On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
It's just past 3:00 p.m., and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I've brought a plate of baked goods - last week, Stuart told me that the reason he keeps coming to Helping Hands isn't the grief counseling but my butterscotch pecan muffins - and just as I am
setting them down, Mrs. Dombrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. "This," she tells me, "is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She's the one I told you about, the baker."
I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I'm sure there's a protocol for meeting a spouse who's been cremated, but I'm pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?
"Wow," I finally say, because although there are few rules to this group, the ones we have are steadfast: be a good listener, don't judge, and don't put boundaries on someone else's grief. I know this better than anyone. After all, I've been coming for nearly three years now.
"What did you bring?" Mrs. Dombrowksi asks, and I realize why she's toting her husband's urn. At our last meeting, our facilitator - Marge - had suggested that we share a memory of whatever it was we had lost. I see that Shayla is clutching a pair of knit pink booties so tightly her knuckles are white. Ethel is holding a television remote control. Stuart has - again - brought in the bronze death mask of his first wife's face. It has made an appearance a few times at our group, and it was the creepiest thing I'd ever seen - until now, when Mrs. Dombrowski has brought along Herb.
Before I have to stammer my answer, Marge calls our little group to order. We each pull a folding chair into the circle, close enough to pat someone on the shoulder or reach out a hand in support. In the center sits the box of tissues Marge brings to every session, just in case.
Often Marge starts out with a global question - Where were you when 9/11 happened? It gets people talking about a communal tragedy, and that sometimes makes it easier to talk about a personal one. Even so, there are always people who don't speak. Sometimes months go by before I even know what a new participant's voice sounds like.
Today, though, Marge asks right away about the mementos we've brought. Ethel raises her hand. "This was Bernard's," she says, rubbing the television remote with her thumb. "I didn't want it to be - God knows I tried to take it away from him a thousand times. I don't even have the TV this works with, anymore. But I can't seem to throw it out."
Ethel's husband is still alive, but he has Alzheimer's and has no idea who she is anymore. There are all sorts of losses people suffer - from the small to the large. You can lose your keys, your glasses, your virginity. You can lose your head, you can lose your heart, you can lose your mind. You can relinquish your home to move into assisted living, or have a child move overseas, or see a spouse vanish into dementia. Loss is more than just death, and grief is the gray shape-shifter of emotion.
"My husband hogs the remote," Shayla says. "He says it's because women control everything else."
"Actually, it's instinct," Stuart says. "The part of the brain that's territorial is bigger in men than it is in women. I heard it on John Tesh."
"So that makes it an inviolable truth?" Jocelyn rolls her eyes. Like me, she is in her twenties. Unlike me, she has no patience for anyone over the age of forty.