“I lost my parents, my cousin, and my grandmother,” one man said.
“I lost my mom and dad, and my husband,” one woman said. “It’s just me now.”
One shy newcomer eventually opened up to the others.
“I lost my son on Jan. 6 of this year,” she said quietly. “He was 34. He was an alcoholic. I have my regrets. I haven’t forgiven myself.”
Her voice trailed off. She began to get emotional.
“You did all you could do for him. Do you understand what I’m saying?” asked the Rev. Calvin White, the hospital chaplain who facilitates the weekly gatherings. “That was your son. That was your baby. This is your healing process. We hope this won’t be your last time coming here.”
White hosts these meetings in the Gary hospital’s south pavilion auditorium, as well as a similar meeting on Monday afternoons at the hospital’s Southlake campus in Merrillville. No registration is needed, no fee is required, no questions are asked.
“We just talk and share encouraging words,” White told the group. “And we listen. Talk as much as you like, or as little as you like.”
Boxes of tissues are placed on every table. Every box was needed on this evening.
“I lost my dad on Jan. 6 of this year, and on Aug. 31 I lost my mom,” Otte told the group.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said before breaking down.
Group members shared haunting words that touched each of them in different ways.
Blame. Pity. Anger. Sadness. Loneliness. Guilt.
“What do I do now without my husband?” one woman asked the others.
At times, their crying was buoyed by their laughter. And by each other’s presence.
“I just feel lonely,” one woman confessed.
“You’re not lonely here with us,” another woman told her.
“Amen,” another woman added.
The holidays are usually the most challenging times for those of us who’ve lost a close loved one. The holidays also seem to magnify such a painful loss in our lives. For some families, an empty chair is symbolically placed at the dinner table on Christmas Day.
“Thanksgiving was difficult for me. Christmas may be difficult, too,” one older woman told the group.
“Christmastime is still hard for me even after all these years after my wife’s death,” one man said.
White told them that everyone grieves differently, and at their own pace.
“At a holiday gathering, if you need to go to the bathroom, turn on that water faucet and have a crying party all by yourself, that’s OK,” White said. “Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve or where to grieve.”
The loss of a loved one is the most painful feeling of separation, he said.
“Other people don’t want you to be hurting, so they figure if they get you to avoid grieving, it will help you. But it doesn’t always help. We need to mourn. It’s all about the healing process,” White said.
One by one, group members shared their feelings without fear of apathy or ridicule.
“These gatherings feel like home for me,” one man said. “These people understand what I’ve been going through. Especially this time of year.”
“It’s comforting to come here and not feel insane,” a woman added. “It’s nice to know we’re not alone.”
Some people here found the lifeless body of their loved one. Others got the phone call that no one wants to get. A few still regret not being there for their loved one’s last breath. All of them are still sorting through their feelings.
“We are all hurting here,” White told them.
Many of these people dragged their feet to eventually get here. Others received referrals from funeral home directors. Helpful brochures are distributed at the door.
“I’m not used to going home to an empty house,” one middle-aged widower confided to the others.
“We understand,” an older widow told him.
On Dec. 19, the group is hosting a holiday potluck gathering at the Gary hospital’s south pavilion auditorium, at 600 Grant St. It takes place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information on the support group, call 219-886-4522.
“The holidays are a time when we’re really missing our loved ones,” White told the group. “So it’s an opportunity for us to share our feelings and our fellowship.”
Westley told the group that despite her grief and pain, she managed to leave her home on Thanksgiving.
“That’s a huge step,” White told her. “And hopefully, you can do it on Christmas, too.”
Westley also revealed that she’s been sleeping on her couch every night since her mother’s death.
“Just last night, I slept in my own bed again,” she said proudly.
The others applauded. And Otte again reached out to hug her.
“I’ve got you,” Otte said.