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.