Support group helps heal the heart | Opinion

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When my friend Doris passed away, I worried that her husband, Shelly, would fall apart.

The two, married for 59 years, raised three children and built a productive life together. Since Doris had been ill for over a year, Shelly felt he had time to prepare for life without her. Not so, he later admitted, “the finality was like a kick in the head.’’

The days were not too bad, he said, but the lonely nights were endless. And since Doris died during the early months of COVID-19 when friends and family were not available for personal support, he felt lonelier than most. A friend suggested he contact the Ruth and Norman Rales Jewish Family Services in Boca Raton to join a bereavement support group

Shelly was hesitant. “I’m not the kind of guy to air my feelings in public,’’ he said.

But after a few weeks of intense loneliness, he decided to give it a try.

The group he joined, with more than a dozen participants, met together on Zoom. At his first meeting, Shelly just listened as the others expressed their feelings. This is not helpful for me, he thought. ‘’They are as lost as I am.’’ But luckily he gave it another shot and learned how to bring joy back into his life.

Recently Shelly and Sharon, a friend from his support group, shared with me what helped them move on from their devastating losses.

“You think you are the only one going through the pain,” said Sharon, whose husband passed away two years ago. “When friends ask how you are doing, you often put up a good front and respond that ‘everything is fine.’’’

But in a support group, explains Melissa Alter, a professional facilitator for JFS bereavement support groups, “It’s OK to take off your mask and reveal your many confused and often conflicted feelings.

“Everyone understands what you are going through,’’ she adds, ‘’because they have gone — or are going through — the same grief process. ‘’

Studies show that social support is one of the strongest determinants of bereavement outcome.

Sharon agrees. “Our twice a week meetings have been a priority for me,’’ she said. ‘’It’s not only to receive support but to be there for the others.’’

Over these many months, the members shared suggestions on how to transition from a couple’s world to being single. Not always easy, added Shelly, as many of his married friends were less supportive than he had hoped. Others confessed similar disappointments, but the group friendships helped ease their discomfort.

Guilt is a common feeling when a loved one dies, said Alter. (Did I do enough; did I get the best medical advice?) But, she explains, “We know saving them was not in our control and we need to learn to forgive ourselves and let the feelings of guilt float away.’’

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Many in the group questioned when it’s OK to start dating again. Some wondered when it’s OK to remove your wedding ring. The answer to both, Alter explained, “is when you are ready.’’

Collectively, the group shared ideas on financial matters, how to plan for an upcoming unveiling and what to tell your adult children if there is a new love in your life.

Grief is like a thumbprint — no two are alike. But sharing thoughts and ideas with others in the same situation can ease the painful initial stages of loss and how then to move on.

It certainly was helpful to my friend Shelly. On our recent visit, the smile on his face said it all — something I hadn’t seen in a very long time.

Bea Lewis is a journalist, author and public speaker who lives in Boynton Beach.

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