Support groups aid those who have lost loved ones

Sara Waites knew the prognosis was not good. Her husband suffered from congestive heart failure and doctors gave him two to three months to live. He died eight days later at the Heartland Hospice in Conyers.

"It wasn't a shock, but we thought we had more time," said Mrs. Waites, who had been married to Hugh Waites for 51 years.

Mrs. Waites experienced lots of different feelings - guilt because she thought she hadn't looked after her husband enough; fear of living by herself; hurt as she questioned God why he took her husband. But most of all, she felt the pain of having to live her life by herself.

"Coming home at night, closing the doors and knowing I was by myself and he wasn't sitting in that big chair next to the door," said Mrs. Waites.

That isolation is what drew Mrs. Waites to seek companionship in the Heartland Hospice Bereavement Support Group. The group offered Mrs. Waites a much-needed pathway to connect with others also struggling with grief.

"The loneliness was why I really wanted to talk to people and I really wanted to know if I was losing my mind. I wanted to know if all these feelings I was having were normal," said Mrs. Waites.

She learned they were, indeed, "normal" as she shared her inner-most thoughts with five other people in the support group. Darin Easler, Heartland Hospice bereavement coordinator and group facilitator, said the point of the group is not to solve others' problems but to accompany them on the journey of grief.

"The first priority is to try to develop a safe space for folks to be who they are where they are," said Easler, who holds a bachelor's degree in public service and administration and agriculture and a master's in divinity and is trained in clinical pastoral education.

As people share their stories and insights about the deaths of their loved ones, group members begin to open up, trust one another and draw strength from each other.

"There is a lot of life wisdom that is brought to a group like that," said Easler.

The group, which is free and open to the public, is provided by Heartland Hospice in cooperation with Rockdale Medical Center. Groups meet weekly for six-week sessions at RMC.

Easler said he acts as a facilitator but doesn't necessarily come with a set agenda. He opens each session with an opportunity for each member to "check-in" with how they are feeling and then provides general guidance as to what to expect in the grieving process and how to cope with the emotions.

"It's not so much me teaching the group. It's not therapy as much as people finding support and coming together and allowing us to accompany them through the process and making sure people are finding a place to be heard," said Easler.

A week ago, Mrs. Waites' group met for the last time. Comprised of six women, all close in age and almost all of whom had lost their husbands, the group cried and laughed together as they talked about events in their lives before and after the deaths. They sat in a circle in a room at RMC. Each chair had a box of tissues next to it.

Conyers resident Kathy Bennett said she had asked her husband, Frank Bennett who died in January 2008, to give her a sign that he was content in the afterlife. Her husband had loved cardinals and lately a male cardinal had been flying around the front porch when she was out there, as if trying to get her attention.

Former Conyers resident Alice Williams, a member of the group who lost her mother, Frances Jackson, in October 2007 and her husband, Bobby Williams, in February 2008, recalled a photo she had taken of her mother and husband walking down the beach away from her and how much that photo means to her now.

"I know I'm not abnormal or crazy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we'll get there," she told the group.

Mrs. Waites said that the group allowed her to cope with cleaning out her husband's clothes, and she recently found the energy to travel to Savannah with a friend. She was also able to give her husband's hearing aids away to a fellow member of her church who could use them.

"They gave me the courage to go and do that. I found that really good. I feel like I did something for someone," said Mrs. Waites.

Mrs. Waites said she believes she's made progress and is moving forward.

"I feel like I don't have to talk to anybody about it constantly, that now I can go beyond that, even though I still think about him," she said.

In each group, Easler shares information about reconciling the losses, finding serenity and accepting a new reality. He tries to provide group members with the tools they need to cope with daily life after they leave the group.

"I believe what helped me is that I've learned that I'm not crazy and I'm not alone and that there are people out there that have lost someone who have the same feelings as I do. It's easier to talk to someone who has been through it. Everyone says 'I know how you feel,' but they don't," said Bennett. "There are people out there who share similar instances and it gives you comfort that you're not alone."

Bennett said she hopes the group can meet again in the future.

"I want peace and tranquility in my life and this had really helped. I'm getting there, and every time someone asks how I am I say 'I'm OK today.' I don't worry about tomorrow. I live in the present," said Bennett.

Alice Williams recently put into practice what she learned in the group. In order to deal with the grief that overwhelmed her last Wednesday on her husband's birthday, she wrote him a letter, took it to the cemetery and placed the letter, along with some flowers, on his grave.

"I told him he was my guardian angel and I knew he was with me," said Williams.

The next Heartland Hospice Bereavement Support Group begins on July 24. For more information, call Darin Easler at the Heartland Hospice at 770-922-8767.