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Holding on: Struggling with grief

Posted: April 10, 2010 7:24 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Attendees of a grief sharing class held at Assembly of God Church in Canyon Country hold hands as they pray together following a recent meeting. The group is one of several faith-based organizations in the Santa Clarita Valley that comfort the grieving.

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Diane Briones wanted to call an ambulance that night almost 22 years ago.

Her ailing mother told Briones no — that she’d probably feel better tomorrow. But she died that night, leaving Briones saddled with guilt.

“I had nightmares of her grabbing me, saying, ‘Help me, help me!’” Briones said.

The dreams lasted almost six months before she was able to let go.

“That was truly false guilt,” she said. “If you don’t forgive yourself and ask God for forgiveness, the pain can intensify so much more.”

Briones related this lesson to a group of grievers she helps lead at the NewLife Assembly of God church in Canyon Country.

Members of the group shared their losses, one after another.

A young woman lost her mother to cancer a year ago.

A grown man watched his father lose his battle with dementia and pulmonary disease.

A woman mourned her husband-to-be after a fatal accidental overdose.

Briones kept calm, nodding with each testimonial.

“Your relationship with someone you lose is unique,” Briones, from Heart of the Canyons Church, told them, “so your pain is unique. We all feel that intense pain.”

Grief has often deadened Briones’ own will to live. She’s lost her parents and grandparents, her brother and her 20-year-old daughter.

When her mother died, she questioned her purpose in life.

“I just wanted to crawl in a hole and not wake up,” she said. “Anything I did in my life, I did for her.”

The emotional aftermath of a tragic car accident 12 years ago that killed her 20-year-old daughter overwhelmed her entire body — mentally and physically.

“Take the worst thing that’s ever happened to you and times it by 100,” she said. “You go into a little hole and don’t remember much from the beginning.”

The burdens of others could, at times, weigh her down. But through spirituality and grief support training, she has learned to keep a small measure of distance.

“Even though my heart goes out to them, I don’t feel the emotion to the extent that I cry with them,” Briones said.

Training in grief support
For some, there is training involved. Others inherit the job of “grief care” by virtue of their position — such as a member of the clergy.

Briones and co-facilitator Diane Walker attended grief care training sessions at Grace Baptist Church before they began leading the grief group at NewLife, which partners with Heart of the Canyons church.

For several years, Grace Baptist has hosted a Grief Share boot camp, part of a national organization, for individuals interested in leading grief groups.

Grief doesn’t necessarily know any rules, the classes teach. But while no two grievers are alike, there are certain commonalities leaders can look for and respond to.

“For example, someone may call and say they lost their spouse seven years ago but it feels like yesterday,” said Fiona Hutton, care assistant at Grace Baptist. “The leaders have been trained to know that it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, and don’t be surprised if someone comes and they act like it was yesterday.”

They might hurt even deeper because they thought they’d already dealt with their grief, she said.

Hutton lost her oldest son in a motorcycle accident 18 months after her husband died. Now, she oversees the support groups at Grace Baptist.

“It’s something you can’t study,” she said. “I think there is a big value in those who come through our training who have experienced something or someone very close to them has.”

‘Part of who I am’

For clergy members, grief care is a required responsibility of their calling.

“Now it’s just part of who I am, in terms of responding to people who are hurting,” said pastor Bill Haley of First Christian Church in Canyon Country. “It didn’t start that way; it was just part of the job.”

The undertaking has become less daunting for Haley. He estimated that he helps at least one grieving individual or family a month.

“After so many years, people are going to respond a certain way, unless you’re (helping) someone from another culture,” he said.

But sometimes stepping into that process requires more than emotional support, said Rabbi Mark Blazer, of Temple Beth Ami.

“Situations with murders, where there are just a lot of emotions and a lot has to be done with autopsies, those are really tough,” he said. “I do get involved with those and I try to do what I can.”

Even after 12 years as a rabbi and some grief training in rabbinical seminary, Blazer still isn’t prepared for everything that comes his way.

“You think you’ve dealt with every situation,” he said.

“There’s always something.”

‘No limit’ to grief
Upon returning to work, Dolly Lopez, 41, suddenly found herself sitting at her desk and crying every day.

Her boyfriend had died just two weeks earlier, on Feb. 1, after he accidentally overdosed on his medication, she said.

More loneliness crept in when a co-worker tried to give her some advice.

“Someone came up to me and said, ‘It’s time to move on, it’s been two weeks,” Lopez said.

Lopez and her boyfriend were supposed to wed in June.

“Don’t let anybody tell you it’s time to get over (it) or you need to get over it,” Briones told Lopez.

Lopez has been attending the grief group at NewLife for four weeks.

“There’s no limit,” said Diane Walker, a NewLife church member who co-leads the group with Briones. “Grief can build up inside people for many years.”

Walker and Briones offer their guidance, all the while maintaining a level of emotional distance from the grievers.

“If you take it home with you, you’d be in bad shape and then you wouldn’t be able to help them,” Walker said. 

Walker and Briones host the grief meetings every Tuesday. Meetings end with a prayer circle devoted to lost loved ones.

Terry Parker, whose father died Jan. 12, is confident that many people never truly go through the grieving process.

“We’re told in our society to get over it,” Parker said at NewLife’s grief meeting. “When in reality, maybe you never get over it. But you understand maybe a little more or you’re able to live with it.”

Since Briones found Christianity, she said he no longer pictures her mother, daughter or other loved ones as lifeless bodies buried in the ground. Instead, she sees them in heaven.

But even 12 years later, after helping so many others just like herself, she knows she will grieve her daughter forever. “You just cope with it better,” she said. “You learn to smile. I’ve worked with thousands of people who have lost a child. All of them have said pretty much the same thing.”

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