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Climbing Out of the Valley of the Shadow : Discussion Groups Help Widows, Widowers Cope With Loss

September 04, 1986|ROD LAZO | Times Community Correspondent

Josephine Scribner felt lost and very alone after her husband died unexpectedly in 1983.

At age 58, she was left angry and confused, her life shattered, the day her husband died after a fall from a ladder.

"He had been on that ladder hundreds of times, but that was it," she said. "He suffered brain damage and within a week he was gone."

Scribner immediately began to look for emotional support, but was unable to get the help she needed from talking to friends. Then she found Patchwork, one of several discussion support groups for widows and widowers in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I was astounded that they could hit on the very topics that were so important to me, such as how to deal with the loss," said Scribner, who found so much comfort in the group that she drove from her home in Los Angeles to Pasadena for two years to attend the monthly two-hour meetings.

Patchwork, which operates out of St. Luke Medical Center in Pasadena, seeks to provide an atmosphere in which widowed men and women can learn to cope with their problems.

The group meets for two hours on the second Wednesday of each month and listens to talks by professionals on such topics as anger, loneliness, depression and grief. After about 20 minutes devoted to socializing, they gather again in an informal setting and discuss their individual problems.

"I've seen some people cry, and it's OK . . . the group makes it OK," said Laurie Gollnick, a marriage, family and child counselor who oversees the discussions.

"People who come for the first time often have tears in their eyes. . . . The group members give each other a lot of support because they have been through the same situation," she said.

"There is a sense of stability in the group. The newcomers know that others have walked through it a day at a time and dealt with their problems," Gollnick said.

Participants also are encouraged to strike out on their own by getting involved in volunteer work and establishing new relationships.

Virginia Lundgren, who coordinates the Patchwork program for St. Luke, said that widowed men and women have "a sense of being overwhelmed by their sadness and the feeling that they will never be able to cope."

Perspective on Grieving

"Grieving is a healing process, and the group provides a perspective to that," Lundgren said.

For Scribner, "my biggest problem was dealing with the loneliness and the sudden death."

"It's a feeling that even your friends and family members can't help you with . . . you can't keep talking to them about it, whereas with this group you can," Scribner said.

Other Support Groups

There are two other programs for widows and widowers in the San Gabriel Valley. Gaining Recovery of Widowhood (GROW) is sponsored by the San Gabriel Valley Medical Center. That group meets the first and third Saturdays of the month and usually draws about 50 participants.

They Help Each Other Spiritually (THEOS), sponsored by the Arcadia Presbyterian Church, meets once a month at the church and draws about 10 people.

Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina offers a support group for anyone over the age of 18 who has suffered the death of a close friend or relative. Participants meet once a week for 10 weeks.

Queen of the Valley is also planning to offer a similar program for children who have lost a close friend or relative.

All of the programs, which are free, offer speakers, followed by group discussion of common problems. And there is always time set aside for socializing.

Range of Speakers

Lundgren said that speakers at Patchwork include psychologists, counselors, therapists and clergymen, and topics range from insomnia to filling the void left by the death of a spouse.

"One woman had never driven a car in her life, and when her husband died she learned to drive," Lundgren said.

For Mildred Turner of Pasadena, the biggest problem was learning to make her own decisions.

"You have to find out where to go for insurance and mechanics," said Turner, who attended Patchwork meetings from 1980 to 1983.

"When your car runs out of gas, you find out that someone has been doing that for you all your life," she said.

Chance to Meet People

Turner said that it was the opportunity to socialize that helped her most.

"It was good to be with other people who were going through the same experience . . . it was a way of making friends," Turner said.

Making new friends is a major problem for widowed people, said Lundgren. "A lot of people lose their friends because their friends don't know how to be supportive unless they've gone through the same experience," she said.

"I've had to develop an entirely new set of friends since my wife passed away," said Mel Thiele, 77, of Arcadia, whose wife died in 1983.

Thiele said he regrets not having known about the Patchwork program earlier.

'Would Have Helped'

"It would have helped me a great deal in the first year, when I didn't know where I was going," said Thiele, who began going to the meetings only recently.

"The group is very social. . . . We mingle and talk," he said. Thiele is one of only a handful of men who attend the Patchwork meetings.

"You have to go in thinking you're going to get something out of it. . . . It's not difficult to open up," he said.

Lundgren said that about 80% of those who attend the meetings are women. But "more and more men are coming because they see that they benefit so much, and then they tell their friends," Lundgren said.

Most of the participants are in their 60s, she added.

Lundgren said that although people attend the meetings for varying lengths of time, there is usually a core group of about 15 who go every month for two or three years.

"There is no set time for anyone," Lundgren said. "I've seen some people go through it (dealing with death) in one year and some in four years. . . . Everybody has a different set of circumstances," she said.

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