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Facing death in numbers

No one who loses a loved one should have to grieve alone. Sheri-Lee Langlois of St. Albert knows that now. Seven years ago this Saturday, she now wishes she had.
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No one who loses a loved one should have to grieve alone. Sheri-Lee Langlois of St. Albert knows that now. Seven years ago this Saturday, she now wishes she had.

On that day in 2002, her son Daniel was on a tour of Canada and the United States with the band Compromise. While driving through Alabama in the early morning hours to get to their next gig in Georgia, a drunk driver named Ricky Earl Nolen rear-ended their van at high speed. Daniel was thrown from the vehicle and the van crashed into a tree on the median.

"I started hearing about this at 4 a.m.," Langlois recalls. "It was a Thursday morning, I was going to go to work and one of the other boys' father's called me and said the boys had been in a crash and that I had to phone the hospital.

Despite doctor's best efforts at the University of Alabama, Daniel died from severe internal injuries and brain trauma. His death, tragic in itself, sparked a series of tragedies. When asked by the doctors over the phone if Langlois would donate her son's organs, she heartily agreed. She later found out this was not an option because Daniel had been given universal blood type, not his own. Nolen, who police charged several months later, pleaded guilty to two charges of manslaughter and two counts of criminal assault and received a 28-day intermittent jail sentence and 15 years probation. In February 2004, Nolen's sentence was collapsed into a five-year jail term because he showed up for his last jail stay with cocaine in his system.

Throughout that summer, Langlois tried to grieve as best she could while supporting her daughter Stephanie. In time she was diagnosed with depression and went on leave from work. In 2004 she went to listen to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a specialist in grief counselling. What she heard would transform her entire life.

"What he was saying resonated with my own experience, that you don't get over these things, that there's another path," Langlois said.

That path led to a course at Colorado State University, at first out of her own interest. It was in this class she was first exposed, albeit indirectly, to a bereavement group.

"I just became quite fascinated and at the same time it was like being in a support group because all the people in the class, all 18 of us, had bereavement experiences personally. It was like a ready-made support group in a way."

Langlois eventually obtained a certificate in grief and death studies. Besides running her own small business, she now works part-time for the Edmonton Bereavement Centre, as its co-ordinator. It is at the centre where people who have suffered a loss, whether that of a child, spouse or other loved one, can participate in bereavement groups, share their grief with others and through that process, heal some of what has been lost.

Listen first

Langlois' experience in bereavement roughly parallels that of Anna Rodger, chair of the St. Albert Bereavement Fellowship, who lost her husband in 1999. After going to a few meetings, Rodger was invited to sit on the board. She's still involved with the group.

"The isolation is terrible," she says of losing a loved one. "Our group is very unique, there's not a group like ours around. We're very proud of it."

Besides the summer months, the fellowship meets twice a month, once to hear a speaker and every fourth Wednesday for small-group sharing, where participants are invited to share their pain and loss with one another. There are also social outings and impromptu get-togethers for coffee, just to get those in mourning out of the house.

"It helps them get back into society," says Rodger. "Instead of sitting in the kitchen moping about, 'What am I going to do next,' they go out and go to a meeting and they meet between each other too. So they become a better person for it."

Both Langlois and Rodger agree that, in general, society as a whole does not know how to support people who are mourning.

"Our society still behaves as if grief is contagious," says Langlois. "So we shift around people who are grieving or sad or think that people who are grieving need to be left alone, undisturbed or somehow not reminded of things they are constantly thinking about anyway."

People also don't know how to listen, they say. Rodger ticks off various platitudes common to friends of those in mourning, such as 'They're not suffering anymore,' or 'I know exactly what you're going through.'

"Most people are not good listeners," Langlois says. "They listen to respond instead of to understand.

"[You need] to be able to sit in the mud with another person, to bear witness to their tears, to listen to their stories, not to advise, teach, lead and not to be responsible for leading them out of their wilderness because they are the only ones who know to do that."

Strength in numbers

Whether through the Edmonton Bereavement Centre or the St. Albert Bereavement Fellowship, the fundamental principle is the same — allowing the bereaved to share their thoughts and emotions with a group of people who have experienced a similar loss.

"Some of my friends just didn't know how to talk to me," says Rodger. "I could talk to these people. We'd had a loss so I just felt easy talking to them."

There is a time lag in when people go looking for support. Rodgers says for the fellowship it can be about a month or two, while Langlois says it's at about the six-month mark. It's at this stage the shock of loss has worn off and people realize they need an outlet for their pain.

"Family and friends have gone back to their routine or they don't want to talk about it anymore and people grieving still have a need to have others bear witness to their pain and tell their story," Langlois says. "When we tell a story of a loved one, that's how our brain learns to acknowledge the reality of the death, so that's why people who are grieving tell the same stories over and over again."

Many are nervous. Langlois sees new members approach their first meeting with reluctance — they don't want to be there, she says. By the third week, they come to realize they are not in isolation anymore and know that they will be listened to. By the last meeting, they are nervous again because they wonder how they will cope without their new friends.

"All we do is create a safe space, a physical environment and psychological environment for people to express their emotions. They can be angry, they can be crying, they can be depressed … anything they want to be for two hours and they will be supported."

With support, and time, there is a change, Rodger says. "In little bits at a time, you get over this and over that and you never forget the person that you lost, but it's a lot easier to accept the fact they are gone as time goes by."

Langlois doesn't believe in forgetting Daniel. As far as she is concerned, her son will always be a part of her.

"People learn along the way if they can fold it into their life and see it as one thread in their tapestry that will never be forgotten — that should never be forgotten — then they have the strength to continue building on that."

In death, particularly the loss of a child or spouse, those left behind are also searching for meaning. While it took some time, Langlois eventually found hers in the work that she does.

"I believe that my life was transformed, without a doubt, by the death of my child and all the skills I had picked up along the way … came together at the point after Daniel died in the work I do now. I feel this is the work I was called to do. I see it as giving my life purpose.

"I would never want anyone to think that I am somehow thankful Daniel died so that I could have this life now. The fact is Daniel was killed. And the fact is I found my meaning and purpose and life changed after that happened."

WHEN YOU DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE

St. Albert Bereavement Fellowship
Ph: 780-458-1601/780-459-3135
www.stalbertbereavement.com
Summer meetings: Fourth Wednesday of every month,
7:30 p.m., St. Albert Senior Citizens' Club.
Edmonton Bereavement Centre
780-454-1231
www.jfse.org