My son’s death was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. I fell apart, couldn’t think straight, barely talked, and rarely left my house. During that first year of grieving, taking care of my daughter was one of the few things I could still think about and care enough to do. The first time I took her to a grief support group, I sat at a table in the back of the room making eye contact with no one while Sylvia made bracelets out of multi-colored rubber bands and talked with the other children.
“Time for circle.” The kids all put away their crafts and then sat in a large circle on the carpet while Sidney, their grief counselor, grabbed a candle and lighter. “We have two new students with us today, Sylvia and Mallory.” Sydney smiled at both girls. “First, we each light this candle for someone we love but is no longer with us. Then we’ll go around the circle to introduce ourselves and share something we love about the person we lost.” Sidney looked at me and the other new mother, both lingering in the back. “Feel free to join us if you want.” Neither of us budged, so she turned back toward the kids. “Are we ready?” Sidney placed the candle in the middle of their human circle. “I light this candle for my brother.” She passed the candle to the boy sitting to her left. He must have been about nine.
“This light is for my aunt,” he said before passing the candle to a slightly older looking boy next to him wearing a neon green camp shirt identical to his.
“This light is for my mom.” The candle passed from child to child around the circle.
“This light is for my uncle.”
“This light is for my grandma.”
Out of my peripheral vision, I watched them sharing happy memories of times with their loved ones, my own mouth clamped shut tight, gritting my teeth while tears stormed down my face.
Sylvia smiled at me when we climbed into the car to leave. “That was much better than I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“I thought it would be sad and depressing the whole time, but it wasn’t. It was nice, and it wasn’t too sad.”
“Good, do you want to go again next week?” She nodded and showed me Mallory’s phone number, the other ‘new girl,’ who lost her uncle to cancer.
When her father and I initially suggested it, Sylvia felt extremely hesitant about going to a support group for grieving children, but I asked her to try it anyway a few months after losing Taylor. Her brother was a significant person in her life, and she would never be the same without him. My husband and I knew that we lacked the tools to help her, other than being there for her and showing her love. If we had been good at supporting grief-stricken children, which we certainly were not, our abilities still would have been hindered by our own grief. Long before we felt ready to accept any help for ourselves, we sought it out for her. We already lost one child, so we wanted more than ever to do the right things for her.
Talking about her brother helped Sylvia grieve. She cried, of course, but she felt better after talking. I could even see some of the tension leave her body after talking, her facial expressions looked more relaxed, her posture less slumped and defeated. Theoretically, I knew that talking could help me as well, but I had nothing to say yet. Talking about it would have made it feel too real, and I wasn’t ready for that yet. Instead, each time I took her to group sessions I sat in a back corner or stood just outside the open door and listened to the others talk. I listened to their stories and cried for their losses as well as my own. Everyone in the room lost someone close to them, an important person in their lives, someone they loved. They lost people to disease, accidents, drugs, and birth defects, different circumstances leaving similar traces of agony in everyone’s lives. So many people lost loved ones. Pain and suffering suffused everyone’s life, even children. Listening to their stories hurt, but it also felt nice in a way that I would not have been able to articulate at the time.
Now I think the possibility of community, of shared experiences even though they were horrific losses, bonds with other people gave me comfort and drew me to their meetings. Now I understand that social support helps people cope with their losses. Though I was not ready to talk (it took me over a year to schedule an appointment with a grief counsellor for myself), I still listened to the others talking about their grief rather than dropping off my daughter and then waiting in the car. I listened to their stories, listened to them sharing their pain with each other, listened to their kind and supportive words. Even before I realized that other people could offer comfort and support during the agonizing times in life, I benefitted from it.
About the Author------------
Angela Matthews completed her doctoral dissertation in Higher Education, a study of the connection between grief and attrition. Creative nonfiction work that inspired this project appeared in the Cuivre River Anthology, 8: Under the Surface. Additional publications include education related essays and short stories in Kidzwonder, Once Upon a Time, and Knowonder! magazines. An excerpt from her middle grade novel, Sisters, appeared in Severn Hills Review. Angela currently volunteers for Good Grief of Northwest Ohio and continues to write about the implications of grief and the benefits of writing therapy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.