Only in Lawrence 2013The Journal-World asked Lawrenceians to tell us about the unsung heroes in the community, resulting in the annual Only in Lawrence feature.
A lifeguard’s job is to prevent people from drowning in a pool. Phil Friedeman’s job is to keep people from drowning in their grief.
Friedeman, a retired Congregational minister, has conducted “Beyond Loss” grief support workshops in Lawrence for the past 17 years. The workshops are sponsored by Warren-McElwain Mortuary, but they are open to anyone, regardless of whether he or she has used the mortuary’s services.
Friedeman’s career helped prepare him to facilitate the workshops, but he has researched and worked tirelessly to ensure that the workshops provide the opportunity for reconciliation, allowing survivors to help themselves through their grief.
“I knew a lot about grief and mourning, having been a pastor that was exceptionally faithful with my patrons,” he said. “I call it a ‘workshop’ because I really expect work to be done. I make careful assignments to the survivors and those who do the work benefit the most.”
An avid reader and book collector, Friedeman said that all of the world’s religions incorporated a phrase similar to “Do the works of mourning.” He uses that phrase and his approach of reconciliation as the foundation for the 10-week workshops.
“One of the important learnings about grief is that people need to tell their story as many times as it takes to get the knots out of all the experiences they’ve had with the death,” Friedeman said. “When you begin to trust that you have been heard and understood, then you will begin to heal.”
Finding the time and space to ruminate on and express those emotions can be very difficult in modern American life, so that is why Friedeman meets with each survivor before he or she begins the workshop. He wants to make sure that there are not so many outside stressors that the survivor cannot devote himself or herself to the workshop.
“There are not many places in our society where you can get a complete hearing of your thoughts and feelings about the loss. That’s what these workshops provide,” he said.
Maddie Glass lost her father in 2011 when she was 21. She undertook Friedeman’s workshop in early 2012 and credits it with allowing her to corral all of her emotions about her relationship with her father and his addiction.
“I was able to remember him how he was, and it made me realize how blessed I was to have him as a father. It’s completely changed my life; working through that grief and coming out on the other side of it is amazing,” Glass said.
“We journaled for the workshop, and being able to write down my feelings without worrying about anyone else’s feelings was helpful. They felt the same way I did – even my family didn’t feel the same feelings,” she said. “I smiled every time I left that group because I knew they were such a blessing in my life.”
Larry McElwain, one of the partners in Warren-McElwain Mortuary, which sponsors the workshops, said that the mortuary wanted the workshops to be a community resource – regardless of where the death took place or which mortuary provided services.
“We started the program not knowing how successful it would be or what value it would be,” McElwain said. “Now, we get to see the participants turn their life on a positive note from such a negative experience.”
McElwain said that when he spoke to Friedeman about starting the workshops, he could tell that Friedeman had a good sense of how important grief resolution was to people in their lives. McElwain is not directly involved with the workshops, but he and his staff often receive notes from the participants afterwards thanking them for the experience and shedding light on what the workshop process is like.
“The facilitating skills of Phil are important, but the group dynamics of bringing 10 to 12 people together with a common experience and allowing them to get to know each other is very powerful,” McElwain said.