It's impossible to know the right thing to do after someone close dies. We try all kinds of things. Walking. Talking. Weeping. And then there's something unexpected.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston offers grief support groups for families of patients who've died. My husband was only treated briefly at Dana-Farber. Treated is even too strong a word. Two months before he died, he entered a small clinical trial in which an old anti-malarial, hydroxycholoroquine, was being used to stem pancreatic cancer. A very long-shot. Very. And by the time he started the trial, eight weeks before he died, he was already very ill. But, being Jeff Stamps, he thought it might be helpful for someone else ...
He made it through two rounds of the drug before he was too sick to continue. So our entire tenure at Dana-Farber was only one month long (as compared with the 13 months of excellent treatment he got a the hospital across the way, Beth Israel Deaconess).
A month or so after Jeff died, I got a very nice letter, a helpful booklet, and an invitation in the mail. Dana-Farber was holding a grief support session for people who'd recently lost family members. I went and there found about a dozen others, most of whom, like me, had lost their mates. The social worker asked if any of us would be interested in joining a regular group, which I did about a month later.
That group, led by Sue Morris, Director of Bereavement Services at Dana-Farber and author of Overcoming Grief, just concluded after six sessions. There were nine of us in all, six women, three men, most long hetero marriages, one gay couple, all of us not wanting to be there at all but all of us returning week after week. I raced up from weekends in New York on at least three of the weeks, raced because I couldn't miss it.
What we knew together was what no one wants to really understand because you can't until you're in it. And there's no way to hurry out of it. We cried together, looked at the pictures of the mates who'd died, nodded until our necks hurt when someone said something that was barely a fragment of a sentence because the rest of us knew where that string of words was headed.
I was surprised that Dana-Farber, where I barely recognized a soul, offered these sessions and that Beth Israel, where I knew and had become friends with many people, did not. Daughter #1 made an interesting observation: the death rate at Dana-Farber, being a cancer hospital, was likely a helluva lot higher than at the academic medical center across the street. I recently came across a statistic that only 56% of people with cancer survive. It's a crazy stat since 100% of us will die -- and what does 56% survival mean anyway? But the point remains -- I'm pretty certain that more patients die at a cancer center than do at a regular old hospital.
A few weeks ago, one among us, Sue Robertson, above, a classical pianist and a writer, said that she hadn't been able to play since her husband had died. I understood. I haven't been able to write since mine died (I know, I know, this is writing but not the kind of writing I want to be doing - and I know I'll get there). And in that session, she decided to see if she could play at the hospital. Which she did. Three times now the custodians at Dana-Farber have rolled out their grand piano, including this past Monday, when Sue played before our last session. Most of us were there to listen. Many of us (ahem) cried.
Beautiful... and thank you, Sue, Barbara, Mary Ann, Dagmar, Doug, Margaret, Jim, James, and our counsellor, Sue. Well done, Dana-Farber. I'm really grateful to "you" for the weeks of support...
They even comped our parking tickets.