A woman I had never met before, standing near me, yelled those titled words after I answered her question by replying I had not worked on the jigsaw puzzle that was on top of a small table I sat near. “Lean closer”, she commanded. I obeyed and learned in towards her face. “I’ve never seen such pretty gray eyes in all my life!” she exclaimed for all to hear. “Thank you” I replied, thinking this might be the very first compliment I ever received from apparently a color-blind female. I always descibe my eyes on official documents as hazel; however they change color slightly favoring either the colors blue or green, depending on what I am wearing. I believe this is typical for most people with eyes of similar colors. “Are you new to the community”? she asked. I told her I was just visiting for a short while. “Well, you should come back and see me. I could look at your eyes all morning.” “Thanks, eh, oh look, my meeting is being called. Nice chatting with you. Goodbye.” I made a hasty escape down a short hallway into a small conference room. Little did I know then that my experience that had just taken place with the “eye” lady would have been welcome relief after what I experienced during the forthcoming hour. But I am slightly ahead of myself, so let me start with some background.
On the 25th of this month, it will be five months since my wife died; five long, depressing, boring, unhealthy, energy-sapping, unsettling months. My loving family and friends have been generously attentive, but it has been difficult to shake the blues. Someone suggested I try an outside bereavement support group and recommended one that meets on the first Tuesday of every month in a conference room at a nearby hospital. I learned about it with three weeks remaining in that month, so I marked the calendar and patiently waited. The weeks passed and finally the first Tuesday arrived and I left the house optimistic that this experience would help. I arrived at the designated meeting room and was greeted with a dark, empty space with tables and chairs and spoiling food on tables left-over from an event I guessed from the evening before. I turned on the lights, sat down and waited the obligatory fifteen minutes before returning to the receptionist to report the situation. She made a phone call to someone who informed her that I should return and someone would be there right away. I did so and waited another fifteen minutes before leaving the hospital shaking my head in frustration.
My next foray into group support meetings happened recently at a hospice office on the grounds of a 55-plus community called Century Village. Those unfamiliar with Century Village communities probably have heard a joke commonly told about Florida; it is the state people go to die. If Florida is the state, Century Village is the exact location. Huge numbers of condo buildings filled with people whose hair colors most closely resemble a New England fall landscape (reds, yellows, rust and an occasional sky blue), who spend their sunset years congregating with the same people every day in various group activities like bingo, movies and jigsaw puzzles.
This particular group meets once a week and when I arrived at the security gate, I informed the guard I was attending a bereavement group support meeting and I needed directions; he asked me what “bereavement” meant. I told him in as few descriptive words as possible. He checks with others in the office and then reports he never heard of the group and he doesn’t know the address. I immediately felt the feeling of security one discovers by having live people at the gate looking out for them. “You don’t look like you will steal anything, so just drive straight ahead to the community center and ask about your meeting” he advised. I found the location accidently within viewing distance of the guard office and arrived ten minutes early. There was a reception area, and an open area with table and chairs where on this particular morning there about ten people sitting around drinking coffee and talking. I sat at a table that had on top of it an in-progress jigsaw puzzle. I sat down and took a big gulp of coffee. “Sara, I forgot to tell you how good your meatloaf was this week. Lots of people don’t know how to make good meatloaf, but yours was excellent. Some people make the inside too soft, and others make it as hard as a brick, but yours was perfect.” I thought this might be the best food-related pick-up line I ever heard. And what was Sara’s hopefully gracious and come-hither response? “No, it wasn’t my best…I burnt it.” Silence took over the space. Not for long however, as suddenly a shout uncomfortably close to me rang out “Oh my God, would you look at those eyes!”
The group’s facilitator is a Buddhist priest named Karen who arrives ten minutes late and whose friendly and warm smile seems permanently etched on her face. She also seems to bounce when she walks, not has high as Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, but certainly noticeable. Jane sits down at the table seemingly talking to no-one in particular complaining about how rude it is to be late for a meeting, “but we should not talk about it any further”. While five others are in the process of sitting, Jane starts up again verbalizing that it is neither right nor polite to be late, and again closes her own solo discussion by cutting off debate on herself. I turn to a man sitting to my left and ask if he realizes Jane is the only one talking about “lateness” and he smiles and acknowledges the scene. There are seven of us, five women and two men, not including the still smiling Karen. The men have each lost a wife; two women have lost their husbands; one woman lost a brother, and the last woman lost a son. We take turns introducing ourselves and I am the newcomer to the group and the one with the freshest death date. I don’t say anything for the next hour as I decide to simply listen and try to derive some nugget of wisdom from what others say their experience with grief.
Jane lost her husband ten years ago and offers a comment or two immediately after each person talks which I would characterize as all being “firm grasps of the obvious”. She can’t sit still and is constantly either reaching for a Kleenex, pulling on her sweater arm, coughing or fidgeting in her chair. Jane is an irritating woman who I believe would be helped greatly and immediately with both a Prozac and a martini…at the same time.
Betty lost her son to an accident five years ago and his birthday is this month. Truly sad story told by a soft, lovely woman who misses her son very much. She was encouraged to keep talking about him and continue to recognize his birthday. Good advice.
Ben lost his wife three years ago and been attending this support group for quite a while. He described her as “spending everyday in the kitchen” and he really missed her cooking. I felt an immediate urge to run out of the room and see if the meatloaf lady was still there so I could arrange an introduction. I controlled my urge and sat in silence.
Rachael lost her brother to illness over a year ago and still misses him very much. She tries to talk about it at home and her husband just tells her to get over it. “He tells me my brother is dead and never coming back, so I should just get over it.” I immediately think I want to beat her husband over the head with something that would really hurt, and my heart really goes out to this woman who only finds relief by coming to this once-a-week meeting.
Katherine still mourns the loss of her husband nine months ago and feels she is going backwards in the healing process. She feels more depressed as time goes by, not less, and really misses her husband, who was ninety-two at the time of his death. NINETY-TWO. Yes, I know the feeling of loss when a spouse dies after many years of being together, but hello, ninety-two?! I waited for the facilitator to say something about the comfort to be derived from the knowledge he lived that long, hoping in fact he was not a felon who had served forty years in prison, but all I heard from the ever-smiling Karen was “it’s a mistake to think that grieving is going backwards. On the contrary, grieving is helpful to the healing process.” I’m just about ready to yell…”check please” but realize time is almost up and we have not heard from Rosemary.
“It’s your turn Rosemary” said Smiley. “What?” replied Rosemary. “It’s your turn” was repeated. “My hearing aids are new, and I’m having a lot of trouble hearing anything out of the one on the left. My family talks to me and they get really annoyed when I keep telling them I can’t hear what they are saying.” Irritating Jane jumps in by saying “this is a bereavement group Rosemary, who died?”. “What?” What did you say? I didn’t hear you!” yelled Rosemary
“Thank you Rosemary” said Karen, jumping in before Jane could say anything. “I will talk with you separately. I want to thank everyone for coming and I will see you all next week”.
I left the building thinking I would have loved to have the last ninety minutes of my life back again, and wondering generally if it might be better sometimes not to be able to hear certain conversations that are taking place? If you are thinking I never went back to that group, you would be correct. My search for insightful sharing continues…