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Life experience helps counselor lead men’s grief group

By Mary Stamp

From his work as an educator, counselor and 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.

Don Barlow
Don Barlow keeps up with latest approaches to grief counseling.

Since last fall, he has volunteered with Hospice of Spokane to lead a men’s grief support group.  It is now offered at 5:30 p.m., Thursdays, at 130 S. Arthur.

While his parents lived long, good lives, both dying at the age of 91—his father 10 years ago and his mother five years ago—the losses of an adopted Native American 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 step-daughter Laura of breast cancer in 1997 at age 29—give him insights beyond his academic and therapeutic training and experience.

Even though a teacher counseled him to go to a trade school, not college, he was determined to go to college to play football. 

Don 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 Don 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,” Don 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,” he said.

Sometimes two come to his men’s grief group at Hospice and sometimes there are eight. Men come in and out of the ongoing groups.

Leading a men’s grief group is something Don has wanted to do because of his positive experience with Hospice when his wife and daughter 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.”

Don 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,” he said.  “There is much unrelieved grief.  Delay in dealing with grief can cause some men problems. 

“Sometimes it builds up rather than going away.  Other times, denial is a coping mechanism, so a man delaying to deal with a loss can mean waiting until he is better able to deal with the trauma,” Don said.

In the 1970s, Helen 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 Don, 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.”

He learned about love and nurture from a good father and mother, he said, but also learned about silence in face of losses from his heritage. 

The Ottawa, his father’s tribe, were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma—as were the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears. 

Tribal elders did not talk about that part of their history, as members assimilated and intermarried.  Don’s mother was from the Sac and Fox Nation, that gradually relocated from the Great Lakes region to Oklahoma.

His understanding of grief over that historical loss lends to his perspective and openness to wider issues people face when touching grief.

“We each have our own path for dealing with grief.  Different cultures and religions deal in different ways,” he said.

A member of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, who has also been in a Southern Baptist Church, Don 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.

For information, call 456-0438 or visit hospiceofspokane.org.



Copyright © May 2013 - The Fig Tree