Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base started holding grief and loss sessions at the newly built Airmen Resiliency Center here in April 2014. The sessions are designed to help anyone with base access who has experienced grief or has gone through any type of personal loss. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook)
LaNesa Howard, 42nd Air Base Wing sexual assault response coordinator, poses for a photograph in her office on Maxwell Air Force Base 18 April, 2014. In addition to her duties as the SARC, Howard runs the grief and loss sessions held at the Airmen Resiliency Center, designed to help anyone with base access heal from the emotional pain of grief and loss.(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook)
by Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook
42nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
4/30/2014 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- When a person goes through loss, they may be instantly overcome by grief, or it might take days, weeks or months to set in. The emotions may flood in at once or come in manageable stages. When a person is grieving, there is no set formula for what is happening or how to overcome, but there is help.
A desire to help others is what motivated LaNesa Howard, the 42nd Air Base Wing sexual assault response coordinator, to create "Grief and Loss" sessions, with the help of Vonceil Smith, a base psychologist.
"This particular grief and recovery session is not just for people who have experienced loss from someone's death," Howard said. "It's a group session, and it's based on what the group is feeling and where the participants are in terms of grief. It can be for survivors of sexual assault or those suffering the death of a loved one or even a pet. It can be for a person going through a divorce. It is there to help."
Howard got the idea for a group-based session from attending the base chapel. She and a friend learned that the chapel was holding women's support groups and became involved with them, she said. A few years ago, Howard co-facilitated a get-together for women in the form of a weekend workshop.
"What triggered the creation of the Grief and Loss sessions was the loss of our victim advocate," Howard said.
The 42nd ABW SARC office staff needed help dealing with their grief and decided to help others dealing with whatever loss they may have at the same time.
Service members and their families move from place-to-place, sometimes putting them out of reach of the support structures they have built. They may be hours or oceans away from close friends and family. When they experience a loss, if they need someone to talk to, there may not be a safe option for them to acknowledge their feelings and help them heal. Howard knew she could help.
"When we heard about all the big numbers of Air Force people who were going to potentially lose their jobs, we thought there might be a need for people to have a safe place to go and talk about what they were experiencing," Howard said.
Grief is a process.
There is a cycle a person goes through when they experience a loss, she said. It doesn't matter how others perceive the importance of another's loss. Losing a job can trigger the same response in a person as a divorce, or a death, or a rape. A person can even experience grief and loss while trying to overcome a chemical dependency. The type of loss is not important, healing is.
There are five stages in the grief cycle: denial, bartering, anger, depression, and acceptance. But there is often no direct path from one stage to the other, Howard said. A person can spend months in a stage and then skip the rest, ; a person can progress through all of them in a straight line. A person can feel none of them or feel all of the stages simultaneously. Everyone experiences grief in their own unique way.
"What we help people understand is there is no definitive road map to grief," Howard said. "We explain that they can go back and forth between the various stages. It helps them to understand that what they are feeling is not unusual. We help them understand that they decide how they are going to grieve and how much help they are going to need."
The goal of the group sessions is to accept the reality of the loss a person has experienced. A person needs to experience the pain of their loss, and adjust to their environment without the person in it. After that, they need to reinvest themselves in their new reality, Howard added.
"Everyone feels grief differently, but you have a right to feel the way you feel and we will support you through that for as long as you need us," Howard said. "It's a safe place to take your time, feel your loss, and deal with it."
Julie Griffin, an editor for course development at the Air Force Career Development Academy, has experienced the healing and support the group provides.
She came to the group after hearing about it from her commander. She needed support to care for her husband, who had two terminal diseases. Griffin said she walked out of her first session full of hope.
"I didn't realize that between that meeting and the next one I would lose my husband to his diseases," she said. "Even during that time, even when I was not at the next meeting, I still felt the support of the group through their thoughts and prayers. My first meeting back after my husband passed, of course, turned my need for a support group to a different need level, but this group met that need as well."
After her husband died, Griffin, who was his main caretaker throughout his six-year battle, needed to heal. Through the group sessions, she said she found the ability to talk in a safe place was vital to her healing process.
"This group showed me that I need to concentrate on me, and that my life goes on even though my husband lost his battle," Griffin said. "This group has been a blessing to me. What is said amongst the group stays amongst the group. We are all weak, but only through the support of others can we make ourselves strong again. It doesn't matter what type of grief you are going through, ‒ this group is a great group to be involved in."
Howard added that she is flexible with meeting people where they are at any time when it comes to their grief.
"I might have an entire agenda planned, but if someone comes in and they are tearful, everything that I have planned gets thrown out, and we sit down and help that person," Howard said. "We give them what they need and meet them where they are right at that moment."
The group meets at 3:15 p.m. at the Airmen's Resiliency Center. The dates are flexible based on the group members needs. For more information about Grief and Loss sessions, call the SARC at 953-4416, or a chaplain can be reached at 953-2109.