Does talking about it help?

There’s no one answer. We’re all different.  The only thing you and I have in common is that we’re both human.  In other respects each of us is, miraculously, one of a kind. So people experience loss of a loved person differently.  The searing pain may be the same in every bereaved heart. There the similarity probably ends.

There are differences between loss of one parent and then of the remaining parent, between loss of a brother or sister and loss of a child or of a husband or wife. Family situations also vary among the grieving survivors.  There may be strong familial support or no family at all, loving friends or none. Often when the survivor of a death is getting on in years, the loving friends who might have been there are already dead themselves.

For the most part, men and women also seem to differ in their response to what has happened. Many men may feel they can tough it out alone, or that their loss is too private to share. Some simply lack the habit of being able to talk about feelings.  There are women who also feel uncomfortable speaking openly about private matters. However, these appear to be in the minority.   In the five or six walk-in bereavement group meetings and two six-week bereavement group sessions I attended after Bill died, I encountered only five men — two in one of the six-week groups and three others at separate walk-in sessions. Three were widowers and two were sons who had lived all their lives with their mothers.  Everyone else I met was a recent widow, or a sorrowful daughter or sister.

Therefore anything I say here about the value of talking about one’s great loss will not be useful for everyone.  I have at least one friend, no shrinking violet, who went to a couple of meetings after her husband died at too young an age and felt bereavement groups would not help her deal with the hand she’d been dealt.   Nonetheless, since I’ve been quite frequently asked why I attended (and now and then still do attend) such meetings, I’m going to set down here my experience with the benefits of going.

At the time Bill died last May, the very existence of bereavement groups hovered only lightly on the periphery of my consciousness as a vague notion they provided spiritual solace for church members. Since I’m not only nominally Jewish but entirely without spiritual faith of any kind, I would therefore not have been in any way comforted by the references to Jesus and God I expected would be offered by such groups. However, on one of his last days of consciousness before the morphine required for intubation knocked him out, Bill mentioned them. Although a psychiatrist by training, he had always favored talk therapy over pharmacology wherever medication might not have been absolutely necessary. Concerned even on his deathbed about my being alone in Princeton after he left me, he tried to think of what might help. So of course his suggestions included a place where I could talk it out.

My own instinct, not dissimilar, was to find a psychotherapist instead of a group — of necessity one who would take Medicare.  Throughout my life, it was always psychotherapy that helped me survive and surmount some very real difficulties.  Afterwards I would say, in jest (but it was also true), “I can’t leave a husband until I have a shrink, and I can’t leave a shrink until I’ve found another husband.”  I’ve also said, not in jest (but equally true), “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say.”  Last May I wasn’t leaving anyone; he was unwillingly leaving me.  But the default position was the same.  I was going to need someone to talk to.

When I had sought therapy before, I was working and could pay.  Now I wasn’t working, and couldn’t pay — at least not for long.  In the intervening years, it has also become hard to find a therapist (let alone a psychiatrist who still does talk therapy) willing to settle for what Medicare will approve per session.  Eventually, with the help of my internist, I did find such a person. It is a great and much appreciated luxury for someone like me, needing to talk or write about what is going inside, to be able to sit down once a week with someone absolutely supportive and non-judgmental who for fifty minutes at a time exists only to listen and offer an occasional comment or suggestion.  But it took time to find her.  In the meanwhile, there was a nonsectarian bereavement group meeting once a month at the Princeton Senior Center where you could just walk in without registering or making a prior commitment.

I’m not a group person.  I like one-on-one, not only in therapy but with the people to whom I can be open. So it was with some trepidation that I showed up at the Princeton walk-in group on May 16, ten days after Bill’s death.  There were about eight people in the room, plus the group leader, who was a licensed social worker and part of the local hospital hospice staff, and also the hospital chaplain, a young woman newly pregnant. Despite my hesitation at the presence of the chaplain, she said nothing remotely “spiritual” at any point during the hour and a half we were there. Her function was to co-direct the discussion with the leader and, I suppose, to be available with her chaplain hat on for anyone who sought her out privately afterwards.

The group was part of the hospital’s outreach to the community. We sat around a long table on which there was a large box of Kleenex, introduced ourselves, identified the person we were there for and when he or she had died.  That was all we had to say, unless we felt like saying more. Almost everyone in the room said I had come too soon.  I didn’t think so. “Soon” is when you are raw and bleeding inside.  “Soon” is when you most need some kind of triage.  Even if you just listen to other people talk about how they are hurting without saying anything yourself, it helps. It helps to hear you’re not by yourself in feeling such extreme pain and fear. (Some people don’t admit the fear, but you can hear it in what they say.)

A number of acquaintances have said to me they didn’t need groups because when they were in that dark place hollowed out by death they were able to talk to family and friends.  I didn’t find talking to family and friends to be the same.  Even when you’re being deluged with phone calls, and invitations to dinner, and visitors bearing flowers and food, the callers and visitors don’t really want to hear too much about how you’re feeling.  You can sense their uneasiness as you speak. They make sympathetic sounds and nod and offer tissues, and then try to turn the conversation to other things, either to distract you from your sorrow or because they’re uncomfortable with such raw feeling.  It takes someone who’s been there or — better yet — who’s there right now.

Moreover, you get about thirty days of undiluted sympathy from the non-bereft.  Then you’re expected to make efforts to return to regular life.  Even quite good friends are capable of asking, “So, how are you now?” or, “How are you doing these days?” or, “Any plans to get away for a while this summer?” They also make every effort to avoid mentioning the person who has died. His or her name simply disappears from what they have to say.  They mean well.  But they just don’t get it.  And they don’t comprehend your inner confusion, if you try to explain it to them:  Are you really missing him (or her) so much as the weeks and months begin to pass?  Or is it the life you built and lived together that you miss?  Nor do they grasp the hot rage that alternates with your despair: The death wasn’t the fault of the disappeared, so why are you so angry, and (for God’s sake) at whom? After a while, you realize it’s futile to reach the uninitiated.

You can talk about all that in a bereavement group.  The others may come from other professions, other social circles, backgrounds, cultures, faiths…may have other vocabularies, may be less able than you to articulate what’s going on with them inside. But they will listen respectfully and with interest to what you need or want to say. They will have felt what you are feeling, or will begin to feel it as you talk about it and they let it well up.  You (and they) are in a place where it’s safe to let it out.

You also learn coping strategies, or work them out for yourself, from listening to those a little further away in time from death than you are. In addition to the good ideas you pick up, you may also on occasion feel privately superior to some of the group participants.  For example: one poor fellow in his fifties whose mother had died several months before said he wandered around the local supermarket in the evenings although he had no need to shop, so as to feel himself among other human beings. Although I felt sorry for him, I knew at once that’s something I simply would not do. And if you’ve come to the meeting with the sense you’ve been crushed by loss, perhaps beyond repair, hearing about such desperate measures may energize you to find a more palatable and self-respecting alternative.

Some people even make new friends from among those who are sharing their experience.  A mini-group of four who participated in one of the two six-week group sessions I attended  last summer banded together for the purpose of not being alone on Saturday nights.  They pick a local movie by e-mail and all have supper at a nearby restaurant before the movie begins. I myself would not find a shared loss sufficient basis for pursuing friendship outside the bereavement group unless there were other interests and points of view in common.  But it seems to give these four considerable comfort, now that they are all without partners, to spend “date night” doing something together that they did with their partners before.

Why do I still occasionally go to bereavement groups now that it’s six and a half months since Bill’s death? Because I’m in no way out of the woods yet.  The rawness of the injury (and death of a partner is a severe injury to the survivor’s sense of self) has scabbed over. But in my case, anyway, the depth of the sorrow seems to have been somewhat deferred, given the fact that I had to spend June, July, August and September winding down Bill’s affairs, getting a condominium townhouse ready for sale, marketing it, looking for an apartment to live in after the sale, coordinating both contracts so that the apartment contract was contingent on the successful sale of the condo, downsizing, working with a contractor to somewhat alter the apartment before the move, and then finally moving.  (Some of that perhaps to be recounted in future posts.) Such concentrated activity left only early mornings and nights for unrestrained crying. So it is just now when I am “settled” again that I have the relative leisure to let myself fully experience how I feel as I embark without him on this new life into which I was thrust against my will.

And for where I am in what could be called the grieving process, a group can continue to be helpful. I’m the sort of person who responds to what someone else has said rather than initiating a train of thought myself.  Last Monday, at a walk-in session, I responded to a widow who told us how she was sorrowfully trying to recreate the Thanksgiving she had had with her husband for so many years — with a thought I hadn’t been able to formulate clearly before she spoke. I said I felt as if the life I had shared with Bill now seems to me like a play in which I was suddenly left onstage without the other player.  But half a year later, I’m not in that play anymore.  The scenery’s been struck and they’ve mounted another play on the stage, with new scenery.  I certainly remember the first play. I know all the lines. And I dearly wish I were still in it with my co-star.  But I’m not.  He’s disappeared. Now I’m the lead character in this new play.  Except I’ve only been given the first few pages of the script and I have no idea at all yet what the author,  whoever the author is  –me? — has in mind.

That’s exactly how I’m feeling this Thanksgiving.  But I don’t think I could have discovered such an apt and clarifying metaphor for it if I hadn’t been at the bereavement group meeting last Monday. I’m sure there will be post comments from people who’ve had other, more negative, experiences with bereavement groups. But as I said at the beginning, and as Bill always said when someone said or did something that flummoxed us, we’re all different.

I wish you a warm and tranquil holiday weekend.

22 thoughts on “TALKING ABOUT GRIEF

  1. As always I love your writing. It’s heartfelt and sincere. When my ex left the marriage decades ago, I was blindsided and broken. I sought out a group (it was non-denominational but run by the a Jewish woman’s group in NJ). Best thing I could have done. It was specifically for woman who just experienced the breakup. Most were still living in “the marriage home.” That made a difference because we were all at the same place. They helped me put words to my feelings and examine and evaluate. Much of what you say here is so true. Was it the split or the necessity to leave a life style? Friends were exactly as you say…kind but with a time clock ready to punch out and move on. I learned so much from those women although none of us ever became friends. I hope that you will continue to share your story with us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Being all in the same place is exactly it! One of the two six-session groups I attended was, for me, far less helpful than the other because — unlike me — all of the other participants, in their late sixties and seventies, had been married only once, right after graduating from school, and had never worked seriously outside the home. Although all were left far better fixed financially than I was, drove powerful and expensive cars, and had no money worries at all, they had devoted their entire lives to being wife to one man in a very traditional way and felt entirely bereft of any sense of self once the man was gone. Several were also quite helpless in the outside world (other than knowing how to shop and entertain) and relied on adult sons to deal with finances, maintain the car, even adjust the thermostat — because they had never done it, didn’t know how, and didn’t believe they could learn. (All of that was the “man’s job.”) I was sorry for the pain these women were experiencing, but also felt quite separate from them. Apart from now having to sleep in an empty bed, their situations were not really like mine and, I suspected, their feelings had a larger component of need to be taken care of than did mine. I’m glad the group you found when you were so blindsided was the right one to help you move on.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The time limit people expect you to put on your grief — how silly. How unlikely. Coupled with the reluctance to speak of the person you most want to speak about after a short “respectable” amount of time. To me that is the hardest part of the loss down the line. That everybody else pretends that the person you miss with every breath never existed.

    My remedy for this is the Harry Potter books where he not only get to see his parents from time to time, but where live people actually talk about those who’ve passed. It comforts me beyond measure.

    If the groups help, go. Do what you need to do for yourself. To heal, to talk to remember.

    And thank you for sharing your journey. Many of us have loss, different, and as you said so eloquently, different losses are different. But it helps to not feel alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was an interesting point of view. The only thing I can say about it is the following. You have explained what works for you and how you feel. My take on loss is entirely different and I won’t go into it because you probably will either disagree or think I don’t understand what your view is.
    Each of us handles loss differently, hopefully we all find our way back to some sort of normal in our own time. Some never find their way out of their grief, which is sad.
    I am sorry to hear of anyone’s loss but there is nothing I can do about it and nothing I can say to make it easier to bear.
    I have lost children, parents, and siblings and other family members and friends that I loved dearly. Only I can work my way out of the pain and grief.
    I wish you the best and hope you find a future that you can be comfortable in.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  4. Such helpful information, so beautifully expressed! I, for one, don’t find it at all strange that you should occasionally take part in a bereavement group six months after Bill’s death.

    There probably weren’t any such groups when Fred’s mother lost her husband in the ’60’s, and I remember her complaining about how, after the initial flood of fruit baskets and phone calls, she had felt very much alone.

    A question: at any of these sessions, is there ever a moment of humor? At almost every shivah call I’ve made, there seems to be some running joke. But of course, unlike with a bereavement group, most of the condolence callers have not just lost a loved one themselves.

    Might you be planning to brave the falling temperatures to come into the city any time soon?

    xo Martha


    Liked by 1 person

    • I occasionally offered up what might be called mordant humor at the six-session group where I felt more out of place. (See my reply to Kate Crimmins’s comment, above.) But otherwise, no — not much humor. As for coming into the city (meaning of course, for non-New Yorkers, New York), I always respond to invitations, barring a monsoon or a snowstorm!


  5. Judith

    Nina—I follow your blog full heartedly, admiring your fortitude and your honest depictions of frailty (emotional or other), always breathing a prayer of deep sustenance for you. I’m not experienced in grieving a loved one’s death, or loss though separation or divorce, to comment on your recent posts in any meaningful way. But please know that I too am a devoted follower.

    My nonagenarian parents, 97 and almost 95, are in assisted living with mostly younger, mostly non-coupled people of generally lower education who share dementia, diabetes, physical disability, or some combination thereof. My father even three years ago could recite flawlessly W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (the way I would sing a 20-verse ballad from memory!); now he can’t remember the word for newspaper and said of Donald Trump after seeing him on MSNBC, “I kind of like the guy—he seems likable.” This from a man who had spoken fondly and proudly of the Hillary Clinton he knew from Wellesley College, when he was chairman of the English Dept. (Note: my sister and I made no moves to encourage our parents to vote in this election. They didn’t. Not that it mattered…) My mother, who studied modern painting with Hans Hoffman in NY and Provincetown in the 1940s, can no longer see well enough to paint or draw, but even if she could the dementia has removed from her all feeling for art. So It’s only this incremental loss I know. Losing very old parents bit by bit, parents who were never really cut out to be parents and in whose disintegration I at least can find an opening to offer what grace and kindness I genuinely feel for them: different from your loss, and a couple of years past the shock and sting of this new, strange reality. I just know that yours is greater, deeper.

    Keep talking, Nina. Keep writing. It’s a gift to us, a gift to me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judith,
      Your ongoing double loss seems to me in a way perhaps more unbearable, since it continues and deepens as the quite extraordinary parents you used to know disintegrate before your eyes, but slowly — drip, drip, drip (to change metaphors), in a kind of water torture. I’m so sorry. Especially because the loss of parents, when it finally and definitively happens, makes you nobody’s child. There’s no one ahead of you in all the world. You’re next. So I don’t know what kind of loss is “greater, deeper.” I just know that both are excruciatingly hard.

      I am so moved by your last paragraph, more than I can easily say. Short as it is, this piece took the better part of two days to write. Words like yours make struggling with the prose worth while.


  6. The ultimate answer for those whereby suffering becomes so unbearable, especially when reaching into ill-health to such a degree that one wishes it to be over, and with enough state of mind to make a choice, that euthanasia can beckon, and might give an answer.

    A fair goodbye to a life well lived with an exit that is more tolerable and has more dignity than an insufferable extension of something that isn’t really life anymore. I don’t want to end not recognizing myself in the mirror nor with someone wiping me clean.

    Suffering through great loss is something I am living with each day. I sometimes talk about it but learnt to be fairly careful to whom I let go of grief.
    I am content how I cope. It will never leave me but my loss of hearing would not make me a great candidate for group discussions.

    I prefer to get words out in writing instead and hope to have a few years yet.

    All the best, dear Nina.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rita

    I re-read your thoughtful and moving blog and really feel
    that your writing about the emotions we all share, is your
    rage against the darkness… you are so fortunate to have the voice that touches all of us who read it. With loss comes
    the recognition of our own mortality, and I think we also
    grieve for ourselves as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nina, I’ve followed your other thoughts/posts on bereavement & made comments already on the “groups.” This time I picked up on a new perspective. Where your mind goes while listening to others talk about their grief. Brainstorming inward, you find your way into an entirely different level of helpful thought. It’s like a good therapy session. 💛 Christine

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Nina, I think you have come a long way in your healing. When you said ” But half a year later, I’m not in that play anymore. ” The play has changed and to realize that, to me, indicates a certain move forward. Thank you for being so candid. I think you are a tremendous help to many others who are going through their own losses.


  10. Thank you so much for your honest and beautifully written posts. I am grieving the recent loss of both my parents and face similar dilemmas to you every day – to talk or not to talk, to stay put or move on, to embrace the tears or try to push them aside… there is no right or wrong way and it changes on a daily, even hourly basis. What stays common for me, though, is the knowledge that if i DO feel like sharing or talking about it, there will always be someone there I can turn to. For me, that’s my sister. For some people, a bereavement group will offer similar outlets. And of course another great comfort is blogging about bereavement – and stumbling across other blogs like yours. Thank you again, and sending warm wishes your way.


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