Christmas and New Year aren’t merry or happy for someone suffering the loss of a loved one. But mourners — be the loss fresh or distant — find solace among kindred spirits at GriefShare, an international faith-based organization that helps the bereaved live with death.
Participants talk and cry, laugh and heal within a structure known as Church Initiative, founded by Steve and Cheryl Grissom in Wake Forest, in 1993, as an outgrowth of their own personal tragedy.
The video-based small-group curriculum, first conceived as DivorceCare and expanded to GriefShare in 1998, was developed using skills from Grissom’s journalism and business careers, in conjunction with Christian pastors and counselors. Its mission: To create biblical, Christ-centered resources to mobilize lay people to help those hurting within the context of a local church of any denomination.
Church affiliation is not required, although facilitator Bill Russell says “Sometimes it draws people into a congregation.” Local program director Faye Urello, a retired oncology nurse, adds “(GriefShare) may strengthen participants to grow closer to God.”
Although some group leaders have professional credentials and all are trained by GriefShare, counseling is not the purpose. Neither is this a 12-step program, leaders stress.
Stated simply, by facilitator Sarah Biggs: “It’s an ER for hurting hearts.”
Sessions are held once a week for 13 weeks. Each two-hour session begins with a prayer followed by a go-round, where each person describes his or her loss. Then, a 40-minute video about loss, mourning and the road back, followed by a discussion of the video and workbook provided to each participant. Confidentiality is implicit. Discussions, naturally, become personal; some participants are quicker to open up than others since, facilitator Sarah Biggs says, “Our culture avoids grief. They put it in a box.”
Bill Russell lost his father 45 years ago. “I didn’t make the time to grieve; I suppressed it. After the funeral I went right back to work. In learning to deal with loss we become conduits to help others share.”
Or, as Biggs noticed, “As the group meshes they comfort each other.”
Sometimes the video will hit a nerve, causing an emotional reaction which is met with not only compassion but empathy.
“I felt at home … no pressure to share my story (until I was ready),” says participant Carole Weaver, who was traumatized by the loss of her husband in 2016 and her dog soon after. “But as the weeks went on (the group) felt like family and I was able to talk.” With others, grief is so raw that the survivor cries for the entire 13 weeks.
Mental health professionals suggest that people dealing with loss are sometimes more comfortable with strangers than family members or close friends, where “putting up a brave front” or “moving on” is expected.
Homer Phifer, a widower since 2016, comments that the meetings have “a particular rhythm,” which becomes familiar, soothing. “At first I said I don’t think I need that. Males tend not to share, in a group. Now I wish I’d come sooner.”
Leaders are trained to watch for signs of clinical depression or suicidal thoughts, as well as drug and alcohol abuse; participants who display these behaviors are referred to professionals.
On a late-fall afternoon, participants gathered at Community Presbyterian Church in Pinehurst. The room was furnished in comfortable sofas and chairs. Candies and a Kleenex box sat on the coffee table. The mood: friendly, not funereal. These participants were well into the grieving journey. One had experienced the “long goodbye” of Parkinson’s and dementia, provoking anticipatory grief followed by the real thing. Another had nursed her husband through 11 months of leukemia. Yet another had lost a husband and child.
“Our responses don’t have to be sanctimonious,” notes participant Carla Williams. “Sometimes just a hug.” Practical suggestions from the group leader were welcomed. “If friends ask how they can help…tell them. Write a letter to your support system and tell them what you need,” like a ride to a medical appointment, grocery shopping or lunch at a lively cafe.
All agree that holidays, once the happiest of times, are now difficult, if not dreaded.
“People don’t plan; they are ambushed by smells and sounds,” Faye Urello has learned. Some become irritable, even angry, as expressed through body language. Others withdraw. GriefShare offers coping mechanisms for major occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Birthdays are more personal, with ideas on how to honor and celebrate a life. One participant visited the cemetery with a picnic lunch and prayer book, stayed a while remembering happier occasions.
Meetings end with a prayer and refreshments. On their way out, attendees are offered a care card with a Bible verse. For some, 13 sessions aren’t enough. Bill Russell recalls a minister who drove from another county for seven cycles — and is still suffering.
Although a proven resource, GriefShare isn’t for everyone. Christian faith helps, but is not required. The long meetings can be both nurturing and draining. Mourners are encouraged to attend at least three sessions before dropping out. Those who do receive follow-up calls.
Yet, through GriefShare, friendships are forged based on common, if tragic, experience. According to the Rev. Jim Ewing of Community Presbyterian Church, “God brings beauty in painful packages. In pain, we learn to love one another.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
The next GriefShare cycle begins from 3 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 6 at Everette House, Community Presbyterian Church in Pinehurst. A $15 fee to cover materials for the entire session is requested. For information call Faye Urello at (910)235-0712.