Group Support for Grievers

I dropped by my WordPress dashboard tonight to see what the stats might be for my latest post, a bit of fluff about my cat.  I realized I had several posts in the draft file and the following is one of them.  It is eighteen months old and I no longer work as a grief counselor but it is a fairly good piece of writing and captures some of the angst that a counselor can go through when trying to help the griever. I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it back in 2011. Better late than never I suppose.

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As a grief counselor I see people in a number of different ways; one-on-one, educational presentations, and group support are the main three. I prefer one-on-one because, okay I’ll say it, I like the sense of control. In a one-on-one you can lead a client and you can also challenge a client. If you hear the client going off-track, for example, you can attempt to steer the person back to the matter at hand…their grief. You can gently remind them that all those other problems were there before the death of a loved one, they were not caused by the death. If they will not be guided gently you can, eventually, draw the line in the sand and challenge their actions. More often than not it is a very effective therapy.

Groups are far more…shall we say liquid? The groups at my hospice are not the highly structured, 6 to 8 week course in grief with homework and journals. Our philosophy is that grief requires support and companioning. Generally we prefer grief-specific groups. For example, spousal loss, traumatic death, sibling loss, etc. But we also have the General Grief Group and that, my friends, is always an adventure.

I like to use my general groups as a means to discover which specific group the individual should move on to. For that reason I rarely have the same people at my general groups more than 2 or 3 times. Sometimes people are there once and I’ll not hear from them again even though I make follow-up attempts. I like to think they have gotten what they needed and moved on. For 85% of the bereaved counseling is unnecessary. They have the support of family and friends. They seek “counseling” to hear that they aren’t crazy, that it’s okay to “talk” to the deceased; it’s alright to keep Joe’s sweater so you can “hug” him; dreaming of your departed wife of 63 years does not make you nuts, it makes you normal.

But the thing about general grief groups is that they can make me a little crazy. Every session is a smorgsboard of grief. You never know what the mix of the group will provide but it is always interesting. It’s a bit like Russian roulette with grief.

One of my first group sessions is a perfect example. I had already been on the job for a couple of months, doing many one-on-ones. I’d been working with one woman whose mother had died and she was being subjected to some borderline abusive behavior by her father. She had legitimate grief issues but it was difficult to convince her of that.  Her father kept telling her she should “be over it” and when he started dating just a few months after the mother’s death it was very hard on the daughter.  We reached a point where the one-on-ones were not getting us anywhere and I suggested she try a group. Since my newly formed general grief support group was meeting in a few days it was natural to suggest that group.

Big mistake.

About nine people showed up. I knew only one, the woman whose mother had died. She looked nervous so I decided not to start the “introductions” with her. I chose the lady immediately to my client’s right. “Well,” says I, “What has brought you to our meeting today?”

“My two-year old grandchild died in an accidental drowning.”

Have you ever been in a room when all of the oxygen was sucked out of it? That was the net effect of this woman’s statement. Everyone in the room, including me, had to pick their jaw up off the table. A declaration of this magnitude renders the grief of everyone else as “minor.” It’s not true, of course, but there is a part of us that immediately capitulates to grief of this magnitude. We know at our very core that this kind of grief demands more attention.

And attention was paid. All of us bore witness to this woman’s story of unfathomable grief. And when she had finished it was time to move on to the next…my poor little woman who had lost her mother.  We don’t like to compare one type of grief to another but I could tell my client was deflated. The work of six weeks flew out the window. Her father, I suspect with many years of practice, had already driven this woman into a sense of worthlessness. He had badgered her about how well her mother had cared for him and why couldn’t his children do the same? And now, unwittingly, I had plopped her into a scenario that only re-enforced her sense that she was exagerrating the grief of losing of her mother.

My most recent general grief support group was equally diverse. There were four participants: a mother and and her teenage daughter, a late 50s woman, and an 85 year old man. The man, either by generation or gender, assumed the stage and pronounced his grief. It was profound. He had lost his wife of 63 years (in the interest of full disclosure I feel it is important to tell the readers that I am 63 years old). One day she was complaining of backache, within a week she was dead of some cancer. He was, to put it simply, lost.

The mother with her daughter had lost her husband to a massive heart attack three years ago. She and her children have been in a trauma induced fog but life is beating at the door. The bank wants to repossess the house, the wife has only recently acquired a job. The daughter is a junior in high school.

The fourth participant is dealing with anticipatory grief. Her husband is terminally ill but not yet gone. She is there, she says, because she has some problems with denial.

The pain in this room is huge and diverse. A smorgsborg. The widower rather quickly sees that his case, while sad, is not grim. He wishes he had met the woman and her daughter before he gave away all of his wife’s “expensive clothes.” I look at the mother and daughter, trying to imagine them in the clothing of a deceased woman who married her World War II hero and spent the next six decades dancing at the Elk’s Club every Saturday night. My mind is racing, trying to focus, trying to figure out how I will meld this group so that everyone gets something.

It’s not always this pretty.

And soon I realize, as I always do, that it really isn’t up to me. It is the participants who must find their way and they are doing so. There is, in every group, a magic moment when, for a brief moment, every soul in the room melds with the others. And it comes from the most unexpected person.

On this night it was the woman whose husband still lived. She was quiet throughout the night and the man noted that and asked about the sorrow she was bearing and how she was coping. He was clearly stunned at the burdens of the mother and daughter.  I think he feared that this quiet woman to his right may have deeper, even darker tragedies. I have met with this woman, one-on-one, numerous times, and have a fairly good idea just how deep her sorrow is. I waited for her reponse. She took her time and, in a measured tone said, “Well, I keep thinking that maybe I should just go out and have a beer.”

There were laughs all around. The man offered to take her for a beer. The mother said she would join them. And the teenager? She had that sly grin of a girl, hangin’ with the adults and transitioning to a woman.

I can’t say that any of them had that beer. They all seemed to go their separate ways at the door. But in that last 30-40 minutes, after the beer remark, they were a group, they were friends, and each asked about the next meeting. Will they be there?  Your guess is as good as mine.❧

Hoisted on Your Own Petard

The Petard

The death of News of the World, the last flight of the space shuttle, and the debt crisis: these items dominated the Sunday morning talk shows today.  In recent weeks I have found myself returning to these “weekly roundups.”  I can barely tolerate the 24/7 coverage of CNN or MSNBC and will not even consider Fox News, although I have tried.  But the “roundup” shows seem to capture the important points and this week’s topics, while seemingly disparate, do seem to have a similar thread to me: they have all been hoisted on their own petard.

The petard doesn’t figure in with too much of our history these days but at one time it was as vital to soldiers as the tank or the canon is today.  The petard was a small bomb that was used to blast open doors or make holes in castle walls. From what  can probably be assumed as a humble beginning, the petard evolved to a major weapon of war, used to blast an army’s way into castles and other fortifications. According to Wikipedia, “a common tactic was to dig a shallow trench close to the enemy gate, and then erect a small hoisting engine that would lift the lit petard out of the trench, swing it up, out, and over to the gate, where it would detonate and hopefully breach the gate.  This procedure might go awry; the engineer lighting the bomb could be snagged in the ropes, lifted out with the petard, and consequently blown up.” Hence he was hoisted on his own petard.

The phrase became well known complements of William Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet, who hoisted his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the petard of Hamlet’s wicked uncle, King Claudius.  The plot was to have R&G assist with the destruction of Hamlet but the clever Dane turned the table and it was R&G who died.

Without question the News of the World wins the Hoist award for the week. The British scandal sheet has printed its last edition and, seemingly, hacked its last phone.  The British public seemed quite content when the only phones hacked were those of the Monarchy — British or Hollywood style.  But when the “reporters” turned their hacking on a missing 13-year old girl who was eventually found murdered the public turned on a dime. Worse yet, it was revealed in this same week that the eavesdropping and email snooping extended to the fallen heros of Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps as many as 4,000 families of soldiers.  The British, quite rightly, do not take to the ghoulish invasion of privacy that this story suggests.  After all, what was the point? To listen to heartsick family members mourn the loss of their brave soldiers?  To perhaps hear anger at British policy that has supported a decade-long war?  It is incomprehensible and no amount of recompense can resolve this gross violation of privacy but attempts will be made.  As early as April the paper’s parent company, Rupert Murdock’s tainted News International, established a ₤15 million compensation fund for hacking victims.  The writing was on the wall even then.  Today the estimate is closer to ₤120 million and the damage has only begun to surface.

Mr. Murdoch, being no fool, has tucked his tail and turned the other way. While the “reporters” and hackers at NoW have already been hoisted it remains to be seen if the General will get his comeuppance.  One can only hope.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle Atlantis is orbiting around the world for the last time and upon its (hopefully) safe return the shuttle program is no more.  As one who has thrilled to the accomplishments of the space program from its very beginning I cannot help but feel we are loosing far more than a “space truck”.  I can remember Alan Shepherd’s 15 minute blast into space.  My high school day stopped dead and, what few TVs we had, were tuned to the grainy, black-and-white event.  Students crowded cheek-to-jowl to see the blastoff and anxiously await the recovery.  In December 1968, while in college, I witnessed the blast-off of Apollo 8 on a cold beach in Florida.  I felt the thunder of the Saturn 5 rocket shake the very core of my being and watched the ascent of three brave men who were going to the moon, albeit just to circle that orb a few times and then head home.  But wonderfully those orbits came on Christmas Eve and the words of Genesis read by Frank Borman were universal enough to appeal to people of all faiths, to all the people of this world.  It was an earth uniting moment that gives me chills even today as I write.  It was a colossal moment of hope.

Space shuttle arrived with perhaps less sex appeal.  No moon trips for this baby.  But it would do great things. We were sure of that. And it has.  The international space station is no small feat and repair of the Hubble satellite alone was worth the investment. Those of us who grew up in the glamor days of space travel knew that nuts and bolts work was a part of it.  Pay the price because space is important.  Think of it every time you velcro up your jacket or shoes, or look at the computers that you carry everywhere or type in an address on your GPS.  It was the space program that brought these marvels to you.

And now the American space program is … what? Where?  How, in these times particularly when there seems so little hope, how can we close the shuttle program with no viable future for American involvement in space other than “private enterprise” and some vague pronouncement from the Obama Administration about space programs that have no time table.  The man who had the audacity to hope has not applied that hope to space.

But NASA shares a huge part of the blame in this.  Their policy from the beginning of the space shuttle program was to make space flight “routine.”  We no longer had “space ships” or “spacecraft”.  It was NASA itself that first used the term “space truck”.  At one time, in their hubris, NASA predicted a flight every month from the space shuttles.  The astronauts were no longer the glamorous people of the Mercury 7 or the Gemini 13.  They were “payload specialists” and NASA downplayed their personalities, choosing instead to float special candidates to the top, like Sally Ride (America’s first woman in space) and teacher Christa McAuliffe.  In part this was to protect the astronauts but the net result was no heros.  Only those who died became heros and the colossal waste of these failed missions — both in lives and financial investment — did little to help NASA in its public relations efforts to keep Americans excited about the positive accomplishments of space travel. NASA has been hoisted too.

Which brings us to the debt ceiling crisis that is playing out in agonizing (and numbing) detail on our TVs each day.  Chicken Little with his cries of a falling sky looks like a rank amateur compared to the players in this drama. The sad part is that the sky really is about to fall and we (with apologies for metaphor mixing) are like lambs to the slaughter.  The public is so ideologically bludgeoned that it can no longer determine what is real and what isn’t.  The media, playing the role of Chicken Little with remarkable likeness, clamors daily about the dangers but it fails to give the public the reliable data it needs to make a decision and raise an upcry.  Fareed Zakaria the columinist and commentator, has done the best job of explaining the failure that I have heard.  Speaking on NPR, he succinctly noted that the budget is about numbers, not ideology.  So much money coming in, so much money going out.  It is simple math to make things work but both political parties have made even the process of math ideological.  Democrats won’t accept cuts, Republicans won’t increase revenue.  The result? A very real and dangerous situation in which the United States of America may, for the first time in 235 years, default on its loans.  The political parties are already hoisted on their own petards but the great fear is that they are about to take us there with them.❧