I felt like a third wheel," Shirley said.
"I never felt more alone," Diane said.
"I felt my oneness," Helene added.
These women, along with 12 other females and two men, all in their 50s to their 80s, sat in a circle in Valley Beth Shalom's Lopaty Chapel in Encino. They were reporting on the setbacks and successes of the past week, coming from cities as far away as Whittier and Thousand Oaks as they do every Thursday evening because of a common bond: Their lives have been shattered by the death of a spouse.
Here, they are members of Group Three, one of the many groups offered by H.O.P.E. Unit Foundation for Bereavement and Transition, the oldest and largest grief support organization in the greater Los Angeles area, according to Dr. Marilyn Stolzman, H.O.P.E.'s executive director since 1982. And they are dealing with profound sadness and loneliness in a caring and communal setting as they seek to rebuild their lives.
Licensed family and marriage therapist Bonnie Ban, facilitating this group, whose spouses have died 11 to 14 months previously, asked the members if being alone has gotten any easier.
"It's changing. And my dog helps."
Clearly, many participants are making progress.
"On Saturday I was missing my husband 10 times more than ever so I decided to go to a movie," Beverly said.
"I made my first dinner party last week," Elinor boasted.
Ban reminded them that time is passive and grief is active.
"You have to make the effort to go through the discomfort," she said.
To accomplish this, H.O.P.E. -- established in the 1970s and which stands for "hope, opportunity, participation and education" -- offers seven weekly grief support groups for widows and widowers. Five are held at Valley Beth Shalom on Thursday evenings and, for the past seven years, two at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles on Tuesday evenings. The organization also offers a weekly family loss group for parents, siblings and other close relatives as well as two monthly alumni groups and a cancer support group.
What makes H.O.P.E. unique, according to Stolzman, is that the groups, which generally include 10 to 15 participants, are organized according to months of mourning, allowing participants of varying ages to experience similar issues as they progress unevenly through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief and mourning: shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance. Those in Group One, for example, who have lost a spouse within the past four months, are still in intense pain. Group Four members, on the other hand, 15 to 24 months out, are still sad but are moving toward acceptance and a redefined life.
The H.O.P.E. groups, whose ratio of women to men is 7:1, reflecting the national population of widows and widowers, are facilitated by licensed therapists, who are paid for their services and who have additional training in bereavement. This approach differs from other organizations such as Our House, whose grief groups are led by supervised para-professionals.
Not everyone, however, believes in the necessity of bereavement support groups. The new "Report on Bereavement and Grief Research," published in November 2003 by the Center for Advancement of Health, concluded that bereavement counseling for adults not experiencing "complicated grief" did not alleviate the sadness and pain. Instead, the report found that symptoms normally and gradually receded over six to 18 months.
H.O.P.E.'s Stolzman disagrees, citing David Spiegel, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of "Living Beyond Limits: New Hope and Help for Facing Life-Threatening Illness" (Crown, 1993). He found that people who attend support groups do 50 percent better in the healing process than those who do not.
Stolzman points to the success of the group process -- the power of participants to tell their stories, and to refrain from offering advice, and to give hope to others as well as their ability to listen empathetically and actively to group members. She also refers to the effectiveness of humor. "We owe it to our audience not to make death and dying deadly," she said.
Plus, it's a Jewish concept not to hide or run away from death, according to Rabbi Karen Fox of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, herself a marriage and family therapist, who refers widows and widowers of all ages to H.O.P.E.
"But we live in such a grief-light society that most people want to get rid of any bereavement experience," she added.
That includes well-meaning family and friends who often lose patience with the mourner, asking questions such as, "Are you still going to that grief group?" or, "Aren't you over that yet?"
As Joan, a member of Group Three, said, "They think [losing a spouse] is contagious."
Thus, many participants find that H.O.P.E., a group they never wanted to belong to, becomes an indispensable part of their lives. Members often meet for dinner before group sessions and go out for dessert and coffee afterward. Many socialize on Saturday nights and sit together at Yizkor (memorial) and High Holiday services. They also provide support for each other during the week via the telephone, sometimes in the middle of the night.
"Family and friends say they know how you feel, but only the people in the group really know," said Hy Cohen, 75, of Encino, a former H.O.P.E. participant.
Additionally, as members transition to creating new lives, H.O.P.E. helps them with such issues as dating and sexuality. Cohen, now remarried to someone he met through H.O.P.E., reflected, "I remember that first date. I got home from work and showered and put on cologne. I was nervous ... like a teenager."
Stolzman advises newly bereaved to wait at least three weeks after the death of their loved one -- and sometimes as long as six months -- before joining a support group. People can also join any group along the grief continuum at any time. Stolzman suggests that potential participants come at least three or four times, with a family member if necessary, before deciding if H.O.P.E. is the right place for them.
H.O.P.E. is nondenominational, though 90 percent of its members are Jewish, representing 21 different synagogues in the Los Angeles area. And while many find it comforting to meet in a synagogue setting, grieving is a universal experience that, for most people, cuts across religious boundaries.
The organization is a nonprofit, charging a suggested fee of $25 per person for each session but not turning anyone away. Still, the fees and annual fundraiser, which this year brought in $12,000 and which Stolzman described as "good for us," don't cover operating expenses. With two locations already accommodating about 135 people weekly and with new referrals arriving regularly, Stolzman would like to expand the program, funds permitting.
Two years ago, H.O.P.E. was able to found two alumni groups which meet monthly and are run by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jo Christner, a former H.O.P.E. counselor who moved away but who returns each month as facilitator.
"It's a group about life," Christner said. "It's a place to meet others, to create new friendships and to continue a changed life as a 'single.'"
Anyone who has lost a spouse more than two years ago is eligible to join.
In all the groups, participants learn that even as they become stronger and begin to create new lives, they can still have a continuing relationship with their spouse, even though he or she is no longer there.
"I loved Norm my whole life," Group Three's Helene said. "I love him more now."
Therapist Ban explained that the love is now more pure.
"The person has died but the relationship still exists," she said.
And yet, participants eventually can move forward.
"I was with one spouse for 45 years and I loved my wife very much," H.O.P.E. graduate Cohen said. "But life goes on."
For more information about H.O.P.E Unit Foundation's bereavement groups or to make a donation, call (818) 788-4673 or visit www.hopeunit.org.