Support group provides outlet for emotions

By Melissa Hirschl

Losing a mother is unquestionably one of the most devastating experiences in a womanís life. The event can shake you to your core, leaving you feeling fragile, emotionally exhausted and shell-shocked.

Every woman deals with the circumstance of death in her own unique way; some travel inward toward solitude and reflection, others gravitate to various forms of self expression.

Simply, say the experts, there is no right way to experience grief.

For those who would like to tap into a well of knowledge and experience during such emotional times, a local support group is available: Daughters Who Have Lost Their Mothers.

Led by Hospice of the Valley bereavement counselor Jacqui Meriwether, this tightly knit group meets from 1 to 3 p.m. every Thursday in October. The group is free, and walk-ins are welcome.

In the following interview, Meriwether discusses her role as facilitator, along with the dynamics and complexities involved with leading this interactive group.

WN: What drew you to this field?

JM: After my mother died of colon cancer in 1995, I became interested in end-of-life issues. Thatís what motivated me to become a volunteer with Hospice of the Valley. Before long, a bereavement counselor position opened up and they hired me.

WN: How did this class get started?

JM:  I had an interest in working with women, especially those whoíve lost their mothers. I started this group as a pilot program and it evolved into this class.

WN: How would you describe the dynamics of the group?
JM: I see it as a ďpsycho-educational approach that includes teaching as well as a therapeutic format. I do a lot of teaching as well as provide a lot of resources. Itís also a spiritual format; people share the full range of their spiritual experience. I think the interactions are probably the most valuable thing; the opportunity to hear others describe their loss is very precious. 

WN: What are the emotional payoffs you receive from doing this work?

JM: I feel this is my special mission. I find it very gratifying to work with women, and it does seem like the loss of a mother in your life is a very tough, life-changing event. It really affects your self esteem and your sense of who you are. I find it very meaningful to help these women.

WN: How long is the class and how many people typically come?

JM: Usually we have between 12-15 people. The class goes on for five weeks; the current one started Oct. 7. Most of the women are in the first year of their loss, although itís not uncommon for the loss to be three or five years.

WN: What is a typical meeting like?
JM: We have a series of topics we cover based on some of the professional literature. The participants start out by accepting the reality of the loss, and then we start dealing with the feelings that come up. That can be very intense. We then move into new understandings of the loss. We think of ways to memorialize mother and also to create plans and strategies for moving on with our lives. We also think of ways to form a new identity without our mothers. Thereís a lot of bonding that goes on and a lot of information is shared between the women.

WN: Do you do any kind of exercises?

JN: We do writing and also plot a loss-intensity graph; itís basically a bar graph that indicates degrees of our feelings about mother loss (and other meaningful people in our lives.) If the women feel comfortable, they can talk about their feelings; itís often a very emotional time.

WN: Do other peripheral issues come up in the class?

JM: Oh, yes. We discuss other losses in our lives, such as loss of a job, and even abuse, since thatís a form of a loss. We discuss our identity as a woman as how it changes since your mother is no longer there to model for you. We also address issues of self assertion, problem solving, conflict management, anger, guilt and co-dependency.

WN: Does leading this group open up old wounds for you?

JM: Itís always an opportunity for me to reflect on the relationship I had with my mother and the loss I experienced. The fact that it happened 10 years ago gives it some distance so I can talk with people who are in the initial stages of their grief. The whole experience is beneficial for me--I can really appreciate the positive things that happen when you have a great relationship with your mother. There are even good things involved with helping a terminally ill mother make the transition. Itís painful and very transformative at the same time. I had a year and a half to reconnect with my own mother when she was dying; some of it was hell and some of it was heaven.

WN: What can a participant expect from this class?
JM: They can expect to share their experience as openly as they wish to. If someone doesnít want to do this, there is always the opportunity to pass. Otherwise they can take part in discussions and do writing. They have to chance to delve quite deeply into their experiences, but they are not pushed past their point of comfort. 

WN: Do you have any books to recommend?
JM: Yes, thereís Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. Another one of her books is titled Mothers of Mother. Thereís also Remembrance of Mother; Words to Heal the Heart, by Jonathon Lazear, and From Daughters to Mothers, by Constance Warloe.

WN: How about websites?

JM: Thereís griefnet.org and griefhealing.com.

For more information on Daughters Who Have Lost Their Mothers, contact Changing Hands Bookstore at (480) 730-0205. The address is 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe. Website: www.changinghands.com