As a chaplain with hospice, bereavement counseling was a significant part of my job.
As of this posting, this incredible group of ladies has been continuing to meet monthly for over thirteen years. Their friendships have lasted with one another and with me.
They have been a special blessing to me.
Dianne and Bill had been inseparable, either when they had worked together in their store, or, in later years, enjoying their retirement. They had passed on certain traditions to their children. Upon entering their home, one could not help but notice a familiar theme. Everywhere you looked, objects were arranged in threes. On a shelf in the living room was a grouping of three angels. On the wall in the hallway were hanging three hearts. Whenever a member of the family drove away in a car, they would sound the horn. Everyone in the family knew that the “threes” stood for “I love you.”
The children and grandchildren were distraught when Bill died, but Dianne was inconsolable. In spite of Bill’s lengthy illness and the presence of hospice, denial had been strong. Having been long time residents of the area, and owners of a store out at St. Petersburg Beach, the funeral service brought together a standing room only crowd. The pain of Dianne’s grief isolated her as surely as if iron bars surrounded every opening of the house. Apart from family and my regular visits for grief counseling, there was little contact with the world.
One day, as I was leaving Dianne’s house, I drove to my appointment with Alice, whose husband had recently died of cancer. The next hour would be different, for Alice’s husband had gradually slipped away three years before to the dreaded scourge of Alzheimer’s disease. Though sad, there were few tears left. I wondered which situation was to be preferred.
Bereavement counseling is an integral part of my work as a hospice chaplain, satisfying because of the sense of closure and completion. Rarely intense and dramatic, most survivors slowly emerge from the shadows of grief, often tentative about the light that healing brings. As a chaplain, my task is to companion them on the journey into a new life – a kind of bereavement midwifery. There are no shortcuts, no pat answers, no passes on the pain.
After four years, with a burgeoning caseload, I felt a growing sense of frustration. Individual sessions addressed deeply personal issues, and support groups allowed them to give voice to their pain in the presence of sympathetic peers, yet something was missing. There came a point when these ladies needed the cushion of friendship.
My heart went out to the new widows with whom I met, each facing their own fear and future. Driving from one appointment to another, nearly weekly, I thought how well we connected. The intimacy of grief and the healing of laughter had produced a number of growing friendships. Then it hit me. If they enjoyed our sessions and had so much in common, why wouldn’t they enjoy each other’s company? Why not have a luncheon once a month and just get out and have a good time? There would be no agenda and no set goals. My excitement grew as I shared the idea with a few of the ladies and saw their enthusiasm.
Seventeen ladies received an invitation reading, “You are invited to a ‘Gaggle with a Giggle.’” On that first Tuesday, nine ladies showed up at a local buffet. Following introductions and handing out name tags, we went to the food line. At that point, getting the food created activity and conversation that helped break the ice. One lady offered to host the next meeting, but I vetoed that suggestion. “It is very generous of you, and I’m sure we would enjoy your hospitality, but let’s continue to meet at a restaurant and prevent a sense of obligation that might inhibit attendance. This is a time for you to relax and get out, not to slave over a hot stove.”
During the meal I listened to the very satisfying hubbub at the other end of the table. The gathering was an unqualified success. When we agreed to meet again in November, one of the ladies asked me to bring Joshua, my eleven month old grandson. He was at the right age to be very sociable, and he behaved beautifully as they passed him around the table for oohs and aahs. He continued to be a guest with us until he started walking and I had to spend half the time chasing him around the restaurant. By that time the group had bonded, and the need for a conversation piece had passed.
The number in attendance varied but was consistently between six and ten. At Christmas four of the ladies attended the holiday services of a local pastor they met in a support group. From time to time someone would shed tears at the lunch table and, before I could respond, there would be a comforting arm around a shoulder. New members and visitors were always welcome. My presence was always anticipated and appreciated, but not necessary. In my absence the group met without me.
The “Gaggle” has become a fixture. This past summer, hospice reorganized and changed my location to another part of the county. The ladies were concerned that I would not be able to attend, so they chose a restaurant closer to my new territory to make it easier for me.
There is a genuine caring for each other. Just over a year after the death of her husband, Anne discovered a lump in her breast and underwent surgery. Around her gathered a cadre of friends who would not let her suffer alone. Cards, visits and phone calls lessened the fear that accompanies words like cancer and malignancy. When she called to tell me of her plans, she emphasized her determination to be recovered from surgery in time for the next “Gaggle.”
Now into its second year, the “Gaggle” faced a test this month. Beverly lost her husband in June. She did not drive, and she rarely left home. I knew that in time she would be a candidate for the “Gaggle,” but though she expressed interest, she had conflicts for two months. The third month I wrote a note to Norine, asking her to make arrangements to bring Beverly. I was delighted to see them walk in together. Though shy and quiet at lunch, Beverly gradually became comfortable. As I left, they began talking about meeting at another location, especially since it would be approaching Christmas. I said, “Talk it over and let me know what you decide. I have to get back to work.”
The next day, Shirley called me at the office and told me of their plans. It seems that after lunch they had all gone to Shirley’s house and spend the afternoon together. Shirley said that Beverly emerged from her shell that day and enjoyed herself. It was her first social event since her husband died. They made special plans for the December luncheon at a steak house and then invited me to a “Christmas Open House” at Norine’s the following week.
The “Gaggle’ is well into its second year. Rather than becoming complacent and ingrown, the group has remained active and aggressive in reaching out to others. Recently the ladies reached a new level of maturity. Previously members of the “Gaggle” had identified with either me or another member of the group. A social worker on my team suggested the name of a survivor who would benefit from the support. I agreed but reminded her that with my new territory, I would not have time to develop a relationship as I had with the others. I mentioned this predicament at lunch to measure the response. One of the ladies spoke right up and requested the name and telephone number, and assured me that the potential new member would be invited and assisted if needed.
The roots of friendship have taken hold to provide necessary support. For my part, the survival and success of the “Gaggle” has been not only gratifying, but an example of the potential in the bereavement process.
© John C. Fitts, III and Bereavement Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. This story first appeared in 2001 in Bereavement Magazine (now Living With Loss Magazine). It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
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