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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Grief workshop offers inservice training for staff, volunteers at Little Brothers

By Vanessa Dietz *

Pictured from the left, Sarah Cheney and Cynthia Drake conduct a grief workshop at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly in Hancock on May 14, as Sandra Lewin and other participants look on. (Photo © and courtesy Vanessa Dietz)

"When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool."  - Chinua Achebe

"When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for your delight."  - Kahil Gibran

HANCOCK - Nothing has the power to diminish the tremendous love that binds us to one another -- even death.

Yet, the more we love someone, the harder it can be to learn to live without them, especially in societies where we suppress grief and avoid talking about death.

Two women are bringing light to the dark place in which we find ourselves after a loved one dies by talking about grief, most notably in a series of area workshops.

"What is the common denominator we all have that is one of the hardest things we have to do?" Cynthia Drake asked rhetorically.

In addition to being a life coach in Ripley and an avid volunteer, Drake helps Sarah Cheney facilitate grief workshops. Cheney is researching grief in the Upper Peninsula in pursuit of her master’s degree in social work from New York City’s Columbia University.

"Grief is a normal and natural response to loss and the most challenging, painful, and often traumatic experience in our lives," answered Cheney in a research summary she presented at a May 14 grief inservice workshop at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly in Hancock. "Grieving is more than sadness and tears, it is the essence of our love. It serves as an important function to continue the love relationship -- the love and relationship don’t die."

Sarah Cheney, left, and Cynthia Drake display one of the posters for their workshop on grief at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly in Hancock. Click on photo for larger version. (Photo courtesy Cynthia Drake)

"People we love are literally part of us," said Cheney. "They affect our heart rate, blood pressure, immune system function, inflammatory responses, pain, and temperature sensitivity, even gene function."

According to Cheney’s research summary, her ongoing grief research project involves studying community members’ experiences of grief, perspectives of difficult emotions, and effects of community grief support.

"There is a huge need in the community," Cheney said, based on her local research. "We’ve learned that people in our community want better grief support from friends and family and want to provide better support to others, but don’t know how."

Cheney and Drake are teaching people how to talk about, understand and accept grief and death as a way to make their families and the community less traumatized by the common experience. After all, no one lives forever.

"Grieving is both public and private," Cheney informed about 10 interested staff and volunteers at Little Brothers. "It’s a dual problem."

It’s something we tend to struggle with silently, she added. Confronting grief this way can reduce the pain it causes.

"To help others in grief, we need to start with our own grief and acknowledge our own suffering," Cheney said. "Acknowledging our shared suffering and focusing on compassion and empathy can help us grow and change throughout life transitions."

Grief workshops to continue at Omega House hospice

Cheney will be talking about grief to an even wider and younger audience in the next year. She’s going to be a mental health counselor at Houghton-Portage Township Schools for the 2018-19 school year, while continuing to facilitate individual and monthly community grief workshops at Omega House, a hospice in Houghton, where she recently completed one internship. In addition to providing excellent end-of-life care, Omega House recruits and trains grief support workers to help the dying and their families through this difficult time.**

Sandra Lewin, of Calumet, attested to this fact at the workshop. She said she has helped raise funds for Omega House, where she learned to cope with death.

"It really helped me when my own parents died," Lewin said.

Lewin noted she felt less afraid than she might have without her hospice experiences and welcomed the peace she felt in the aftermath.

"It’s a gift to be able to be there," Drake said about seeing people and their families through the passage.

Experience from work at Little Brothers

Drake moved to the area in 1990 to work for Little Brothers, where she got plenty of hands-on experience grieving "forever" friends.

"This is big in my heart," she told fellow volunteers looking for ways to deal with the grief they face everyday in the aging community Little Brothers serves. "I remember working here. You go to a lot of funerals."

Finding one’s path after a loss, and/or responding to others who experience the death of a loved one, follows no prescribed course, but can become clearer with the guidance Cheney and Drake offered in the hour-plus Little Brothers inservice workshop.

This table set-up greeted participants in the recent grief inservice at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly in Hancock. (Photo courtesy Cynthia Drake)

"There are no stages," Cheney said, wanting to get one thing straight. "These myths create unnecessary judgment and suffering."

She said the current philosophy and research on grief debunks the five stages popularized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Those and other feelings might all come and go as we grieve. Being compassionate in the knowledge that grieving involves a unique whirlwind of emotions is important whether dealing with our own losses or helping someone else who is going through the process.

"Feelings are never right or wrong. They’re just feelings," offered Lee Parker, of Baltic.

Parker noted she’s been lucky in not having to experience the death of younger family members so far in her long life.

"It’s gone in the order it’s supposed to," she said, which helped ease her suffering.

No matter the intensity of our grief, Cheney suggested the best path is to notice all your thoughts and emotions and attend to the ones that drive you toward your true values and loved ones.

"Take that pause moment to reflect on whether or not to approach someone," advised Drake, telling tales of having done both. "Lean into that discomfort. Notice what you want to do. Try something new. Try a different way of approaching people. Be present with the one you’re with. This relationship doesn’t look a certain way."

Drake said one grieving woman tired of the barrage of concerned people she ran into after a loved one died and simply wanted to hear, "It’s nice to see you."

Said Cheney, "You were taking her cues. You paused and noticed."

She advised people inclined to talk to someone who is grieving to ask themselves some questions: "Is this about you or is this about them? Are you just trying to cross something off your list or do you support them?"

While there’s no one way to offer compassionate support, people should be aware of their own emotions going in, listen carefully, and act accordingly.

Cheney advised "being comfortable to be uncomfortable," and using "creative discreteness" to know when and how to approach someone who is having a rough time after someone they love dies. Often, less is more in these interactions. "Attend to the emotion that needs to be attended to."

The fingertrap exercise

Using fingertraps as a tool, workshop participants experienced being stuck in the woven contraptions.

During the May 14 Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly grief workshop, Sarah Cheney demonstrates how a classic Chinese fingertrap works as Julie Beck ponders her plight. Beck, the Forever Friends program coordinator at Little Brothers, participated in this exercise illustrating the struggle of life and thinking outside the box. Your index fingers remain stuck in the braided bamboo finger traps when you try to pull your fingers out. (Photo © and courtesy Vanessa Dietz)

"The fingertrap is the struggle of life," Cheney said, as people unsuccessfully attempted to pull their forefingers out.

Smiling, she reminded them that sometimes the harder you fight to pull away from something, the more you remain stuck. While it may seem counterintuitive, pushing the fingertips toward each other loosens the weave, allowing release -- much like how leaning into our complex feelings about grief can bring much-needed relief.

Grieving is a cultural phenomenon guided by social norms that can seem to impose limitations on how and how long we do it.

"There was this idea that you were supposed to move on," Cheney said. "You need to spend time grieving. It’s hard work. Focus on the grieving, then go back to your life."

European volunteers offer their perspectives

Two young women visiting from Europe who are volunteering at Little Brothers in Hancock shared their observations of death rituals.

Pictured from left, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly volunteers Selina Lutzel of Germany and Alois Moisson of France say Europeans grieve a little differently than their American counterparts. (Photo courtesy Little Brothers)

"Usually we don’t talk about that because (the) person might be sad or depressed," said Alois Moisson of France. "Each person settles their own individual way. We try to be positive. We’re just more shy (and) stay quiet at (the) funeral in church to respect the family. We don’t sing. I was shocked (about the) songs and how loud."

Facing death for just the third time in her life, Selina Lutzel of Germany was troubled by a recent funeral.

"It wasn’t what I expected," Lutzel said, adding it was "more sad. No one really talked about her."

More grief workshops available to groups

Cheney and Drake are also willing to tailor grief workshops for other businesses and organizations, as they did at Little Brothers.

For more information on individual, group, or organizational grief workshops, contact Cheney at (906) 281-5558 or Drake can be reached at (906) 370-6686 or

"We’re building legacy," Drake said. "They continue on through their memories, their stories, their legacies. How things have shifted in history because they were here. The love never ends. The love never dies."

Editor's Notes:

* Guest writer Vanessa Dietz is a freelance journalist, formerly feature editor and reporter for The Daily Mining Gazette.

** This is the second article in our series on community support in times of death and grieving. See the first article, also by Vanessa Dietz, "Omega House offers quality hospice care for terminally ill, welcoming atmosphere and counseling for families," posted May 14, 2018.