Can grieving together help cope with loss? There’s HOPE

On a recent Thursday evening, inside a children’s library in the basement of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, 10 women and three men, all grieving the recent loss of a spouse, sat in a circle around a box of tissues.
May 25, 2016

On a recent Thursday evening, inside a children’s library in the basement of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, 10 women and three men, all grieving the recent loss of a spouse, sat in a circle around a box of tissues.

With a reporter in the room, most participants agreed to keep their nametags — which included first names only — on display as they discussed the Mother’s Day that had just passed and a Father’s Day fast approaching.

“Father’s not gonna be there,” said Lynne, who recently lost her husband. “I still haven’t accepted it.”

Norm spoke of how spending Mother’s Day with family still left him with an empty feeling. 

“I spent the day with my son and my daughter-in-law and my grandkids, but it was extremely lonely,” he said.

Leading the participants through the 90-minute meeting for the nonprofit HOPE Connection was Sheila Newton, a licensed marriage and family therapist. It was one of several weekly meetings organized by the group across the Los Angeles area. (Other sites for gatherings include Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West L.A.)

Founded in 1979 by oncologist Avrum Bluming, HOPE Connection regularly draws more than 70 people to its Thursday night spousal loss groups at VBS. About 30 people come to its Tuesday evening spousal loss groups at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and its three other spousal and parental loss groups at VBS, in a West L.A. office and in Westlake Village draw about 25 people every week. The vast majority of the members are Jewish, although there is no religious requirement to attend.

Jo Christner, a clinical psychologist and HOPE Connection’s executive director, said she would like to create groups for sibling and child loss once there is sufficient demand. 

The organization runs primarily off the fees paid by its participants, who pay a one-time $50 orientation fee, and then $30 per meeting. Every group of at least five people is led by a licensed therapist, who guides the participants through an intimate, open and honest discussion about the grief they are experiencing, and their difficulty (or success) moving on. 

At any given point, depending on how many people are signed up in the program, HOPE has five to six groups, each segmented based on the duration of time since loss. Group 1 includes people whose loved one died one to four months ago; Group 2 is five to eight months; Group 3 is nine to 12 months; Group 4 is 13 to 17 months; and Group 5 is 18 to 24 months. Graduates then join the “New Beginnings” group, which meets twice a month, and serves as a sort of check-in for people who are experiencing loss in a very different way from how they were two or more years ago.  

“It’s easier for people in early grief to sit with other people in early grief,” Christner said. “People in Group 1 are not talking yet about taking off wedding rings. People in Group 3 might be doing that.”

 As part of the recent meeting she led, Newton handed out a list of things that many mourners find frustrating or painful to hear from friends who want to help, but don’t know how. Each participant took turns reading, and there were suggested responses, such as: “If you don’t know what to say, just come over and give me a hug or touch my arm, and gently say, ‘I’m sorry’ ”; or, “Ask me how I feel only if you really have time to find out. I am not strong. I am just numb”; and, “I will not recover. This is not a cold or the flu. I am not sick. I am grieving.”

“Oh, God, is this true,” said Lynne, choking back tears.

Maddie, who was anticipating her son’s upcoming 30th birthday party in New York, said it would be the first time she’s seen him since her husband, his father, died.

“The shadow of Dad not being there just crushes me,” Maddie said. 

She told the group that she was recently at a local cancer center to visit a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy. It was the same cancer center where her late husband was treated, and she ran into two nurses who had taken care of him.

“They say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ ” Maddie said. “I just look and I go, ‘So am I. So am I.’ ”

Just outside the library, in the main lobby of VBS’ youth center, the New Beginnings group of 16 women and one man sat on couches and chairs, engaging in a mix of thoughtful conversation and banter. There was a markedly different mood among these people — each of whom lost their spouse more than two years ago — from those just a few feet away in the library.

“The way you talk about death now is very different than two years ago,” said Evelyn Pechter, the psychologist leading the group. “You’re able to talk about it, for one thing.”

And, yet, the wound doesn’t heal; at best, it becomes a scar.

“Is there a time clock on grieving?” asked a woman named Betty. “You still go home. You are alone, you’ve got the pictures, the love of your life is not there anymore.”

The idea behind HOPE Connection is simple — grieving with others in a similar situation is healthier than grieving alone. Christner said HOPE Connection’s weekly groups help compensate for the “very isolating” nature of loss.

“People that go to groups and heal in community with each other and understand the loss that they’re having just do better,” Christner said. “They heal and they start realizing they’re not alone.”

New Beginnings is also more than just the name of a HOPE Connection group; it also has facilitated some new relationships. Christner said there was a 90-year-old widower who met a 90-year-old woman who was grieving her husband’s loss.

“He’s happy again,” Christner said. “When you have your partner who’s been your partner, your buddy, your best friend, your confidant — you yearn to have that connection again.”

Virginia Lawrence Paige, who started attending New Beginnings meetings in March, turned to HOPE Connection six weeks after the death of her husband, John, about 2 1/2 years ago. John died of melanoma, just seven weeks after he was diagnosed. Paige said when she first started, she just sat and cried quietly, but now she’s in a very different place.

“We’re actually living our lives now rather than hunkering down under a blanket,” she said. “The group has become a very important part of my life.” 

New Beginnings members often spend time together outside of HOPE Connection meetings, like meeting up for walks at Lake Balboa and going out for dinner.

Of course, there is no pretense that HOPE, or anything else, can repair a loss. It is a tool for coping and a medium to create connections with other people in similar situations.

Joel Saltzburg, 76, lost his wife in November 2013 to pancreatic cancer, 10 weeks after being diagnosed. Saltzburg is now a mentor to new participants, which includes walking them through the orientation and application process, and accompanying them on their first visit to a group.

“I realized that everybody has their story, and basically — it is a loss,” Saltzburg said. “I remember days where I sat in front of the television set without turning it on for five hours at a time, wrapped up in a blanket. By sitting in the meetings and listening to everybody, it somehow helped.”

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