Bereaved Parents, drug overdose

The (Formerly) Silent Men and (Formerly) Talkative Women of My Grief Group

by Fran Gerstein

I facilitate a group for parents who have lost children to drugs and alcohol. The stated purpose of this group is to offer support and insight regarding the grief process.

Fran Gerstein and her son, Daniel
Fran Gerstein and her son, Daniel

Initially, my group had only one member named Annie. It seemed it might just be the two of us indefinitely. Each week I would greet her by saying “Hello Group” and she would greet me in kind. She and I had a contract – I agreed to run the group if she showed up and she agreed to show up if I ran it. Because it was only the two of us, we got to know each other pretty quickly. Rather than my taking a classical group therapist role with her, I opted for a supportive role since we were in the same boat. She shared her grief experience and I shared mine. We talked our heads off like many women do.

Then one day a couple of men showed up for the group. When we first saw them we felt disappointed. Our girl-group-haven was over; like when men show up at a bridal shower. Yet, although these men talked less, they soon deepened our group experience with their non-verbal expressions of grief – their anguished looks, nods and tears.

One of the men in my group, Patrick, shared a poignant story that helped me expand my understanding of male grief. When Patrick’s daughter died, an older neighbor named Henry showed up at his house and would continue to do so each day. Patrick had never known Henry well – they were not friends and had barely exchanged more than a word or two over the years. But, every evening at 6 PM, without fail, Henry would ring the bell, enter the house and sit on the living room sofa.

Henry would say, “I’ll just sit here in case you need me.”

Patrick would respond, “Why don’t you just go home? I don’t need anything.”

But Henry would persist, saying, “Just in case…”

It occurred to me that what the men in my group needed was a safe place to sit and feel their pain, as well as act as witness to one another.

One day my group members and I heard about another young adult death in the community. We decided to send the father a text, inviting him into our circle. Our newest member showed up the following week looking as if he were coming off a battlefield, an invisible spear piercing his gut. He staggered into the group room and took his place. Once seated, tears streamed down his face. The other men mirrored his anguished expression precisely, silently nodding as tears streamed down their own faces. The two of us women sat there struggling to figure out what to say.

A few months have passed since then. We have all learned a great deal from each other and find ourselves in less circumscribed gender roles. Nowadays, we are a cohesive group who have taught each other to be present, whether or not we speak and/or sit silently. We are grateful for each other’s company and we function more as a process group in that we share many personal feelings and thoughts. And lately, I’ve been noticing that the women have become less chatty, as the men have found their pained, resonant voices.

About the Author: After losing her son, Daniel, in February 2014, Fran Gerstein, LCSW, founded a support group called Life After Loss, in Rosemont, PA. Fran has a private practice in Wynnewood, PA, where she provides psychotherapy and grief counseling.