Greta was doing all that she could to help me cope with the death of my husband. We would sit side by side on the floor, Greta grave and silent as I stroked the soft fur of her head and talked about how—or whether—we could manage without Ron. I don’t know how she picked up the cues, but she pitched her mood to mine.
Greta was good, but I needed the give and take of conversation, something beyond our interspecies communication. Not just any conversation, but conversation with others who were walking the path I had been forced along.
There was a support group in the county. It met monthly, in a big dimly-lit room. There were at least 20 people seated in a ring of chairs around the room, side by side in their aloneness. The social worker who facilitated the group simply let people tell their stories, in turn.
One man whose wife had died a few months earlier spoke of how he would be moving on.
One woman gave a minute-by-minute account of her husband’s last day, from what he ate for breakfast to the moment he went up to bed early and succumbed to a heart attack.
The meeting lasted two hours or perhaps 12. What the clock measured, I could not say. I remember leaving the building, walking out into the cold night, driving home. The stories sat up with me through the night.
I could not do that again. Somehow, the total immersion in overwhelming loss just made me feel more isolated and helpless and hopeless.
“So, Greta, what are we going to do?”
From her position stretched out on the rug, Greta thumped her tail.
I reconnected with HopeWell Cancer Support http://www.hopewellcancersupport.org/ by plugging “Baltimore cancer death support” into a search engine. Thank you, Google.
We had been to HopeWell’s support group for brain tumor patients once or twice after Ron was diagnosed, but Ron did not find it as helpful as I did. I did not want to leave him for long periods at night. We stopped going.
About HopeWell. If you were driving along in the everydayness of life, trying to pay attention to the traffic while talking on the cell phone and mentally putting together your next Powerpoint presentation, you wouldn’t notice the big old farmhouse set back from Falls Road, surrounded by grounds where family members once hoed cabbages and dug potatoes. Now, daffodils grow there.
Walk in the door and notice what is not there: institutional medical atmosphere. There is wallpaper and furniture that feels like home. There are often cookies in the kitchen. HopeWell doesn’t look, smell or sound like a place where people are hooked up to iv’s. Cancer patients stretch out their yoga mats or gather for special programs in the big living room. Small groups meet in the library or upstairs in what may have been a bedroom.
I talked my way into the bereavement support group. Karen, the social worker who facilitated the group, said two months after my husband’s death was rather a short time to be venturing out to a place where I would talk about the experience. But yes, I could come.
As a Unitarian, I believe that each of us must make his or her own spiritual journey. But there’s no reason we can’t walk side by side as we go. The bereavement support group at HopeWell had a similar underlying principle. Each of us had to figure out how and why to live on without someone we had counted on, lived with, fought with, reconciled with and loved, someone who was always there. And now, wasn’t. But if we had to make this horrible journey, at least we could walk side by side.
Driving through the early spring evening, I forced myself to walk up the steps into the old farmhouse and join the others in the small upstairs room. It was a small group, six or seven of us.
We learned from one another. We were not mentally ill just because we cried in the car as we drove and turned the radio off so we wouldn’t hear a song that had meant so much when we were part of a pair. We were not crazy if we woke in the middle of the night and reached automatically for someone no longer there. There was nothing wrong with being unable at this time to give away his t-shirts or her shoes. We would do that when it felt right.
It was a beginning.
© 2011 by Donna R. Engle