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Germany

Learning to cope with the loss of a loved one

The death of a child is the worst thing that can happen to parents. Five years ago Sabine Waschik lost her daughter - but found comfort in a grief counselling group.

Sabina Waschik always places a box of tissues next to the coffee, tea and cookies on the table. They are not just for visitors. Sometimes she also needs them herself.

"When parents tell me about the death of their child, memories return and sometimes I have to cry," she said. The 47-year-old from Witten near Bochum joins people in their sorrow. "I know all these feelings of grief, anger and weariness from my own experiences," she said.

When in 2008 her 18-year-old daughter Ina, who suffered from a heart condition, died, Waschik felt alone, misunderstood and helpless. Family and friends could not give the comfort she was looking for.

"All of us mourned Ina in our own way and kept to ourselves. My husband looked to his work to take his mind off it, my son Philip never talked about Ina's death and my daughter Kim cried a lot and panicked that another family member would die," she said.

Becoming a grief counsellor

Six months after her daughter died, Waschik and her husband signed up with a group of parents who had lost their children - the grief counselling group in Hattingen in the Ruhr Valley. "It was comforting for me to meet people who had had similar experiences and who understood me," she said.

Two years later she felt strong enough to mourn without the group. But she wanted to do something useful and help other people with similar experiences. She therefore trained to be a grief counsellor.

Sabine Waschik sits on the floor Photo: Sabine Damaschke.

Sabine Waschik lost her daughter to a heart condition

Today the retail saleswoman is a volunteer with the group. She helps at the weekly cafe, which is open to anyone who has experienced a loss. Together with another grief counsellor she runs a parents' group and a youth group. "You get so much confidence and gratitude back. I can't imagine a better job," she said.

Getting strong through knowledge

Director Annette Wagner runs childrens' and youth groups in the colorful rooms at the center. There Waschik talks with parents.

"Many are confused about the behavior of their children," Waschik said, adding that children mourn differently than adults. They can ask direct questions about the death of their parent or sibling - questions that can be too hard for adults.

"Children want to know everything," Wagner said. "That's why they can ask me anything - if their mother's eyes were really taped up, or how their dad fits into an urn." She takes every group to meet an undertaker - a visit that often worries parents. "It's my job to allay these concerns," she said.

Annette Wagner and Sabine Waschik Photo: Sabine Damaschke.

Annette Wagner and Sabine Waschik are grief counsellors in the Ruhr Valley

Mourning has different faces

That principle also applies to adult groups. Those in mourning should receive the help they need in their specific situation.

"When we founded the group in 1999, we were the only ones who offered so many different groups for mourners," said founder Annedore Methfessel, a Hattingen pastor. Beyond the grief, the death of a close relative is an enormous life change.

But the broader issues the bereaved have to deal with are similar across the various groups. There is always the question of how to remember the deceased. The participants talk about how they experienced the death and the funeral - and how their life goes on. The groups are always guided by a professional grief counsellor.

After ten meetings - usually each three hours long - most of the groups start a new cycle. They meet privately because friendships often form during the meetings. Every year there is at least one new offering for parents who have lost a child, those who have been widowed and for the children and young relatives of the deceased. Family members from all over the Ruhr valley take part in the meetings.

A period of adjustment

Sabine Waschik Photo: Sabine Damaschke.

Sabine Waschik says that mourning made her stronger

Pastor Methfessel wishes that such groups would be everywhere in Germany. "Hospices, churches and even undertakers usually focus on the funeral. But it is important to adjust to the loss of a loved one in your life and that takes more time," she said.

Everyone who takes part in the groups receives around 60 hours of grief counselling over three years. "After that most people are back to themselves again," she said.

Sabine Waschik now can laugh and enjoy her daily life. Ina, her late daughter, has a place in her heart - and in her home. An angel Ina made decorates the window. Her mobile phone, glasses and letters are kept in a special box as reminders of her.

"I learned to live with the loss," Waschik said. Now she helps other people on this difficult path in life. "Ultimately the mourning I had to go through made me stronger."

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