By CRISTINA JANNEY
Doreen Timken has suffered much loss in her life.
She shares some of those loses with the support group Healing After Loss at the Center for Life Experience in Hays. She is an example of how grief has no time limits — and neither does learning how to reconnect.
Her journey started in 1991. In December of that year, her daughter who had just graduated from high school the previous spring called and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. I’m pregnant, and I have acute leukemia.”
First, her daughter lost the baby.
In June, her dad died of lymphoma. In July, her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In November, Timken lost her daughter to cancer.
Her husband died in 2007 also from cancer.
“I though I handled things pretty well,” she said, “Because sometimes God gives you things in multiples, so you don’t just concentrate on just one thing. I learned a lot about God through my daughter, because she was very, very brave.”
Then one day at work, she met Alan Scheuerman, who was already attending the Healing After Loss support group. He had lost his wife and, years earlier, a young son.
“We started talking, and we had some of the same types of losses,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t think I need to go to a group. It’s been too long.’ I started to go to a group and discovered I never, ever dealt with my daughter’s death.
“Thank goodness for a great support group, a great facilitator. You are going to find that a lot of us have multiple losses here, and I think from here on out with the new organization, I think the word needs to get out more. … every time I come, as many years have past, I still learn something about myself because you still have to recreate yourself.
“Not only that, but you are helpful to others, and others kind of seek you out when they get in the same predicament. Before I had any losses, did I pay any attention to anybody else? No. it makes me feel really bad because I never knew what to say.”
The Center for Life Experience recently reorganized as a stand alone non-profit. It is now located in the Hadley Center. In addition to Healing After Loss, it also facilitates meetings for Healing Hearts, a grief support group for parents who have lost children; Healing After Loss of Suicide (HALOS); and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Doreen addressed nursing students who were attending a recent support group meeting to observe as part of their clinicals.
“I appreciate all of you going into nursing. I really do. It’s super. Don’t be afraid to talk to patients when you know there is no hope for them,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to talk to their families. You can be a lot of help for them.”
Scheuerman lost his 2-year-old son from spinal meningitis in 1981. As a parent, he blamed himself for the death and suffered for about 10 years with that loss.
“I really loathed myself,” he said. “My wife loved me dearly and helped me through that and her family did too, so I am very thankful for that.”
His wife died in 2008 of breast cancer.
“I didn’t want to take 10 years to heal the second time around. About two weeks after I put my wife in the ground, I came to this group and Ann (Leiker) was a great facilitator, and it was a great group. I was very thankful.”
Scheuerman has been attending the group ever since.
“I have been very thankful for all they have given me and shared with me,” he said.
Ken Windholz, FHSU psychology instructor, visited the group during a recent meeting. People who are grieving might suffer from depression. He said support groups help people who are grieving make social connections, and that can help them be more resilient.
Another group member, Mike, lost his wife to pancreatic cancer in 2008. He is close to his son who lives in Salina and they talk almost every day, but he said he didn’t know what do to do after his wife died.
“This was a lifeline for me,” he said of the support group. “Rather than sit in my house … alone … I came to this after I lost Jane. It’s been a godsend.”
Windholz shared the story of his journey through grief. About 12 years ago Windholz’s younger sister died of cancer. They had been close as kids, playing football together. Ken was the protector, getting his younger sister out of jams.
Windholz was there with her when she died on Christmas morning at her home. Winholdz’s two brothers came to L.A., where their sister was living. On the day of the funeral, his oldest brother had a heart attack at a hotel across town. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but died within 45 minutes of arriving at the hospital.
“I wanted it to go away,” he said. “I wanted it to stop.”
“We got through it, but I shut down, and I stayed shut down for the longest time,” he said. “I stayed shut down for the most part because I felt, ‘God, I have had enough. I can’t do this anymore, so let’s close it off.’ ”
Two years after the loss of his sister and brother, his mother, with whom he was best friends, died of lung cancer. A year and a half ago, his other brother, who he idolized, also died of a heart attack.
When we develop a relationship with someone, our brains develop connections with that person. We respond to the sound of their voice, the smells that we associate with that person and the image of their face, Windholz explained.
When Windholz’s family was preparing for his brother’s funeral, the family was reviewing video footage to play at the funeral, and they found some footage of his dad. He said even though his dad had been dead for years, he made an instant connection with the sound of his father’s voice. After her husband died, Windholz’s sister-in-law kept her husband’s shirts, because the smell reminded her of him.
After someone dies, you have to come to accept a new reality without them. Even if you have prepared for that person’s death, that usually doesn’t prepare you for the emotional impact of the actual death, Windholz said. The part of your brain that is the thinking part of your brain and is making those preparations is separate from the emotional system in your brain and body that operates in the here and now.
Over time, the thinking part of your brain and the emotional parts of your brain come together to form acceptance.
“When we finally come to an acceptance, there seems to be a blending of the emotional circuit in the brain with this cognitive piece. They seem to balance.
“They say, ‘I know this is a reality.’ Some of you may have experienced that reality maybe a few months later or maybe a couple of years later, maybe quite some time later. You look around and say, ‘This is the new reality. I have been hoping, hoping, hoping. I have been waiting for them to come back through the door. I have been waiting for that voice. I have been waiting for that news that this isn’t the truth. That there is something wrong here. ‘Oh, I got it, this is the new reality.’ ”
He described himself as a 69-and-a-half-year-old orphan.
“I use that term because orphans by definition are disconnected and alone in their lives, and it is very, very common to feel left alone when we are in the mist of loss.”
Windholz said people in support groups have strong social brains. They are making new connections in support groups to help them move through their grief.
“There are other folks sitting at home who wouldn’t venture out to a group like this and are suffering for it,” he said, “because they are not ready or don’t know how to make that connection socially.”
When people become depressed whether as a result of a loss or genetic or biologic factors, changes in the brain can make it difficult to engage in the actions that are most likely to help ease the depression, Windholz said. This includes exercising, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and making social connections.
“Depression is this self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “If we are depressed, we stay depressed until we break that cycle in some way or another.”
The fact people attend support groups means they are willing to make a change and work to break the cycle of depression, he said.
“You had to fight through,” he said, “literally fight through the impulses to isolate and stay home and stay within.”
Everybody has their own way of grieving, he said.
“Everyone has their own way of repairing. Everyone has their own way of disconnecting and their own say. We each have our own say in when and how we reconnect if we choose to do that.
“Whatever the call, your brain will go along with it. It is that plastic. It is that malleable. It is that responsive. It may take a little work.”
He said he saw the value of the support group as a place to reach outside of yourself.
“I have something to give you, but I want what you can give me too,” he said.
To learn more about Healing After Loss or any of Center of Life Experience groups or programs, visit its website.
See related story: After tragic loss of their teen son, couple finds solace through Healing Hearts
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