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IN THE SPIRIT: Support group offers widows, widowers haven

Seventeen years, 34 sessions and 600 people later, the Widow-Widower Support Group of Grand Forks is alive and well, and just as fervent as ever in its mission to minister to the grieving.

Seventeen years, 34 sessions and 600 people later, the Widow-Widower Support Group of Grand Forks is alive and well, and just as fervent as ever in its mission to minister to the grieving.

"It's overwhelming to think that many people have lost a spouse, and that's only a handful," said Phyllis Norgard, who has personally visited and comforted most of the 600.

It was in September 1990 that I first met Phyllis and Shirley Bjelde, both of Grand Forks, who were just starting the support group. From their own anguish, these women knew what others walking on the same path needed. After 31 years together, Phyllis had lost Dale Norgard to a massive heart attack. After 40 years, Shirley's husband, Daryl Bjelde, died in a traffic accident near Thompson, N.D.

"We need a support group so we can all come together to find a common bond to share feelings," Phyllis told me at the time. "No, I don't enjoy it. It's no joy to see people in pain, but I get to talk about Dale."

She still loves to talk about Dale. "I am not lonely," Phyllis assured us, "but as time goes on, I get even more lonesome for him."


A reunion for those who have attended Widow-Widower Support Group sessions is set for Sept. 9 in Calvary Lutheran Church, 1405 S. Ninth St. Registration is from 1:30 to 2 p.m., a program from 2 to 3 p.m. and a reception until 5 p.m.

Shirley will be there to greet guests, and on the program are the Rev. Bud Johnson, the Rev. Tom Colenso and the Rev. Marty Tollefson. Kevin Nelson will sing "On Eagle's Wings," Diane Fossum will do "Give Me the Courage," and David Adams "Remember Me." Sara Bloom is accompanist

Candle lighters are Carrie Hanson, Kathy Midgarden and Don Litzinger, and Marge Finley will give a participant's reflection on what has blossomed from the core group.

"Several supper and social groups have formed to continue their own support system," Phyllis said. "This is what happens when they find new friendships."

Phyllis feels she was tremendously blessed 20 years ago by Lorraine and Byron Amundson, when, after Dale died, they asked her to provide a continuing care service for their funeral home. The idea for a different type of widow/widower support group stemmed from the home visits Phyllis made.

"As a result of going into the homes, I knew that I needed more than one visit," Phyllis said. "If I came into your home to visit you, I may have helped you, but it helped so much more knowing how much I needed it when it wasn't there."

Another group, Beginning Experience, welcomes divorced or separated people in its program, but the Widow-Widower Support Group is only for those who have lost a spouse through death.

"We are both liquids," Phyllis said, "but we don't mix."


Phyllis first approached Byron and Lorraine Amundson about starting a support group separate from their funeral home. They were very helpful. Now, "Amundson, Stennes and Gregory Norman Funeral Homes support us by paying for supplies such as votive candles and advertising," Phyllis said.

The Widow-Widower Support Group holds two sessions a year. The next begins Oct. 15, in Calvary Lutheran Church. It will continue Monday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. for the proceeding eight weeks.

To begin, Chaplain John Rieth speaks on companionship. Other topics on guilt, anger, denial, acceptance, spirituality, family and friends follow and are led by other clergy. Sessions end with a service called, "Memory of Love."

Arnold Thompson of Grand Forks, who lost his wife, Carole, in 1997, went to one session and then helped with such things as registration and refreshments for nine consecutive years. Arnold found out the very first night that he was not "going crazy," when he thought he heard Carole's voice.

"We experience pretty much all the same thing," he said, "and helping each other is what's behind the group. It's pretty hard to keep back the tears and tell everybody what you're going through, but life goes on after death. A person just can't stop."

The first night always is the most difficult.

"A lot have misconceptions saying, 'I don't want to come and just sit and cry,'" Phyllis said. "But it's the opposite. In all the years, I've never had one person say, 'this was the biggest waste of time.' None of us wanted to be widowers or widows, but to see people meet each other, smile, laugh, share their pain and let go of it is beautiful."

Phyllis never has trouble finding lay leaders who have gone through a session and then want to come back next time to help others. "The interesting thing is," she said, "it's the men who call me to be lay leaders."


During the 17 years, 12 different musicians have provided music for the service of love that closes each session, and 38 clergy have offered their expertise.

"Out of 34 sessions, Pastor Bud Johnson has been with us 31. That's dedication," said Phyllis, whose ready for another 17 years or "as long as I'm able or until the first time we start and nobody shows up. I have met wonderful people."

What's most wonderful is seeing people who can hardly walk through the door the first time eventually start laughing again.

Dunavan is a Herald columnist. Reach her at (218) 773-9521 or naomiinthe-

spirit@aol.com .

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