Ray of Hope

June 15-21, 2006
Ray of Hope
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Support group offers haven for those who have lost loved ones

The hallway leading to the counseling rooms in the Hope for Bereaved facility is lined with memories.
Here is a photo of a teenage suicide; he would have graduated from high school this month. There, a news clipping of a man tragically struck down by lightning. Here is a collage a teenage boy skillfully put together to commemorate his father. A note attached to the collage explains that the father never missed a Syracuse University football or basketball game, that he taught his son how to treat a woman, that he taught his son how to switch hands while dribbling. The note ends with the words: “still miss you.”

The staff at Hope for Bereaved call this the Remembrance Wall. It is emblematic of the work these facilitators do as they help those who have lost loved ones weave their lives back together. Hope for Bereaved offers a number of support groups for widows, widowers and those who have lost significant others as well as for survivors of suicide and parents who have lost children. Donna Kalb is a counselor and community outreach coordinator for Hope for Bereaved. Her son was tragically electrocuted in 1972 and Kalb joined the organization in 1979, one year after it was founded. Kalb knows that one never forgets the pain of losing a loved one, but one can still move on. “It’s a part of your tapestry, that sadness,” she said. “But you don’t dwell on it.” Kalb said that those who have experienced extraordinary loss can emerge with a renewed and different perspective and with a new appreciation.

“You value life more. Your priorities change,” said Kalb, who is a lifelong parishioner at St. Daniel Church in Lyncourt. “People always talk about getting closure. I don’t believe in closure but I truly love my life.” Hope for Bereaved is also moving on in its own way. The organization has expanded its services recently to include a new group for younger widows. In the past, the organization offered one support group for all widows. When the group became older, Hope for Bereaved opened a new group that could relate better to younger widows. The latter group has since grown beyond its original age group and has been reformed as “Young at Heart,” a group for middle aged widows. Jodi Desimone will facilitate the new group for younger widows.

Desimone was the young mother of three children when her husband, Bob, succumbed to bladder cancer after it metastasized to several other organs. Bob Desimone had been diagnosed with bladder cancer two years before his death but, following treatment, doctors gave him an 85 percent chance of recovery. After a routine check-up, however, the doctors found that the cancer had in fact spread and they gave him just six months to live.

The devastating news prompted a whirlwind trip to Disney World, a promise Bob Desimone had made to his children. One week after returning from Florida to the family’s home in North Syracuse, he passed away. Her husband’s death hit Desimone and her family like an earthquake. The emotional damage was twinned by the fact that the Desimone family had no income. Determined to keep her family living in the style it was accustomed to, Desimone went back to school at Oswego State and majored in human development. Desimone initially came to Hope for Bereaved so that her children would have access to a counselor but ultimately she found support there for herself as well. Today, she is a social worker when she isn’t volunteering at Hope for Bereaved. She took on the challenge of the younger widows group because she has endured what they are going through and emerged on the other side.

“When I sit across from these younger people I remember that feeling and how far I’ve come,” Desimone said. Jane Ross is another Hope for Bereaved alum who facilitates the seniors group. Ross had been married to her husband Robert for 50 years when he died from complications after a fall. Robert Ross had been ill for 15 years. Ross said that the support she received from Hope for Bereaved was an immense boost. “It helped a lot and it helped having other people who were going through the same thing,” she said. Ultimately, the experience was empowering for Ross. Now she not only has the strength to cope with her loss but to help others cope with their losses.

“After a few years I wanted to support others. I wanted to put my arm around others. They asked me if I’d be a facilitator and I guess I had a knack for it,” she said. “I never thought I could do that. I never thought I could stand and talk in front of a group of people.” Ross’ approach is to provide an outlet for those in her support group. “I’ve learned to let them talk and they need to be able to talk and talk and talk,” she said. Marti Cunningham has been coming to Hope for Bereaved for just over a year now and she will be in the Young at Heart group for middle-aged widows. Her husband died suddenly from complications following surgery in March of 2005. She heard about the group when she received a pamphlet in the mail. Kalb explained that Hope for Bereaved generally tries to contact widows within a month of a husband’s death.

Marti Cunningham had met her husband Mike in high school and they’d been married since college. Two years ago, their family was afflicted with a rash of tragedies. Several close relatives died within a short span of time and then Marti Cunningham lost her job when her employer had suddenly shut down. A fall had left Marti Cunningham unable to walk or even dress herself and her husband was taking care of her. Mike drove himself to the hospital for the scheduled surgery. What should have been a three-day stay turned into disaster. Mike Cunningham died after lying in a coma for 11 days. “My support was gone because we’d done everything together,” she said. “I’d never been alone in my life.” Cunningham’s grief mingled with fear after her husband died. She was even scared every time she needed to use the stairs fearing a second fall. She had trouble eating and sleeping and wasted to under 100 pounds. “It was emotionally devastating,” she said.

Hope for Bereaved provided Cunningham with the kind of support she needed. “It was helpful to talk to someone. You’re in shock and disbelief,” she said. Cunningham said that it was crucial to be able to talk to others who shared her experiences. “Unless you’ve been there, you can’t know what it’s like,” she said. The back rooms in the Hope for Bereaved building are for children who have lost parents. The teenager room has plenty of light with comfortable couches. The children’s room is decorated with symbolic murals. The interior wall features storm clouds and gloom, while the wall facing the outside is decorated with a sunny, clear sky. A rainbow crosses the wall and then breaches a window to the outside world painted onto the wall.

Kalb stressed that the point of Hope for Bereaved is to restore people’s lives after the traumatic death of a loved one. “When people come to our support groups we want them to leave with a sense of hope,” she said. Kalb added that far from a place of depression and sadness, Hope for Bereaved seeks to return spark and vigor to one’s life. “There’s so much laughter in this building,” she said. The healing process can be as much a benefit for the facilitator as it is for the group. “When you see someone come in and there’s that deep, dark pain and they join and you see that grief soften and you see that spark return — there’s a satisfaction there,” Kalb said.

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