Finding HOPE during extreme loss

Nonprofit grief support group guides individuals through loss of their spouse

People understand.

That is what Helping Other People Evolve, Inc. members want others to know. Throughout the year, the grief support group for widows and widowers meets at various locations around South Jersey, providing a place to go where others have suffered a similar loss.

“I found when I went there, that what I was going through was not unique,” HOPE board member David Hoffman, who lost his wife in 2015, said. “And that gave me comfort.”

Board member Barbara Kassekert first came to HOPE in 1987, the year after her husband passed away. The Mt. Laurel resident has served as a coordinator, office manager and program director for the nonprofit, which was founded in 1978.

“We’re a unique group,” Kassekert said. “In addition to the material we present at the meetings, the two strong points are that it’s a very comfortable place to go because everyone involved in the program has been widowed, and it’s also a great place to meet new friends.”

Widowers often lose their social life along with their spouse. What a lot of people don’t understand, Hoffman explained, is that in losing your spouse, you experience two deaths, not just one.

“The death of your spouse,” Hoffman said, “and the death of ‘us.’ You have a relationship and existence as a pair, and that dies, too.”

HOPE has 15 chapters that host 10-week meeting sessions four times a year. The spring session will begin in April, and among the meeting locations are Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Marlton and Moorestown. Each session leads into the next, and it is recommended to take all four sessions.

“Grief goes on for the rest of your life. Our program will last a year, and even at the end of a year, you’re not over your grief, but you’re learning how to deal with it,” Hoffman, of Voorhees, said. “And because we do have a year’s program, we can help people get through those early stages much better.”

Each session is different, and each week focuses on a certain topic. The weekly meetings last about an hour and a half to two hours. It is a learning experience, not just a meeting where each participant speaks about their grief — although there is time for that, too.

“It’s educational,” Hoffman said, “but I did have the opportunity to tell my story when I wanted to.”

While some may expect the support group to center around a lot of tears, they aren’t always tears of sadness. There is a lot of laughter that takes place, too.

“It’s just amazing how much humor goes on,” Kassekert said, “and I think that’s because it’s a safe place to laugh. People aren’t judging you.”

“You start off thinking you’ll never laugh again,” Hoffman added. “When you do laugh, you realize there’s a new life you can have.”

Satellite groups have grown from HOPE support groups, where participants will head to grab dinner after a meeting to share their stories and socialize.

“I have been widowed a long time, but I still have friends from my original HOPE group,” Kassekert said.

Each support group is run by widows and widowers who have gone through HOPE’s year-long program. They go through special training and serve alongside experienced group leaders before taking the helm. Many have led the support groups for more than a decade.

“You just feel as if you’re helping people. It’s extremely gratifying, being a group leader,” Kassekert said, adding it’s a commitment since the sessions run 40 weeks out of the year.

Beyond the core grief support program, which teaches there is a new life to live, HOPE also offers Bridge, which “bridges” participants from their loss to this new life and how to live it.

“It’s been my experience that the first week coming is really difficult,” Kassekert said. “Nobody wants to be there, and it’s really hard to go. But I think once you’re there two or three weeks, it becomes a lifesaver.”

Hoffman agreed.

“The bottom line is we reach out to people who are in the midst of the worst time in their life, and we help them get through it like a good friend,” Hoffman said. “Don’t be afraid to look for help.”

Each HOPE 10-week session is a $35 donation to the nonprofit. All are welcome. HOPE is also always in need of volunteers to help run meetings and work in its office. For more information and to register, visit www.hopesnj.org or call (856) 234–2200 or (888) 920–2201.

Spring Meeting Dates

  • Cherry Hill: Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. beginning April 5
  • Marlton: Wednesdays at 1 p.m. beginning April 5
  • Moorestown: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. beginning April 6
  • Voorhees: Mondays at 7 p.m. beginning April 3

For a full listing of all 15 upcoming sessions, please visit www.hopesnj.org.