have something going on. For me, I’ve met a lot of really good friends that I can count on.”

Another member, Shirley Serota, 75, of Huntington Beach, the former president of the Harbor Jewish Singles, said she has developed numerous friendships through the group over the years. “I always tell the women that if they are looking for a mate, they will be disappointed; it’s about one man to 15 women,” she said. “When you’re married, you usually hang out with a group of people who are couples. But when your mate dies, you become a fifth wheel; I decided that I didn’t want to be a fifth wheel.”

Today, Serota enjoys participating in the group’s activities but she is equally appreciative, like Greenfield, of the relationships she’s developed that she believes will be long lasting.

“What this club did for me and continues to do for me and others is open a door for recreation and meeting other individuals who are in the same situation. I’m not saying that you’ll like everyone or be friendly with everyone, but it’s a lot like when you’re in grade school, you’re in a class of 26 — maybe you’ll become good friends with two or three. We’re a strong group that likes to get out and do things; we’re go-getters; social animals.”

Current president, Carol Cooperman, a 70-something widow from Fountain Valley, mirrored Serota’s view about friendships and the delight she takes in her six-year membership in the group.

“I’m not a typical senior, nor are the people who are in the group,” she stressed. “I usually jump right into the center of things — being the president and part of this group has been great for me. I’ve always felt that being on the fringes of something wasn’t good enough, you must jump in if you want to be a part of something and make a change.”

The former teacher said she met her present “significant other” through Harbor Jewish Singles more than a year ago. “It’s a very fulfilling group that’s highly educated and has a take-charge attitude,” she said. “I’ve met so many people who share the same interests with me…. Without the group, I don’t think I would have ever had a social life after my husband passed on.”

Cooperman said some of the more popular activities include jaunts to museums, short trips and special events including a trip to Huntington Beach’s Chrysanthemum Festival last month. “The best part of the group is that there is always a variety of things going on,” she said. “If you want to keep busy, the Harbor Jewish Singles group is for you.”

A general planning meeting for Harbor Jewish Singles is held at 10 a.m. on the first Sunday of each month at Jewish Community Center of Orange County, 250 E. Baker St. Suite C, Costa Mesa. Membership is $20 annually and includes a monthly bulletin as well as discounted fees for many activities. For more information, call Irwin Greenfield at (714) 842-7846.

Debbie L. Sklar is an Orange County-based journalist who
writes for many local and national publications. She can be reached at Debbiesklar@hotmail.com .