Holidays intensify feelings of grief Center helps mourners deal with their pain

November 29, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A woman loses her husband of 48 years.

A man loses his wife of 44 years.

A child loses a parent to murder.

Where to turn for solace, besides relatives and friends? Hundreds of mourners of various faiths are turning to the Center for Grief and Loss at the Cardinal Shehan Center in Timonium.

Many people will find the pain of bereavement especially acute during the holiday season, said Pat Shaw, the center's manager.

Death's aftermath is the daily topic for the center's social workers, who for 1 1/2 years have offered the Stella Maris Hospice service to the public.

In the past six months, the counselors have worked with more than 200 grieving children in groups of different ages, and 77 in individual meetings. They also have served 120 adults in groups and 341 adults in private sessions.

"The mourners are all normal people," said Shaw. "We can begin by helping them find their own way. We encourage emotions. We walk with them. We don't push them or pull them."

Five counselors with master's degrees in social work and specializing in bereavement advise relatives in private and group sessions at Stella Maris or Mercy Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

They also offer workshops and seminars throughout the area. The service is open to children and adults for a fee lower than usual professional rates.

Jane Konka of Darlington in Harford County thought she was going crazy after her husband, Chester, died in March. He was a retired civil servant at the National Security Agency, and though he had been sick a long time, his wife was unprepared for his death.

"We had a wonderful life of 48 years together," she said. "Seven children, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild. I was blessed, I could take care of him at home. But I wasn't emotionally prepared when he passed away. When you lose someone you love, you're not the same person anymore."

Her family was supportive. Yet Konka sat at home, without energy, unable to do anything. "I didn't want to leave the house," she said. "I turned down invitations. I just went out for groceries and Mass at church. Then, after seven months, I heard about Pat Shaw and the center."

She said her life has improved since she took part in three group counseling meetings this fall with others who had lost loved ones and shared their experiences. She preferred groups to individual meetings. Others are more comfortable in one-on-one sessions.

"Thanks to Pat, I began to see things differently. She is all-the-way positive. I learned I wasn't unique. I wasn't going crazy," Konka said.

"After listening to others, I said, 'I can handle this.' I felt better going out for lunch or dinner with friends. I don't want to change our traditions, so we're having our usual Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with family," she said.

William H. Fisher of Charlesbrooke in North Baltimore also was enthusiastic about "the absolutely positive experience" he had with Shaw and other social workers after his wife of 44 years died. He preferred a combination of individual and group counseling.

But friends in similar situations, especially men, have been reluctant to follow his lead in seeking professional help.

"My wife, Jean, died very suddenly, in 14 weeks," he said. "Our two sons live in New Jersey and South Carolina. Although you have a circle of very close friends, there's a time when support declines. It's natural that they go on with their lives. You find yourself very low."

Fisher heard about the center, and six weeks after his wife's death, he began explaining his grief to a counselor and then to other grieving people.

"I was amazed at how open people are in groups. I found without exception that people reached out, listened and respected your grief. The social worker was helpful, listened, let us carry things. It was a real help."

In the two years since Fisher's wife died, eight male friends and one female friend lost their spouses. Women outnumbered men in his group meetings. He tried to interest his male friends in the program.

"I had no takers," said Fisher, who has remarried. "Maybe it was a male macho thing. I can just speak for myself. It certainly held me together."

The public center, off Dulaney Valley Road, is an outgrowth of the Stella Maris Hospice Care Program for terminally ill patients, which began in 1983 at the nursing home of the same name. The service has been available for 13 years to families of hospice patients.

It was opened last year to the public, partly because it was felt the area lacked enough resources to meet the needs of children.

"Children grieve differently from adults," said Sister Karen McNally, a Sister of Mercy who is chief operating officer of Stella Maris. Children are helped in six weekly 90-minute sessions called "Me Too" groups, she said.

"They have different concepts of death at different ages. They often feel left out of the grieving process, because adults don't want to upset them. They can share their experiences with each other and the counselor in the 'Me Too' groups."

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