Six New Friends & Four Tissue Boxes: My Experience at Group Grief Therapy
“We give emotions names just so we can make sense of them.”
My therapist told me this in her dimly lit, on-campus office the spring of my sophomore year. I couldn’t tell you anything else she ever told me word for word, but that one always stuck. I try to remember it whenever I feel something I can’t put into words.
Right now I feel nervous. Not scared. Scared is a word that should be reserved for a first rollercoaster ride or a horror movie. So yeah, maybe nervous is the right word. I’m partially nervous because I have so many questions about howthis whole Hospice sponsored group therapy thing works. Whenever I’ve been to therapy in the past it was only me, my therapist, and a couch usually adorned with an unflattering pattern.
I can’t help thinking I’ll be the only newcomer at this session. If I am, I’ll probably have to introduce myself to everyone and explain why I’m an eligible member of this exclusive group that no one really wants to be a part of: people who are grieving. I feel like the introduction will be the hardest part; putting it all out there to a group of complete strangers. But maybe it will be nice to be around people that understand the somewhat constant, lingering feeling of loss like I do, something that my friends here at school often can’t relate to. I wonder if they’ll make us sit in a circle and if so, what does everyone do with their hands? Why am I even thinking about proper body language instead of my reason for coming here in the first place?
I checked the distance from my apartment to the Ithaca Hospice on Google Maps about seven times. I’m late anyway. I packed a bag with the necessities — a pen I stole from my roommate, a chapstick, my Moleskine notebook, and a box of tissues. I wasn’t sure if this was a “Bring Your Own Tissues” kind of event. The clock on my car read 5:31 p.m. —already a minute late.
You don’t have time to be nervous when you’re late so I quickly follow the signs that were definitely made by someone with minimal Microsoft Office skills.
Bereavement Support Group
Downstairs in Large Conference Room
5:30 - 7 p.m.
After following three identical signs and the lingering voices of what I assumed to be my confidants for the next hour and a half, I’ve finally made it. There are bulletin boards decorated with cheesy, metallic tinsel and snowmen and a countertop with coffee and tea. I a-line straight to the chair closest to the nicest looking lady in the room. She has blonde hair that’s not quite a pixie cut and a cardigan layered over her shirt and there were plenty of open seats near her. When I walk over to set down my things, she smiles and points to the table where I have to sign in. Because I’m new, I have to sign my name, write a name card for myself, and sign a confidentiality agreement.
I finally sit down, with my name card folded crudely and placed in front of me. There are printed pamphlets with headings ranging from “How to Get Through the Holidays” to “How to Console a Parent that Lost Their Child.” I take one of each. It’s been just a minute or two but it feels like more until someone finally starts talking. Turns out the woman I decided to sit next to is one of the facilitators of the counseling session (which is probably why she looked so nice) and so is the woman sitting across the table from her.
That leaves five people besides me who would actually be participating in this group therapy session. I’m the youngest by at least a decade and it feels like everyone is staring at me, wondering what makes me eligible to be a part of this group of grievers. The counselor next to me, Lisa, gives an overview of the program, ending her spiel with: “Our one and only rule is don’t give advice.”
She turns to me and just like that, I’m in this for real: “We can start by introducing ourselves and why we’re here.” There it is. The question I knew would be first but that I’m still not ready to answer. Inhale. Exhale.
“My name is Alexis. I’m a 20 year old student at Ithaca College. And I’m here because this past February, I lost one of my best friends due to a hazing incident at Penn State,” I say, keeping my voice even and looking at no one and nothing in particular.
When I look up I make brief eye contact with Alice, the other Hospice counselor across the table — an older woman with a silver bob and a head-to-toe beige outfit. She mouths to me sweetly, like a Grandmother would when their grandchild scraped their knee, an I’m sorry. Her eyes look sad. I hope mine don’t look as sad as hers.
I don’t talk about what happened to my friend Tim that much anymore. That’s not to say that it’s not on my mind — it’s just not the only thing on my mind, like it was back in February after it first happened. Sometimes it’s still the first thing I think of when I wake up. Other times it’s a song, a photograph, a news headline, or even just a lapse in being distracted by other things that opens up that part of me. This time, it’s voluntary. I chose to attend this group counseling session and have every intention of getting the most out of it. The hard part, explaining how I was connected to those five other people in the room, is over and the introductions continue.
There’s Calvin, a spritely old man that talks with purpose and wears a green fleece vest over a light blue collared shirt. Calvin lost his wife about two years ago and is getting a Pacemaker next week, he puts his palm on his chest while he tells us this. I notice he’s still wearing a gold wedding band. “It’s just a weird time of the year. Beginnings and ends...” he trails off.
Next is Max, a small, older man, maybe in his late 60s who wears a Cornell hoodie and describes himself as a “townie.” He glosses over his grieving — he lost his wife, a grandchild, and a best friend all in the span of five years. He says it so nonchalantly that I assume he has been coming to these meetings for quite some time.
Then there’s Ruby, she’s the only other newcomer besides me. She has a gummy grin and laughs more than you’d think for someone who lost their husband just last month. They lived together for 10 years before getting married this past August. After only four months of being a married couple — still in their honeymoon phase, I’m sure — he unexpectedly passed. The way she speaks makes it clear that she doesn’t want people to feel bad for her.
Seated next to Ruby is a jolly looking, brown-haired man in his late 50s. He has a well-kept, thick, silver-tinted mustache and is wearing a uniform with a patch on his breast with his name stitched on: Ron. Ron lost his wife over the summer and is currently grappling with the guilt of dating someone new. Well, not necessarily new, considering his “new” girlfriend is actually his ex-wife, the mother of his 35-year-old son.
Lastly there is Khloe, spelled with a K. She’s the closest in age to me and sports a septum nose piercing and very pierced ears. She wears a scarf and warms her hands gently around her mug filled with tea. Her fingers fiddle with the tea bag string while she explains how she lost her father this past September and how coming to these meetings makes her feel, in her own words, “better.”
After we introduce ourselves and answer the question that we all seemed to have trouble answering, it feels like everyone in the room takes a simultaneous exhale. When does that question stop hurting? Does it ever? A silence falls over the room but doesn’t linger too long until Alice says, “Well… you got through the first holiday. Let’s talk about how that was.”
Ron spent his holiday in Phoenix with his late wife’s side of the family. He speaks about how nice it was to be around people going through the same thing as him. “I liked being with them because they feel what I feel. When you’re around other people that don’t know, they ask you all of those questions that make you just wanna reach out and touch someone… and not in a nice way.” He half laughs at his own joke.
On my side of the table, Calvin is cracking up. In fact, everyone is laughing — or at the very least, smiling to themselves. We all knew the sorts of questions he was talking about: the “how are you?”s and the “feeling better?”s are all too familiar. Those questions that you’re never sure if you should answer honestly.
For Khloe it was her first Thanksgiving without her father and his birthday was the Sunday right after. She talks about how for the first time in her life she spent Thanksgiving at a restaurant with her mom instead of eating a home cooked meal. “We were crying a lot in there and everyone was staring. I ended up not even being able to eat my food,” she explains, still warming her hands on her tea mug. “On his birthday, we were very deliberate. We had a relaxed day and ate his favorite cake for dessert.”
Calvin and Max have similar stories. After their wives passed their kids stepped up to host holidays, so they spent Thanksgiving with kids and grandkids. Calvin says the hymns in church are the hardest part of the holidays. Max talks about how great his kids have been through this entire process, “I know you asked about Thanksgiving but now that you finally got me talking, the next challenge is gonna be getting me to stop!” he says, in between praises of his family. He explains how Easter is spent with one daughter, Thanksgiving with another, and Christmas rotates between his other three kids.
I’m not sure when the best time for me to speak is or what to even say at all. My situation is different. I didn’t lose a family member whose absence was actively felt at the Thanksgiving dinner table, so I can’t relate to what the others were talking about. But, because we are the newcomers, the facilitators prompt Ruby and I to share our stories. I talk briefly about how it was hard going home for Thanksgiving break, hanging out with my group of friends and Tim not being there.
My best friend Kaitlyn, Tim’s girlfriend, is currently transitioning back into normalcy. She spent the better half of 2017 trying to deal with losing her first love at the hands of other people while getting interviewed by media outlets all over the country. As one of her closest friends I’ve had to watch her rebuild herself into someone that can love and be loved again. It’s a hard internal conflict of navigating my own grieving of one friend while trying to support the resilience of another. Oftentimes they feel mutually exclusive but I’m learning that they’re not.
Supporting her wholeheartedly through everything is what Tim would have wanted.
Ruby says she stayed busy. She went to work, organized a Thanksgiving dinner with volunteers for a shelter in Lansing, and cleaned her house. It’s hard to tell when people are done sharing their thoughts or if they are taking an extra moment to decide how to describe the way certain things feel. “Sad” sometimes doesn’t do justice to the nuances of feeling. Sad doesn’t even begin to describe what it must’ve felt like for Ruby to spend what should have been her first Thanksgiving as a married woman by herself instead. When she finishes, a tall bald man walks into the room and picks up his name card from the sign in table.
“Get stuck in traffic, Frank?” asks Alice. He nods, walks over to the chair next to Khloe, and takes off his bright orange bubble vest.
“We have some newcomers today, Ruby and Alexis,” she motions toward us, “so would you like to introduce yourself?”
He folds his arms across his chest. “I’m Frank and I will have lost my wife one year ago on the eleventh,” he says. “She loved this time of year, her birthday was right after Christmas. This year, we’re gonna decorate again. Evan and I are going to put up the lights on the eleventh and light them all up at five p.m. ‘cause that was the time she passed.” Something about the way he said all of this made me happy rather than sad. You could almost hear the love in his voice.
“That sounds beautiful. How was Thanksgiving?” Alice asks.
He adjusts his posture and sits up in his chair with his arms now uncrossed. He and his son spent the holiday in Savannah, Georgia, where his wife grew up near the beach.
“We took her ashes to the beach, just like she wanted. It was a windy day so no one was there. You could look both ways and not see a single person.” Everyone in the room listens intently. Something about Frank’s voice made what could be heartbreaking, sound beautiful.
“Then we made a sort of urn to put in the garden, we put in her ashes and a little bit of the dogs’ — the ones we had together when she was alive. I put some of her favorite jewelry in there, too, and her sunglasses and our wedding bands and a little tree of life. It felt good to do. It was nice.”
I want to cry. Does your heart ever just hurt? When you feel like it might burst because of how much you feel in that moment? That’s what it’s like to hear Frank talk about the contentment he felt when laying his wife to rest in her favorite places with all of her favorite things. It made me think about how Kaitlyn put the Valentine’s day gift she had already bought for Tim in the casket with him. It was a purple shirt because he thought purple looked good with his red hair. We used to always make fun of him for that.
Frank changes the topic to his sixteen-year-old son Evan. After his mother’s death, Evan gave up swimming and just re-joined this season. “His team voted him as captain, too — a position that hasn’t been given to a junior in at least five years,” Frank boasts. He smiles when he speaks about his son.
“He’s been doing really good. And a lot of that credit can be given to this place… and you,” he says, pointing to Lisa sitting next to me. The reactions of the others in the room when Frank says this — nods of agreement and soft smiles — make it clear that they were getting something out of this therapy group as well.
When there was a lapse in the discussion Ron looks at me. “You talked earlier about you and your friends having trouble seeing your friend with someone new. I wonder about that because I’m currently going through it with my son, he’s 35 and doesn’t want me dating anyone else. I’m talking to him later this week about it, it’s obviously different because you’re so young but...” his voice softens. This seems to trigger a lot of thoughts from the rest of the group.
“Thinking of my mom dating someone else actually makes me nauseous,” starts Khloe. “But I would never want to limit her happiness. As the child, though, I see where your son is coming from. Since my dad died I find myself clinging to how things used to be.”
“He hates change,” adds Ron, about his son.
“So it may not be that he doesn’t want you with someone. Maybe it’s that he’s just trying to keep the family as much like it once was as he can,” Khloe finishes.
Ron responds, “Yeah, it’s not about replacing her at all. It’s about making my heart big enough for two people to fit in it.”
“I was fortunate because my wife told me she didn’t want me to be alone before she passed,” adds Calvin, to my left. “And it’s not that I actively seek out a bunch of new relationships, trying to get lucky.” He quickly corrects himself. “Getting lucky doesn’t mean what it used to anymore! Damnit I need to watch what I say with these young people in the room. Anyway, I’ve dated other people. It’ll never be the same kind of love but that doesn’t mean you don’t try. But let me tell ya, there will be a chapter in my memoir about dating widowed women. Those women are something else,” he chuckles to himself and I have to hold in my own laughter, too. He’s sounding more like a crazy old man than a wise one as he goes on.
An awkward silence clings to the walls following that exchange. I find myself looking at the four boxes of tissues spread out evenly across the middle of the table. I wonder if they were always there or if there is some sort of pre-grief group protocol for getting the room ready. Lisa looks at Ruby then at me. The look on Ruby’s face makes it seem like she’s done talking and I’ve spoken the least of the group, besides Max, who’s a very good listener.
So she turns toward me. “Would you like to tell us more about your friend Tim?”
I open my mouth to begin talking but before I can get a word out I start crying. Hard. It’s always the questions about the good times that hurt the most. She pushes one of the four boxes of tissues next to me and I take off my glasses to wipe my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry tonight, but I didn’t put on any makeup just in case.
“I’m sorry I’m crying. Questions like that are always the hardest,” I say between stifled sobs. I try to slow down my crying and breathe while also continuing to talk. I’m thinking of the quickest way to describe how he’d laugh at all of his own jokes and how he’d dance at parties and how he’d sleep with a smile on his face whenever we all had sleepovers. In this moment I can’t find enough of the right words to describe one of the best people I’ve ever known.
But I find it in me to keep going. “It’s just that… at this point... being sad is easy. I’ve already gone through the saddest thing that will probably ever happen in my life. Being 19 with all my friends that were 19 losing a friend so young. It’s easy to be sad after that. It’s being happy that’s the hard part.”
I say that and stop crying. I stare at the tissue box in front of me and wait for someone else to speak.
Frank is the first to respond. “My son Evan has given me the best advice through all of this… he said to me ‘people want you to feel better so that they can feel better.’”
I feel the truth of those words all the way in my bones. People want you to be okay and to be happy so that they can feel happy, or at least not have to feel so guilty for their own happiness.
Ron reiterates my point. “You said being sad is easy and being happy is the hard part… that’s so true. People that haven’t been through it don’t get it. Sometimes it’s like being alone in a crowded room.”
I know what he means, but I don’t feel that here. Somehow in these 90 minutes I’ve been reminded that I’m not alone in this — in my grieving — or anything else, ever.
The meeting wraps up as the clock’s arm inches close to the top of the hour. The facilitators go over the upcoming events: a morning grief circle that happens every second Thursday of the month for individuals that lost a partner or spouse and another general support group on the 20th. I’d already be home and finished with final exams by then.
“This is probably the last time we’ll be seeing you for a while then, Alexis,” says Lisa.
“Yes, I’m actually studying abroad next semester, but thank you so much for everything,” I say and I mean it.
They ask me about where I’m going, if I’m excited, talking to me as if we’re old friends rather than mere strangers about an hour and a half ago. I can feel myself smiling when talking about my upcoming semester in Barcelona and listening to the others share stories of their own travels.
Alice asks if anyone has any last things they want to talk about. I want so badly to ask how all of them have continued to love so hard and so much despite the pain they’ve all gone through. Another part of me wants to get up and give every single person in the room a hug. Alice and Lisa thank everyone for coming. Calvin gathers his empty coffee mug, looks at me and says “I’m so sorry for your loss” before leaving. I stop clutching my used tissue so tightly in my hand and say thank you.
I get lost walking out of the Hospice center because I was too frantic walking in to be able to retrace my steps. I pick a random door and walk to the parking lot. Ruby and Ron are walking together to their cars, Khloe is already in hers, and I unlock and get into mine.
I sit in the dark for a little bit, repeating everyone’s names in my head a couple times so I would remember them. Calvin, Max, Ruby, Ron, Khloe, and Frank.They almost sound rhythmic when said together.
The one rule of this therapy group was to not give advice, yet I feel like I subconsciously received some anyway. The biggest thing I learned was to never, ever stop loving. All of these people, despite their own forms of loss let themselves love more and be loved — by their families, their friends, and by the strangers turned friends in group therapy.
My mother told me back in February when we lost Tim, “Alexis, you have to look for the angels in your life. There are angels everywhere.” And I think that’s true now more than ever. In fact, I think some of them were in that very room.