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  • A Little Help from My Friends: Spouse Loss Group Creates Lasting Friendships

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Life is full of many firsts. Some are welcome and expected, while others arrive suddenly and without invitation. After the loss of a long-time spouse or partner, the wave of unexpected firsts can strike without warning.

When Jane Ratterman and Terry Shields each lost their husbands in 2019, the influx of forced firsts hit hard and fast for them both. The first time waking up without their partner. The first encounter tackling a task their husbands had handled for decades. They were also each the first among their close friends to have lost a spouse. Although their friends tried to empathize, both women shared how no one they knew could truly relate to what they were going through.

Terry and Jane’s husbands each received hospice care from Hosparus Health. Following the loss of their spouses, the women were offered literature about bereavement services through Hosparus Health’s Grief Counseling Center. Each woman was feeling a sense of isolation with her grief, especially as back-to-school storefronts transitioned to turkeys, trees, and tinsel. The first holiday season without their spouses was rapidly approaching, and their fears of facing it alone were undeniable. Terry kept asking herself in early November, “How are you going to do this? How are you going get through the holidays without him?”

Terry recalled sifting through the materials from the Grief Counseling Center and finding an invitation to Hope for the Holidays. Facilitated by a grief counselor, this annual series takes place before Thanksgiving and continues through the new year. Each session focuses on an aspect of the holiday season and offers practical suggestions, support, and conversation with other adults who are also grieving. The women attended and met early in the series, and both recalled feeling an immediate bond. “Terry and I really connected and became sort of fast friends in the parking lot, talking for an hour and a half after the second or third session,” Jane said.

After completing the Hope for the Holidays series, they joined a weekly spouse loss support group in Louisville. There, they met Pam Mason, Cindy Kirkman and Debbie Mcguilicuddy. The women were around the same age. Their grown children were no longer living at home and all five women were now widows facing these new firsts at a similar stage in their lives. Terry recalled. “We all had lost our husbands within months of each other, and we were all still struggling. We bonded immediately and felt like sisters.”

They all felt the group provided a safe space for sharing their experiences, offering mutual support, and forming new friendships. “So many people don’t understand how losing your spouse affects every single thing in your life,” Terry said. “One of the biggest benefits of coming together as a group is a common shared experience. I don’t know what I would do without these women who are in the same position I’m in.”

Before long, the five women were meeting one another outside the spouse loss support group. They visited for coffee and dinner while extending listening ears beyond their weekly large group sessions. After acknowledging their disdain for the word “widow,” they affectionately started referring to themselves as “The Widsters,” a name suggested by a family member. Jane shared how their friendship made a significant difference in the healing process. “I think the dynamic of a grief loss group, particularly a specific one geared to certain losses, is just so valuable.” She continued, “You can’t run from grief; you have to face it. You have to live it. You have to go through it. Support groups can help you do that.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the women continued to meet virtually with the rest of the spousal loss group. Outside the group, their friendship deepened along the highs, lows, and many new firsts they each experienced. From purchasing major appliances to handling finances by themselves, with each new challenge and triumph, the Widsters offered each other encouragement along the way. Together, they celebrated birthdays, traveled, and even met each other’s extended families. Terry recalled how the support she received from her new friends was noticeable to those around her, and her son lovingly referred to the Widsters as her “posse.”

When the time came, the women felt ready to transition out of the spouse loss group to continue their healing journey. Both Terry and Jane felt so moved by their experience with group therapy, they felt compelled to extend this support to others. “I knew once I was strong enough, I was going to have to do something with Hosparus Health and Gilda’s Club,” Terry stated. “The support I received after my husband’s death from both organizations was life-changing.”

Terry and Jane joined Hosparus Health’s Grief Counseling Center as volunteer facilitators for the newly formed Common Ground Support Group. Volunteers who have received grief counseling services lead the monthly group, under the direction of trained counselors. The program offers a space for adults who have completed formal grief counseling to continue receiving group support, connection, and a sense of community. Volunteer facilitators can share their personal experiences while helping others along their grief journey.

Jane emphasized the group provided an avenue for her to give back. “As a facilitator who has also experienced loss, I can start off the meeting by saying, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together,’” she explained. “Since I’ve been in their shoes, it really is ‘we.’ Common Ground has helped me as much as it’s helped the other participants.”

Terry mentioned how rewarding it is to reassure others that their feelings are normal and temporary. “If I can help someone understand that what you’re dealing with and feeling right now during grief will not always be this way. It does become different, and you won’t always feel like this.” Adding, “If one person can look at me and say, well, if she can do it, and here she is, she’s facilitating this class, then I can too. We can laugh, we can joke about the things that come up in our lives while we grieve. What they feel is normal and okay; that’s what matters to me.”

Both women reflected on how the process of grieving involves picking up the pieces and learning to live with the loss. They noted how talking, listening, and supporting those who have experienced a similar loss has been incredibly beneficial for their journey. The Widsters learned from each other as they gained insights into their own grief. They all experienced personal growth and self-discovery as they confronted their unique “firsts.”

“I’ve learned a lot about myself, which is a common theme in group therapy – just getting used to a new life,” said Jane. “I feel very blessed, which I didn’t expect. Having the group’s support made a big difference, for all of us. It’s been a lifesaver to have a group of friends like these women!”

“It can get awfully lonely not having people to talk to who really feel what you’re feeling. Grief groups can help you face the pain; to recognize it’s okay to not always feel okay, and you will get through it,” Jane summarized. “It’s a journey. It’s not easy. It hurts. There are tears, but we lean on each other to find strength along the way.”

If you or someone you love is experiencing grief due to a loss, support is available. Hosparus Health Grief Counseling Center’s trained professionals provide in-person and telehealth appointments for people of all ages. They offer private individual and family counseling sessions; support groups for trauma and loss; and community education about the grief process. Grief services are also available for anyone in the community, regardless of a previous engagement with Hosparus Health. Click here to learn more.

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