A handle on grief
Support group teaches, allows men to work through their losses
From his work as an educator, counselor and state legislator, from his background as an Ottawa Indian, an Episcopalian and a community volunteer, and from his experience as a parent, spouse and man, Don Barlow knows that each person deals with loss and grief in different ways.
Since last fall, he has volunteered with Hospice of Spokane to lead a men’s grief support group that meets Thursdays.
While his parents lived long, dying five years apart at age 91, the losses of his son, Jason, of a brain tumor in 1980 at age 10, of his second wife Elvera of pancreatic cancer in 1987 at age 47, and of his stepdaughter Laura of breast cancer in 1997 at age 29 – give him insights beyond his academic and therapeutic training and experience.
Barlow earned a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and a master’s degree in 1967, both from the University of Idaho. He worked at community mental health centers in his hometown of Boise, and in Twin Falls and Idaho Falls during and after his studies.
After earning a doctoral degree in educational administration at Pennsylvania State in 1978, he came to Spokane and worked with the school district until 1991, when he went into private practice, specializing in grief counseling.
While he was in college, he realized there was a program to help women students, but nothing for men, so he started a men’s student support program.
Similarly, he said, there is little to help men deal with their grief, losses, relationships, parenting and setting goals.
“Men and women grieve in different ways,” Barlow said. “We expect people to grieve as we do, but everyone has their own way of grieving. There is no timeline.
“Some men may do more physical activity to relieve their stress – running or weights. Some men may be stoic and not cry, considering that a sign of weakness,” he said. “Women go to a support group and cry to express their grief. So if men don’t cry, people wonder if they are feeling grief. They are, but they exhibit it in different ways.”
Leading a men’s grief group is something Barlow has wanted to do because of his positive experience with Hospice when his wife and stepdaughter died.
“If just men are together, they are more likely to discuss things with each other they wouldn’t talk about if they are with women. Many men are used to being silent, not speaking about their feelings,” he said.
“Tough guys come and at first just sit there, but eventually participate. It’s easy to draw them out just by asking, ‘What do you think?’ Then they are in the game,” he said. “Most have come because someone told them to come.”
Barlow said some men may turn their grief into anger and have problems managing it.
The support group is a way to let out their anger and find that others feel the same.
“The more we understand ourselves, the better we are in the long run,” Barlow said. “There is much unrelieved grief. Delay in dealing with grief can cause some men problems.”
In the 1970s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, coping and accepting – as if they were steps to go through in that order.
“Not following in those steps does not mean a person is not dealing with grief, just dealing with it in a different way,” said Barlow, who keeps up with the latest techniques and therapies.
“We need to respect that people have different stories and different ways of grieving. Some need and want a road map, because we are not taught how to deal with grief and loss.”
A member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church who has also been in a Southern Baptist Church, Barlow does not promote any faith perspective in the group.
He lets the men talk about their faith, based on their personal experiences, sensitive to the role faith can play in grief and healing.
Because of his experience, he offers reassurance when men ask, “Am I going to feel better?”
He knows that losses may weaken some and strengthen others, but overall trusts that they will feel better. It may be years, months or weeks. Everyone has their own rate.