July 9, 2015 | by Nancy Brands Ward
Family members can find themselves wandering an unfamiliar wilderness of grief when cancer takes a loved one. City of Hope’s newly launched bereavement groups offer a safe place for them to explore and reconcile their feelings, and find their way back to their new normal lives.
Through 12 weekly meetings, spouses, close relatives, parents, siblings and children learn about grief, mourning, healing, communication and coping strategies. Maybe more important, they find companionship and validation from others experiencing similar profound loss, disconnect and confusion about how to move forward.
“We’ve had a lot of 'aha' moments: ‘Oh, my, gosh, you cry in the shower, too?’; 'I’m not able to talk to Auntie So and So because she won’t let me’; or ‘I’m afraid to cry because I’ll make my kids cry,’” said Tiffany Yang, M.S., C.C.L.S., a child life specialist and one of five facilitators of the groups. “They find they’re not alone.”
Two bereavement support groups have been held so far. The first group focused on loss of a child, the second on loss of a spouse or significant adult. Registration for a third – open to all and set to begin on Aug. 19 – has begun. All are tailored to cancer deaths, which have a particular grief and bereavement journey unlike others, such as sudden, traumatic death.
Unique needs, unique support
“These groups also uniquely offer support for the children or siblings of patients who have died in unity with the adult group, enabling them to explore their grief together as a family,” said Jo Ann Namm, M.S., child life supervisor and co-facilitator of the Children’s Bereavement Support Group. “Children’s grief and mourning needs are different than adults. Education is also provided to adults on how to help their children through this journey.”
The groups are not meant to be permanent, but rather to provide temporary support and the tools and confidence for family members to continue on their own. Yang expects members of one recently completed group to be friends for the rest of their lives. “On their last session, they were already planning when they were going to meet up for social gatherings after this.”
The groups are also meant to “witness,” rather than “fix,” someone’s grief. The facilitators – child life specialists, a social worker and a chaplain – don’t see themselves as experts. Instead, they talk of “companioning” people in their grief and back to reality. Companioning is the approach to bereavement counseling developed by the Center for Life & Loss Transition, where City of Hope’s facilitators are being trained. It means being totally present to the mourner, rather than attempting to assess, analyze or resolve another’s grief.
Facilitators are collecting data on what works and expect to refine their approach in future bereavement groups. Preliminary results show that participants found the group was a positive force in helping them navigate their grief journey, improve their relationships and gain confidence in expressing their needs regarding grief. Direct feedback on what the group had meant also revealed that members had found: “A sense of community,” “not only permission to grieve, but encouragement” and “hope for the future.”
“Offering bereavement support to our patients’ families carries on the continuum of care that each and every family needs,” Namm said. “The road doesn’t stop abruptly with death.”
One group member, Theresa Palang, wrote eloquently about her experience in the wake of her spouse's death:
“From doctors answering my many questions, to granting me a ‘first’ in holding a memorial service on the hospital grounds, to the bereavement group that has taken me in, City of Hope has never abandoned me. I have now come to believe that their sacred mission of ‘giving more tomorrows’ extends beyond the patients to the surviving family members who must piece their lives back together and believe there is a future that awaits beyond the enormous loss.”Bereavement Support Group Begins Aug. 19
Who: Tailored for family and caregivers of cancer patients who have passed away, all family members and caregivers of City of Hope patients and others in the community are welcome.
When: 12 weeks, Wednesdays, 6 to 8 p.m., Aug. 19-Nov.4
Time: 6 to 6:30 p.m. family dinner, followed by discussion and activities from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Where: Maryvale Family Resource Center in Duarte, California
Cost: No charge.
Marisol Trujillo, M.S., C.C.L.S., Child Life Specialist
Jo Ann Namm, M.S., C.C.L.S., Child Life Supervisor and Specialist
Tiffany Yang, M.S., C.C.L.S., Child Life Specialist for Children
Rev. Dr. Terry L. Irish, D.Min., B.C.C.
Victoria Muñoz-Schmitt, L.C.S.W., Clinical Social Worker, Adult Medical Oncology
Rev. Dr. Terry Irish [email protected] 626-218-5781
Tiffany Yang [email protected] 626-218-0243
Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.