I’m now in two bereavement groups, sponsored by different organizations. When I told the psychologist doing the intake interview for the second group that I was thinking of taking the two simultaneously, he said, “Oh, no! You can take them sequentially but not together—that would be too intense. No, I don’t think the leaders would permit it.” I went home furious at him for thinking, like so many of his ilk, that he knew better than I did what I could and couldn’t handle—and at myself for my misplaced candor. I was supposed to call him the next morning to let him know which group I’d settled on. Instead I left a quietly emphatic message that after careful consideration, I was quite clear that I wanted to take them both concurrently. When I found out a day or two later that, coincidentally, my friend Betsy was going to be in the second group, it felt like fate.
My first group was lead by Birgitte, a pretty blond with a gentle voice and a Scandinavian accent. She’d had a stroke, limped, and couldn’t use her left hand. We met in a slightly depressing little room in the Bethlehem Parish House, sat on metal folding chairs, and helped ourselves to teabags and hot water from a thermos with a spout at the center of our circle. Birgitte led us through brief meditations, read inspirational poems and quotes, and had us do a little art and writing therapy (when we had to write a letter to our deceased loved one, we were all in tears by the end of the exercise). Everyone in the group had lost a parent, except me—some had even nursed them through terminal illnesses.
My second group met in a cozy therapist’s office in a handsome old residence near Lake Merritt, sat more comfortably on love seats or director’s chairs, brought in photos and mementos that we placed on an altar, and did half-hour memorial presentations of the loved ones we’d lost. We had two leaders—Chris, whose office it was, and John, who was so tender-hearted he often teared up over our stories. In that group, too, everybody but me had lost a parent—actually, in one case it was a parent-in-law and other relatives in a car accident.
One evening I brought two photos of Earl in silver frames to my second group. I’d finally finished some unfinished business, I said. Then I explained how on Christmas Eve I’d promised myself to buy Earl two beautiful frames as belated Christmas presents. Since his death, I’d been scouring photography and gift shops. “These are the frames I would have given Earl if he’d lived,” I said, placing them on the altar. In one picture he was bearded, in his red shirt and red suspenders, pouring himself a glass of wine under the boughs of a tree. In the other he was clean-shaven, in sunglasses and a windbreaker, a snapshot I’d taken of him up on Grizzly Peak Boulevard when we’d stopped to look at a sweeping view of Oakland, the bay dazzling in the late afternoon light. Then I told them about the astonishing symbolism that I recognized later of the gifts I had given him—two pet dishes with angel cats and two photographs of a sunset, the second capturing the last brief moments of light.