Grief…my journey as a volunteer

Posted on July 8, 2014
For more than two years I have been a volunteer at a local grief center. The a majority of this time I have been a co-facilitator in an adult group and more recently with teens and young people. Many people ask me how I can handle something like this. It has been an amazing experience so far. My life is so much richer being with my other family every other Monday evening.

We, the facilitators, and the people who come every other week are like a family. Sometimes we don’t see some of the faces for weeks on end and then out of the blue they will come back.

I have learned a lot about people and grief since I started volunteering.

First, I think I should tell you what prompted me to become a volunteer at a grief center. We had several deaths in our lives over a four-month period. It wasn’t until a dear family friend, Ernie, passed on Christmas night in 2012. I watched Ernie go from a life loving, vibrant man to a shell. Ernie taught me so much about life and death. All the odds were stacked against him from childhood. His father worked at a paper mill in Illinois during his childhood. When his father would come home from work he would change from his work clothes in a room off of the kitchen, exposing his family to asbestos. Ernie’s father was the first case in the United States to win a settlement for asbestos poisoning. He didn’t realize what he was exposing his wife and children to. From there Ernie went on to serve his country where he was exposed to Agent Orange, he smoked, and he was a diesel mechanic. When Ernie first became sick they found a spot on his kidney, then another, then his liver, and then his lungs. Cancer is a wicked, wicked disease. We didn’t know that when he was first diagnosed the doctors told his wife he had six to eighteen months to live. Three years later we would say goodbye to Ernie on Christmas Night. We were so blessed, all of us, including Ernie, to not know how much time he was given. His wife never told us until he was gone. So we spent the last three years of his life living, not living like it was the end. We drank coffee together, ate meals together, I cooked according to his likes…this makes me smile. I would even say “Ern, are you staying for dinner?” which was met with “what are we having?”. I would tell him meatloaf and green beans, he hated them. We would laugh! We took vacations together. I miss my friend. Ernie taught me a lot about life and about tremendous strength.

I will never forget the news the morning the grief center called to me. I saw this segment with a lady talking about a grief center and how they needed volunteers….I entertained the idea briefly and then let it go. I believe that when something is meant to be, it will be. They repeated the segment again and I knew I was being told that I needed to call. I was in the next training class and haven’t looked back since.

After training, I went to my first grief meeting. It was a room full of adults all with different stories. As they went around the circle and shared their stories it broke my heart. I came out thinking this isn’t for me, what can I do for any of them??? When I told the coordinator she said to me “No ones grief is the same”. I learned my first lesson that night.

We all grieve very differently. Loss is loss.

I can say to you that grieving people get tired of hearing I am sorry or that God needed another angel. These words don’t make it any better although they are meant well. They need you to be there for them, even if there are no words between you. Don’t back away from them because you don’t know how to treat them, this hurts more than you know.

Our children need to be able to grieve as well. They need to know its okay to talk about the person that is no longer there. I’ve also learned that when a parent loses a child that the children that they still have sometimes lose that parent to grief as well. Celebrate the life of the one that is no longer here with them. They are affected too.

My best friend who I facilitated with for the first two years, lost two daughters in her life, one on my birthday. I don’t distance myself from her…she couldn’t get that lucky. She would laugh. I embrace her on our day. I send a card and a text acknowledging her day and letting her know I think of her. I stand just far enough back so that if she reaches for me I am here.

As my journey on the grief road shifts to one with young people it becomes richer. It’s important to be present for them, listen to them, know their stories and ask them questions. You can see in the younger faces how much it means that you are there, you remember and know their stories.

A grief center may not be the place for everyone to volunteer, but we have all lost someone. Its something everyone has in common. You may not think you can help….just being there, present in that moment, sharing with them, caring about them…that helps. They unpack their emotional trunks once every two weeks in a safe, understanding environment.

I encourage everyone to volunteer. It doesn’t matter how, find something that is close to your heart. Something that is important to you. I have dealt with so much grief, questions, and decisions in such a short period that being at the grief center made perfect sense to me. Another piece of advice, make sure you can commit to the time you need to be there. It’s important that they see familiar faces that know their stories and will be there for them.

This blog is written in memory of Ernie. I miss you every day, and smile at all the good memories you gave me.

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