A safe space for tears: The narrative of a grief journey session

October 9, 2018

Like life, death is a journey. Grief and loss are the topics of the monthly Living with Grief program conducted by Susan Smith, grief support and life legacies manager at GenCure.

Susan has been doing grief and bereavement work for more than 20 years at hospices, childrens hospitals and medical centers. Her work at GenCure includes supporting tissue donor families and others dealing with the loss of a loved one.

At the Living with Grief sessions, narratives are shared in a supportive environment. The group encourages people to redefine themselves by telling stories of their loved ones and sharing different parts of their grief journey.Participants can share as much or as little as they choose.

Here is an outline of a recent session:

“It’s OK to not be OK”

Happiness, smiles and tears take place in these raw talks. Susan’s sessions start with introductions of grief stories of the people attending. Attendees state their names, the losses in their lives and how many years ago that person(s) passed away. Losses range from a few months to 10 years ago and can include a child, parent, partner, sibling, cousin, stepfamily, and in-law. They died from sudden causes, accidents and chronic illnesses.

Next comes a ritual of throwing a bouncy ball against a wall, which shows that throwing away grief just means it can bounce back in any direction. Sometimes it’s not immediately visible, and sometimes it can hit and hurt. Participants take the balls home, representations of how everyone helps carry each other’s grief.

Throughout the session, a box with blue decorative gems is always kept at the table. The gems signify the tears in the heart. Everyone is invited to take a “tear” when they leave, with the shiny glass becoming the jewel that’s in their heart and as a memento of the stories shared.

“You don’t apologize for crying here”

As the session progresses, people share about their loved one’s clothing, inside jokes, family memories, birthdays, sayings, habits, favorite foods, hobbies, trips, etc. They also include how others have helped or hurt them through comments, behaviors, or acts along their grief journey.

Following the group talk, paper with backgrounds of landscapes are distributed. The paper is hand-torn instead of clean-cut with scissors to symbolize that grief is not neat.

Participants choose an image that had a special meaning to them, then write on the back six words describing their grief journeys to date. Typically, the words include embracing, celebrations, transition, trauma, sad, memories, new beginnings, laughter and fear.

Participants also write what they consider the best thing about the group.

The comments go into a broken vase, following the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, where broken ceramic is repaired with gold, serving as a philosophical reminder that broken can be beautiful.

Susan will read one of those comments at the beginning of the next group meeting.

“We’ve got each other’s backs”

At the end of the session, participants form a circle with arms on each other’s backs. Everyone closes their eyes and takes a few deep breaths in and out, ending it by saying, “We’ve got each other’s backs.”

The grief support program keeps Susan connected to her job and reminds her why she does this.

“When we tell our grief narrative, we need caring people to hear our stories and hold that space of making it real, no matter how many years it has been,” she says. “We need validation of our feelings and opportunities to remember them. We need time to let our relationship change and grow with the person who died.”

For more information on the GenCure Living with Grief program, contact Susan Smith at 210-757-9428 or bereavement@gencure.org. Sessions are held monthly from 6-8 p.m. at the Donor Pavilion, 6211 IH-10 West at First Park Ten Boulevard, San Antonio, TX 78201. GenCure is based in San Antonio.

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