Shelter in the storm: Support groups can help

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 2, 2011

Your spouse comes home one night after work a little bit later than usual. You know something was not quite right for the last few months in the relationship but ěevery marriage has its ups and downs.î You hear the words, ěWe need to talk about something.î The distance in their voice betrays the distance in their heart. ěItís over, Iím moving out.îAfter the shock begins to wear off you wonder if anyone else has ever felt this alone.
What will you tell the children? Will there be enough money? How will we live? Youíre not quite sure your broken heart can get through this, much less have the energy to mend theirs. You wonder, ëIs there any help out there for them?î
You sat beside the bedside of your loved one for what seemed all too long a time and all too short a time. The battle was finally lost. You feel the world should stop or at least slow down a bit. The funeral is over; friends and family go back to their normal life. But you feel it will never be normal again and wonder if the pain will ever stop.
One more night you are faced with the choice. The stress or the boredom is almost beyond words. You are no longer dreaming about a far off future, you are just trying to make it through the night. Itís too easy to go back to that old habit despite the fact that you have quit ëhundreds of times beforeí. You donít want to; you know itís a dead end road. But at least itís a road and any place is better than the place you are right now. You fall one more time and you swear itís going to be the last. And you wonder if anybody will understand.
You say to yourself, ěNo one else has ever felt like this,î ěHow could anybody else understand?î And yet every day thousands are called to weather these same storms:
4.8 million adults are diagnosed with depression yearly in the U.S.
Every month almost 800,000 people find themselves jobless.
Every day in America there are 2,600 divorces.
Every hour 110 children see their parents separate and divorce.
Every minute in this country 6 million children live with a parent who is an addict.
Every two seconds in America someone loses a loved one.
Despite the number of people going through these major life transitions, they all have one thing in common. Their grief is always personal. Their anger, while expected, is sometimes overwhelming. Their pain, while understandable, is private. What they all have in common is the sense of feeling alone.
Where can you go, in the words of the old spiritual, ěwhen the storms of life are ragingî? Is there a place of sanctuary when the world is too much with us? A shelter in the storm?
In times past, we would gather around the dining room table with family members who would bind our wounds with comforting words. Or we would talk to a neighbor over the fence who would assure us that our hearts would heal. But society is too fragmented. Our families, while only an e-mail away, cannot rub the salve of sympathy on our wounds from a distance. And we may not even know our neighborsí names, much less their hearts.
There are also emotional boundaries. ěWe were taught, ëWhat happens in the family, stays in the family,íî reminds Susan Shores, leader of the ěDiscovering Hope: Overcoming Depressionî support group. ěPeople of faith ó we Christians ó sometimes believe we are supposed to be perfect, to have no problems, to have it all togetherî, adds Judy Cooper who co-leads DivorceCare 4 Kids, a group of elementary aged students whose parents are going through divorce. Angannetta Dover laughs, ěWell, we may seem to have it all together, but we may not always know where it is!î
Shores, Cooper and Dover, among others, are a part of the LifeSupport Ministry of First Baptist Church-Salisbury. These compassionate and dedicated leaders meet every Monday night with small groups of persons who are facing some of the most difficult and devastating circumstances of their lives.
Anganetta and her husband Wayne have led DivorceCare groups for six years, guiding scores of wounded souls to find hope and healing. In their sessions, there is a DVD clip at each meeting that focuses on a particular issue of separation and divorce-anger, depression, finances, children, new relationships, and what does the Bible really say about divorce. After the clip there is a confidential discussion where members are encouraged to share their stories. In addition to the care and compassion of the Dovers, the strength of the support comes from the group dynamic of trust and understanding. Wayne adds, ěMost of these people have never had such an understanding and supportive relationship.î
In addition to the adults, over one million children are affected by divorce each year. Divorce is an intensely stressful experience for all children regardless of age or developmental level. ěThe pain experienced by children, especially in the beginning stages of separationî, writes Sara Eleoff from the Penn State College of Medicine, ěis composed of a sense of vulnerability, a grief reaction, feelings of intense anger and strong feelings of powerlessness.î A recent study found that less than 10 percent of children in these families had support from adults other than relatives during the acute phases of divorce.
Anna Holman, who works with Judy Cooper in the ěDivorceCare for Kids (DC4K)î group says, ěWe are safekeepers for these children. We remind them that God has a plan for their lives.î Cooper adds, ěWe try to help these children to open up to each other as we provide a safe place for them to explore their feelings without being afraid.î
Fear is one of the things Barbara Thomason focuses on in the ěGriefShareî support group she leads with Janet Millspaugh. ěMany people are afraid to move on; they are stuck. While all grief shares some similar characteristics, each person experiences loss with unique timing and intensityî. Millspaugh was a member of the group this past January.
ěI had not had or given myself times to grieve-to address my very deep lossóand how others were responding to the death-my guilt and inability to forgive myself.î She reflects back now and says, ěBy mid March I had been given these precious gifts: I didnít have to be over it yet. It was OK if others were in a different place in their grief process. God had forgiven me for all the decisions and omissions I felt guilty for, and so since I am not bigger than God, I needed to forgive myself.î
As a Spiritual Divorce Life Coach, Angela Lambert knows about the loss of loved ones ó by divorce and death. In ěHealing Your Heartî she shares the same tools that allowed her to find not only peace but direction after the end of a 17-year marriage, the death of her brother and, most recently, the loss of her own health for several months. ěWe can all remember our hearts being broken,î she says. ěCould there be a ěgiftî or a life lesson if you were able to look at the loss in a different way?î
Closely related to grief is depression. Susan Shore, who leads the depression support group, says, ěThis is an epidemic that medicine alone cannot cure because it affects the body, soul and spirit.î Shores focuses on the cognitive, relational, behavioral and spiritual aspects of the illness.
Brian Nix has led the ěHurts, Habits and Hang Upî group for the past several years. Part of the nationwide program of Celebrate Recovery, Nix helps those with destructive habits, as well as those who have family members who have a variety of addictions using a nine-step model based on the Sermon on the Mount.
Surprisingly, ěMasters in Public Healthî journal lists ěmediaî as the number one addiction in America. Those affected are almost completely dependant on the internet, text messaging and television. Nixís group will include those with media addiction.
Each one of these leaders knows the pain and the loneliness of these life transitions from experience. Their one desire is that while others may have to travel these roads, and weather these storms, they do not travel alone. And there is a shelter in the storm.
Rod Kerr is a minister and LifeSupport director at First Baptist Church in Salisbury. LifeSupport sessions begin Sept. 12 at 6:30pm. For information and to register, call 704-633-0431 or e-mail