Vickroy: Southland group helps men learn to grieve
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy August 15, 2014 9:46PM
The Rev. Wanda Parker and James Brumley talk about why the loss of a spouse takes such a toll on men. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 18, 2014 6:29AM
Walter Knight was angry.
“Angry at God, the church, everyone,” he said. “Mostly, I was angry at myself. How did I let this happen? And why I couldn’t I have fixed it?”
Like a lot of men who grieve the loss of a spouse, Knight had insisted for months after his wife, Deborah, died in 2009 that he was fine, that he’d get through this.
“I kept saying, ‘I got this,’” he said.
But the reality was he didn’t “have this.” It was bigger than him, and everything he tried to do to ease the pain backfired.
“Staying in bed all day didn’t help. Jack Daniels didn’t help,” he said.
He lost weight and lost track of what day it was. Finally, it was the retired hospital administrator’s anger that compelled him to do the one thing he had avoided all along — reach out for help.
The Rev. Wanda Parker met him half way. For months, Parker had been calling Knight, checking on him, offering to help him through the grieving process. And for months, Knight, who lives in South Holland, had rebuffed the offers.
But when all else failed and he realized he might need to talk about all those feelings that had been bottling up since the loss of his wife of 35 years, they met. One chat quickly turned into two, then three.
Then one day in 2011, James Brumley, who’d lost his wife to Alzheimer’s disease that same year, returned Parker’s calls, also in a fit of anger. Parker introduced Brumley to Knight, and that was the start of the men’s grief support group at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey.
Since the men first met over coffee, Parker, Ingalls’ bereavement coordinator, has helped many others come to grips with the loss of a spouse or significant other. The monthly meetings, she said, are the only grief support group specifically for men in the south suburbs.
Though men and women can be equally devastated by the death of a loved one, for many reasons men can be more reticent to seek help, she said.
And that’s precisely why Parker is so persistent. She expects the men, most of whom have been serviced by Ingalls hospice care, to initially dismiss her concerns and turn down her offer to help. But she keeps calling every few months or so.
“I try to listen with a second ear,” she said. “Are they really OK?”
By OK she means are they talking about their feelings, are they functioning, tending to hygiene and household duties and making plans? Or are they sleeping too much, hitting the bottle, relying too heavily on medication or letting day-to-day responsibilities fall by the wayside?
A common sign that a man is not doing well is his level of irritability, Parker said.
“Men aren’t as open as women,” she said. “When they meet in the barbershop or the grocery store and someone asks how they’re doing, they just say, ‘I’m OK, I’m fine,’ even if they’re not.’”
Brumley lost his wife, Cassie, after 25 years of marriage. And even though the South Sider had worked as a mental health counselor and lost others close to him, namely his mother and a younger brother, this was different.
“When you lose a spouse, your better half, you lose a part of yourself,” he said.
Like Knight, Brumley initially insisted he was fine after his wife died in April. Sure, his two children lived out of town, but a grandson was staying with him for that first summer.
“Having been a caregiver for five years to the point that my wife became like a baby— I did the showering, changing diapers. It became a bit much,” he said. “I held all that in. For years. And then after my grandson left in August, I called Rev. Wanda and just exploded.”
Making that call, he said, changed his life. Being able to talk about his feelings with someone who truly understood, someone who’d been through the exact same thing, helped him heal.
“I got to the point where I was no longer angry with God for taking her but thanking him for bringing her into my life at the time that he did and for the 25 plus years that we had,” Brumley said. “That was full circle for me.”
Joe Maschek’s significant other, Judy Haustein, succumbed to the same disease that claimed Knight’s wife, pancreatic cancer.
“We’d been together 25 years,” Maschek, of Palos Heights, said. “She was only 56 when she passed.”
He remembered her doctor telling her, “you have between two months and two years to live.”
She lived two years. Maschek retired and took care of her during that time “because that’s what I wanted to do.”
After her death, Parker made that initial call, and Maschek politely turned down her offer to help.
“Wanda was very persistent. She called me about once a month for maybe seven or eight months. She couldn’t get through to me, so one day she called and said, ‘I want you to meet somebody, a guy by the name of Walter who went through the same thing you did,’” he said.
Maschek met Knight in the cafeteria at Ingalls. Their first cup of coffee lasted more than two hours. After that, Maschek joined the support group.
“I kept coming back because it made me feel so good,” he said. “I don’t think men really know how to grieve. I think they need to be taught because I had no idea what I was going through. I lived alone. I had two children who were very supportive. But I still couldn’t get it together.”
The group’s support was enough to give Maschek his life back. He has since met a woman whom he recently married, with Parker officiating.
Today, Knight makes a point of reaching out to other men who are grieving.
“Doesn’t matter where you come from or what you do. We all have to go through the same process,” he said. “I knew a federal judge who’d lost his wife of 50 years, and he’d gotten so bad he was going to kill himself. I told him to open up and talk to somebody. He did. Now he’s out and about and gregarious again.”
Knight said seeking help “does not mean there’s something wrong with you. It means there’s something right with you. You’ve got the sense to recognize that something is wrong and that you can’t fix it yourself. A doctor doesn’t treat himself. Lawyers don’t represent themselves.”
“It’s a matter of laying down some pride and being honest with your feelings,” Parker said. “That’s the whole process of grieving. If you’re saying no, I’m not feeling good, and yes, I do need some help, you’ve made the first step.”
The Grief Support for Men group is open to the public and meets monthly from 6 to 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday. Meetings are free and held in the hospice unit in the North Building at Ingalls Hospital in Harvey. For information, visit www.ingalls.org/allClasses.aspx or call (708) 331-1360.