“I am just now at the top of the mountain, ready to look over into joy,” Joyce Steenbergen says with a poignancy born of pain.
Joy is an unfamiliar place, but thanks to an insightful, insistent forever-friend, and Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, it’s in sight.
Joyce’s descent into devastating loss began in 2001. In the space of six years, death took 2 of her 5 children and her husband.
The day before the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, her oldest daughter, Kelly, who was 27 and lived in Memphis, called to say she had been admitted to a hospital with masses all over her body.
Diagnosed with extremely rare Adrenocortical Carcinoma, the married mother of 2 died within a month.
Joyce relied on family and faith to get through:
“I thought i should just rely on God.”
“I don’t think I had friends who had lost children. I felt like I had no one to talk to. People didn’t want to hear my story. It made them uneasy, made them feel like it might happen to them. It was just very uncomfortable.”
She kept it all to herself until 2007, when her husband, Larry, was diagnosed with colon cancer — stage 4.
“Even when I lost him, I still had very few friends who had lost a spouse already. I was 57 at the time.”
She had four remaining children, then about 18 months after Larry’s death,
“one afternoon, I was home alone and 2 police officers came to my front door. They said they wanted to talk to me about my son, Jeffrey. He had taken his life. He was 34. He had also lost a sister and lost a father.
“Now this time, I was losing a child without the support of a spouse, and that was crushing. I still thought I could do it on my own. Very few friends had been through anything like it… The closest to understanding was my other daughter, but it was hard for us to share because we were both in so much pain.”
The overwhelming grief began to take an emotional and physical toll Joyce couldn’t control.
Enter friend Rhonda Talsma. They two women had been friends since they were 3.
“She could see inside me,” Joyce said, and Rhonda recognized that Joyce was in trouble. Rhonda also realized she couldn’t fix it … then she had an idea
Turns out that when we think there’s nothing more we can do, sometimes there is something more we can do.
A recently widowed friend had been “super-pleased” with the grief support she had found at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, and Rhonda suggested she and Joyce go see what was available.
Joyce remembers saying she was not feeling well on the date of their first scheduled visit, but Rhonda said let’s go anyway.
“I stood at the bottom of the stairs– wanting to flee but knowing this was something that I needed,” Joyce wrote in memory of her late children and husband. “My friend literally delivered me to the building where I took the first step to enter a grief support group…
“… I wondered how listening to others’ stories of loss could be uplifting instead of depressing. Then the miracle of sharing with others took place.”
“There were widows and widowers who poured out their hearts while speaking of the loss of each spouse… They asked, ‘What is next for me?’ Yet they also spoke of new friends in their lives, closer family relations, of hope and even of new love.
“Some members had lost a close friend…They were able to move on — making new friendships while honoring the old.
“ There were parents who had lost adult children. They spoke of such emptiness in their lives… But they also spoke of precious memories, ‘heavenly connections” and love — love that will last forever.’ ”
Amazingly, there was a woman who had lost a daughter to the rare cancer that had taken Joyce’s daughter, Kelly.
“It was like a miracle to me to know it happened to other people. It was almost like God placed her there so we could be there for each other for that week.
“No one understands like someone who’s been through what we have. Our values are completely different because what we’ve been through: The value of life, a smile, cookies on counters at Gilda’s…”
She’s learned to respond differently to those who haven’t been down a similar path:
“Just give them a pass, they don’t understand.”
“There’s a phrase we use from group: Just give them a pass, they don’t understand. You can see in someone’s eyes whether they get it. Everyone (at Gilda’s) gets it. It’s such a safe place.”
Out of it all has come hard-won wisdom:
“Not only have I found a wealth of new friends in this grief support group, I have learned so much about life:
— “I realize now that we grieve because we love and were loved;
— “I now understand the strength and support of human compassion;
— “I understand that there is a path to take in grieving, but never a time limit;
— “My smile now appears only when I am truly happy;
— “The crumbling feeling is gone and I now stand stronger — stronger with the support of my dear friends.”
She put her thoughts in writing, “in memory and with love for Kelly, Larry and Jeff.”
For the same reason, she agreed to share to help others.
“Until my last breath (with God’s help) I will try to make something good come from these losses.”