the 1st time at grief support group

My speech about overcoming fear to find connection, healing, and hope. Listen to the live recording from The Christi Center’s 31st Annual Remembrance Event hosted at St. Edwards University on December 9, 2018. 

I’m Jessica and I know what it feels like to be hopeless. On April 1, 2017, I lost my partner, Mark, in a sudden, tragic accident. Mark was everything to me. In a single day, my life went dark.

Mark and I celebrating our last Christmas together at our apartment in 2016.
Mark and I celebrating our last Christmas together at our apartment in 2016.

I forgot what hope looked like. “What’s the point?” was my new life motto.
Before when I struggled with life, I relied on friends and family to pull me through, but this was different. None of my loved ones had gone through something like this. They didn’t know what to say or what to do. They encouraged me to stop focusing on my sadness; they wanted me to “be happy” again. While they had good intentions, I felt like I was letting them down and that turned into shame. I pushed people away to avoid vulnerable moments.

Fearing vulnerability
People sent me resources for grief support. I thanked them, but I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t imagine anything that would help. I actually believed these resources could make it worse for me. Looking back, I struggled to find a place where I felt safe enough to grieve.

I woke up particularly crushed one morning a few weeks before Mark’s first “angel-versary.” I spent a long time crying on the floor next to my bed. I was convinced there was no reason to go on with life. Right there in my bedroom, I stood on rock bottom. I had lots of reasons not to attend a grief support group, but at this point, none withstood one question: What do I have to lose?

I called The Christi Center. The staff person who answered invited me to come in the following Monday. She told me it was free. What a blessing!
I measured my fear and decided the risk was worth what I stood to gain — a glimmer of hope that I could get through the hardest experience of my life.

The front door of The Christi Center headquarters on Hancock Drive in Austin, TX.
The front door of The Christi Center headquarters on Hancock Drive in Austin, TX.

Showing up by myself
A wave washed over me as I got out of my car in the Christi Center parking lot. I was terrified walking up to the old house. A staff member, who also happened to be named Christi, opened the door and welcomed me in. Christi told me, “I’m sorry for what brought you here but I’m glad that you found us. As a reminder tonight, you don’t have to say anything. You’re welcome to just observe. Whatever makes you comfortable.”

I shared the weight of my fear with Christi. My shoulders softened as she told me that she had also experienced great loss. Christi led me on a tour of the property describing the healing programs in each area. The last stop on my tour was The Annex, where the Monday night group began.

The Annex wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t diluted with frills or motivational posters. The walls were clean. The floors were plain. Art supplies were neatly organized on a bookshelf in the back of the room. I could see a courtyard with a gurgling pond and green plants through three sets of French doors. Blue string lights made the courtyard glow after sunset and purple hearts framed small portraits that overlapped on the short wall next to the French doors.

Purple hearts framed portraits in The Annex.
Purple hearts framed portraits in The Annex.

Opening the Heart Circle
People of all ages, races, and genders made name tags and hugged one another before finding a seat in one of the fifteen or twenty chairs in a wide circle. Some people sat quietly, others wiped their eyes with tissue or held hands. A baby cooed, bouncing in her mom’s lap.

Susan and Don Cox sat at the head of the circle. They founded The Christi Center two years after losing their daughter, Christi. Susan explained how we open the circle by passing around a palm-sized glass heart, saying our names, and who we are there “for the love of.”

Susan held the heart and began, “I’m Susan and I’m here for the love of our daughter, Christi, countless friends, and all of your loved ones.” Then she passed the heart to the person on her left.

We passed around this glass heart as each of us said who we were there “for the love of.”
We passed around this glass heart as each of us said who we were there “for the love of.”

Finding the glimmer of hope

Everyone held the heart before we split up into smaller groups based on our type of loss: partner/spouse, child, or other losses. I went to the partner/spouse group in The Library, a smaller room with another courtyard view through French doors. There were a couple other women sitting there when I arrived.

Another member had been in the group before, so they started by telling their story. Their bravery inspired compassion in me. I felt more compassion for them than I did for myself. Tears started flowing when the facilitator offered me an opportunity to share. Luckily I was surrounded by boxes of Kleenex.

The Library room at The Christi Center, where I shared at my first grief group.
The Library room at The Christi Center, where I shared at my first grief group.

My group asked questions that helped me open up, but I never felt pressured to talk. Their responses were so courageous. They didn’t offer any platitudes or solutions. They didn’t rush me on to something else, and they were all willing to be uncomfortable with me. Finally, somewhere I felt safe to show up and be myself.

People nodded as I spoke and I knew they really got what I was saying. They were right there with me. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know me, we were living through the same thing. The people in my group that night witnessed me and acknowledged me. We shared an authentic connection through one of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves — our broken hearts.

Lightening the load
Our facilitator saved time to talk about things that helped us in our grief journeys. People mentioned walking, listening to music, creating routines, driving on an open road, reading certain books, exercising, finding a new job. If I was alone, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single thing that helped. Now I had an entire list. To close the group, we took a moment to express gratitude for each other and the time we shared. As all of the other small groups concluded, people congregated near the courtyard before walking to their cars. Everyone had something else to say, one more connection to make.

People gathered in the courtyard afterward. It seemed like everyone had one more connection to make. Just like before the group began, some people looked happy and others wiped their eyes with tissue. The pain was still there, but an undeniable shift happened too. I saw it in their eyes, how they stood, and how they talked to each other. They moved easier, spoke easier, and so did I. I felt lighter like I put down a weight I thought I had to carry the rest of my life.

The Christi Center began 30 years ago with Susan and Don gathering in a little room with a few friends. Now the Christi Center serves 3,000 people each year from its headquarters on Hancock Drive. There’s a reason why: people who show up for grief group find the glimmer of hope that the bereaved need most, hope that we can get through this.

One of my favorite authors is Brené Brown, a social scientist at Rice University who spent the last 15 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book, “Braving The Wilderness,” she asks:
“ Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?”

That’s what it takes to show up to a grief group for the first time.
So, the next time grief tugs on your shirt sleeve for attention, remember that you don’t have to face it alone. What else do you have to lose?

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