By Craig Howard
When Shane Brickner lost his brother unexpectedly in early 2007, he found himself drifting in a fog of anger and confusion.
Greg Smelcer died that January after being hit in the face during an altercation at a bar. Smelcer fell backwards after the contact, hitting his head and causing bleeding on the brain. He was rushed into surgery but passed away that night. He was only 36 years old.
"I hit rock bottom," Brickner recalls. "I didn't know how to deal with it. I stopped caring and just sort of shut down emotionally."
The isolation had a ripple effect on all of Brickner's relationships. He and his wife nearly separated. Clutching for hope, Brickner reached out to his church, inquiring if a support group was available for those coping with loss.
It wasn't, but Brickner learned about an established nationwide program called GriefShare, organized to provide support and encouragement for people dealing with the death of loved ones. Brickner went through training with GriefShare and launched a local group at One Church in Spokane Valley.
It was around then that the mist began to lift.
"You're surrounded by people who understand what you're going through," Brickner said. "This group not only teaches you to deal with your current loss but helps you deal with loss in the future. By not dealing with it, this can affect your personal life and work. Dealing with grief is like physical therapy. It may hurt at the time but you are stronger for it in the end."
The latest incarnation of GriefShare convenes each Monday evening at Valley Real Life, a church in east Spokane Valley. Sessions start at 6:30 p.m. and run for about 90 minutes. Participants can start at any point during the13-week course, which includes a video segment at the beginning of each class, followed by a group discussion. Attendees can participate in the conversation or simply listen.
Dave Miller, who lost his father a year ago and joined the group in March, said Brickner brings a valuable degree of empathy to each conversation.
"Shane's experiences make it more meaningful," Miller said. "He's been through it. He's not just a facilitator."
Like others in the group, Miller talks about dealing with grief as an ongoing process. Many describe the experience as "taking two steps forward and one step back." Brickner emphasizes that everyone handles sorrow in their own way.
"Grief is a journey," he said. "Go at your own pace."
Brickner started down the path again recently following the death of his friend, Clint Gibson, on April 25. The funeral service for the longtime Liberty Lake police sergeant was held at Valley Real Life on May 2. Brickner served alongside Gibson on the LLPD force as a volunteer officer and shared a number of hobbies and interests with his friend.
"I feel like I lost a brother," Brickner said. "The first emotion I went through was disbelief. I keep thinking I will wake up tomorrow and see him."
Sifting through sorrow is part of the healing passage, Brickner said. A recent GriefShare video described how denial of the impact is "like ignoring the symptoms of a disease." In contrast, facing the grief constructively acts as treatment, restoring hope and awareness of the good that remains.
Frank Romero joined GriefShare after reading a story about the program in a local publication. He has utilized some of the lessons from the program to help a neighbor dealing with a recent loss.
"When I'm here, I get healing from everyone around me," said Romero, whose wife passed away four years ago. "I suffered for quite a while before I had a place to go. Little by little, it's really helped."
Marilee Lynd serves as co-facilitator of the group along with Brickner. She discovered GriefShare after losing her 10-week-old granddaughter in 2009.
"This group understands what it's like to face that pain," Lynd said. "It helps you move forward. You're not the same person when you come back the next time."
Those in the group can call Brickner or Lynd outside of the group sessions to talk. A workbook is provided to assist with note taking and journaling throughout the 13 weeks. Faith-based principles emerge throughout the curriculum, but Brickner says, "you can take the key concepts whether you're religious or not." A GriefShare daily devotional is available by email.
"I do try to emphasize I tried it on my own but was stronger with God," he said. "Some people are angry with God after a loss. I say that's better than nothing. It means you don't understand this and you're reaching out for answers."
As he copes with the void left by Gibson, Brickner said he is thankful for the refuge and reinforcement he finds at the start of each week.
"We are like a second family," Brickner said. "I like that people have a safe place to face their emotions head on. When my brother died, I knew I could let it destroy my life or turn it into something positive. Finding out a way to help others has helped me heal."
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