Grieving together

Monthly Washougal support group helps people cope with devastating loss

Steve Hofmaster, of Camas, stands with his mother, Marie, on a beach. Marie died in 2014, and Hofmaster has been attending a monthly grief support group in Washougal ever since to help him cope with the enormous loss of his mother and frequent travel companion. (Contributed photo courtesy of Steve Hofmaster)

If You Go

What: A free grief support group for adults, ages 18 and older

Who: Community Home Health & Hospice sponsors the group

When: 3 to 4:30, every third Monday of the month

Where: Columbia Ridge Senior Living, 2300 W. Ninth St. Washougal

For more information: Visit www.chhh.org/services/grief-support, email GriefSupport@chhh.org or call 360-703-0300

They meet for 90 minutes, every third Monday of the month. Some share stories of love and loss. Others simply listen. But all have come to find a way through their grief.

“I hardly ever miss it,” Steve Hofmaster says of the monthly grief support group. “It’s nice, sharing with others who can relate to what you’re going through.”

Hofmaster, 66, of Camas, lost his mother, Marie Hofmaster, nearly four years ago.

Although her death was not unexpected — Marie was 94 and had been in hospice care for several months — the loss of his mom, a vibrant mother of three who loved to golf every chance she got and had traveled the world with Hofmaster, devastated the Camas man.

“I had a really hard time,” Hofmaster says. “I had gone through this with my dad, but it was worse with my mother.”

Depressed, grief-stricken and suffering from horrible nightmares after his mother’s death, Hofmaster reached out to Scott Selfridge, a grief counselor with Community Home Health & Hospice.

Selfridge had helped Hofmaster cope with end-of-life preparations when Marie received hospice care during her final year at Columbia Ridge Senior Living in Washougal.

As it turned out, Columbia Ridge staff had already approached Selfridge about facilitating a free grief support group at the Washougal senior living center when Hofmaster reached out for help. The new group was set to meet from 3 to 4:30 p.m. every third Monday of the month, and was open to any grieving adult. Selfridge wondered: Would Hofmaster be interested in joining?

“I went to the very first group … that was in 2014,” Hofmaster says. “And I still go every month.”

The grief is still there, four years after his mother’s passing, but it’s different now, Hofmaster says. The tools he’s learned at the support group — sharing his stories, listening to others who are processing their suffering, journaling about his dreams — have helped Hofmaster get through many dark days. The nightmares are fading, replaced by dreams of happier times with his beloved mother. He’s thrown himself into helping others as a puppy raiser for the Camas-Washougal Lions Club’s Canine Companions for Independence project and takes frequent nature walks to help clear his head.

And, of course, every third Monday, he heads to Columbia Ridge in Washougal for 90 minutes of free therapy.

“The group has made a difference,” Hofmaster says. “They really support me.”

‘People expect us to just get over it … but that’s not how it works’

Selfridge, who has hosted other bereavement support groups for the Southwest Washington-based Community Home Health & Hospice, says it’s important for grieving people to meet others who are going through a similar life crisis.

“Grief is a very common experience,” Selfridge says. “And it’s important for people to come and meet people in the same situation.”

One of the most common reactions people new to the grieving process have after coming to a grief support group, Selfridge says, is the realization that they’re not alone with these unfamiliar thoughts and feelings.

“They say, ‘Oh, I’m not crazy after all. I thought I was losing my mind,'” Selfridge says. “It’s one thing to hear a grief counselor say, ‘This is a normal stage of grief,” but hearing a peer who has lost their loved one say, ‘I hear you. I get it. I can identify with what you’re going through’? That makes a difference.”

The monthly grief support group at Columbia Ridge Senior Living is open to anyone suffering a loss — even the loss of a marriage or a family pet, Selfridge says.

“Grief isn’t just about death,” he says. “If they’re really struggling and would like to talk to someone and be in a safe place, we are there.”

The support group is open to the public, but group members agree to not share other members’ stories and to keep what is said in group private.

Hofmaster finds the group is nonjudgmental and supportive toward other members.

“There are some who always share … but many who hold back, especially the men,” Hofmaster says. “It’s OK if they just want to listen. We don’t mind.”

Selfridge says the fear of sharing such overwhelming emotions in a public group can be intimidating to people not used to the grief process.

“We’re not comfortable with death in this society. We don’t have a way to process it,” Selfridge says. “The biggest hurdle I hear (preventing people from attending the support group) is that they’re too embarrassed to talk in front of other people. That they don’t know what to say.”

People often feel like society is pushing them to “get over” their grief and may feel odd joining a grief support group months or even years after their loss, Selfridge says.

“But that’s the thing: when you suffer a loss, for the first month or two, people are there for you. They’re asking, “Are you OK? What can I do?” But, after a while, they move on to the next crisis and people who are still grieving go, “I’m not doing well, but I don’t know where to turn,” Selfridge explains. “They may be numb at first, raw, but when they come up for air, they start to look around and realize they’re really starting to hurt.”

This is when Selfridge suggests people put aside their reservations about grieving publicly or speaking to strangers and give a grief support group a chance to work its healing magic.

“If it doesn’t work … well, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Selfridge says.

Hofmaster says he still finds value in the support group — even after nearly four years. As a senior member of the group, he can help others who are suffering and, in turn, help heal his own pain.

“We have people who will go away from the group for a year or two and then something happens, a trigger, and they come back,” Selfridge says. “There are a lot of triggers in life. Maybe they just heard their (deceased loved one’s) favorite song or just drove through their old neighborhood. For people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, they may have had another loss. The holidays are a big trigger, so we talk about that in group.”

Hofmaster recommends attending a support group for anyone struggling with grief.

“Friends, and even family, they don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving,” Hofmaster says. “They may even avoid you because they don’t know how to help. The group … they’ve been there. They understand.”

Selfridge says he would love to grow the monthly Washougal grief support group.

“Our culture does not handle death very well. And we live in kind of a callous society,” he says. “People expect us to just get over it … but that’s not how it works. As humans, we need each other. We need to hear from people in similar situations to know that we’re not going crazy. To know that death is a part of life. And that it doesn’t do much good to hold it in or ignore it.”