Bereavement counselor's experiences help others

May 04, 1994|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to The Sun

It was the little things -- her late husband's tractor that she couldn't bring herself to sell, the restaurants that seemed to overflow with couples -- that inspired Janet Zinzeleta to write about her grief.

Writing was a way for the 64-year-old Ellicott City resident to cope with the loss of her husband, Ray, who died in 1986 of leukemia. The couple had been married for 30 years.

Step by step, fighting through the pain, Mrs. Zinzeleta chronicled her feelings in a dozen essays, most of them printed in such publications as The Sun; the Miami Herald; Bereavement magazine, a national publication; and in a professional journal for doctors who study death and dying.

The former Catholic high school English teacher has collected some of those essays in a booklet, "Widow to Widow."

The booklet is being distributed by Hospice Services of Howard County, where Mrs. Zinzeleta for four years has been co-leader of a support group for those who have lost their spouses.

She said the price, $3.50, including postage, covers the printing costs and is not intended for profit.

"I wanted to let people know that the things they are feeling are what everyone feels, like how you are affected by little things that can bring back grief as though it just happened," said Mrs. Zinzeleta, who has three grown children. "People need to know they are not the only ones who are having this experience."

Since "Widow to Widow" was printed in March, the local hospice center has received orders from Family Life Center in Frederick County, from funeral homes in Howard and Baltimore counties, and from the Association for Death Education and Counseling, a national group.

Some of the topics in the booklet are the same subjects that support group members often discuss, such as the pain of holidays, but each person's experience is unique.

In the article "Adjusting to Change," Mrs. Zinzeleta writes about the difficulty of getting through the first Christmas without her husband and of her inability to continue her family's traditional turkey dinner.

That first Christmas, one of her daughters suggested that the family change the menu to shrimp Creole. Mrs. Zinzeleta concedes that the change wasn't a quick-fix remedy, but it was a "new kind of celebration."

The last essay in the booklet, "Getting Better," is about hope. It compares grief to a scar that is tender whenever bumped.

"So, too, emotional 'bumps' cause us pain, like the anniversary of the death, our wedding anniversaries, holidays," Mrs. Zinzeleta writes. Eventually, a person can work through that pain by

finding new interests, hobbies and ways of doing things, she suggests.

"If we imagine how impossible this would have been at the start, we can begin to acknowledge the fact that, yes, it does get better."

Mrs. Zinzeleta stresses the importance of finding support in the stressful period after the death of a loved one. For her, that help came through bereavement groups, which she joined three months after her husband's death.

"It's hard to find people who are willing to listen, but in support groups, people are able to listen," Mrs. Zinzeleta said. "It's a safe place for them to express their feelings and to know that the people there respect their confidentiality so that they feel free to say anything."

The support group at Hospice Services of Howard County, which Mrs. Zinzeleta co-leads with Hattie Mae Wiseman, 69, also a widow, meets six consecutive Tuesday evenings for 90 minutes. During that time, members discuss different aspects of grief.

"We talk about guilt, forgiving ourselves, anger, how to cope with daily living when one is feeling so bad, and other coping skills," Mrs. Zinzeleta said.

The writer emphasized that during the early stages of grief, people can't concentrate. "What they need is the bonding and support from each other," she said.

Through the discussion of mutual experiences and the pain of a loss, Mrs. Zinzeleta has learned some things that others can do to help the bereaved.

"Don't say, 'I know how you feel,' unless you have suffered the same kind of loss," she said. "Talk about the deceased if you knew him or her -- sometimes, we get the feeling that no one else cares. Don't compare them with others you know and imply that they should be doing better. It is helpful to know that you are thinking about them -- people hesitate to call because they are afraid they are bothering them.

"And, lastly, be patient with them," Mrs. Zinzeleta said of those who are recovering from a loss. "They may seem to be very sensitive and self-centered, but they need to be, for a while."

Copies of "Widow to Widow" can be ordered from Bereavemen Coordinator, Hospice Services of Howard County, 5537 Twin Knolls Road, Suite 4433, Columbia 21045, or call (410) 730-5072.

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