TAMPA — As the women sat in a circle, cups of coffee and plates of fruit and muffins in hand, they explained why they were there.
Each had their own reason, but some dabbed at their eyes as they listened to the others, realizing their experiences weren’t so different.
One woman spoke about being sexually abused by an uncle when she was a child. Another talked about the deaths of three of her four siblings in a three-year period and how she still is trying to figure out what to do with her brother’s ashes while she cares for her remaining sister.
As they spoke, Grace Terry nodded along, touching the arms of those sitting closest to her. After they shared their stories, she thanked them.
“This isn’t rocket science,” she says about her job.
Terry works in the grief business. A licensed social worker with more than 30 years of experience, she specializes in grief support and resolution.
Three months ago, Terry founded Grief Cafe, a new twist on the traditional support group model. She meets with multiple groups once a month at different locations to talk about their members’ losses over coffee and snacks.
“This is by far the most effective format I’ve seen,” she said of the pop-up cafes.
It’s free, and it’s a one-time commitment, Terry said. No one has to speak if they don’t want to. And there’s food.
Grief Cafe has become so popular that she now hosts more than 15 monthly sessions in Hillsborough County, with more launching soon, she said. Churches, retirement facilities and other businesses let her use their space for the two-hour cafes, and they donate the snacks and coffee.
“There’s a universal need for grief support,” Terry said.
Everyone has lost something or someone, and grief is normal and healthy, she said. Not everyone needs a diagnosis and medication. They just need to talk.
In 1984, Terry’s mother died in a car accident. That same year, she found herself unexpectedly unemployed and divorced. She refocused her career to learn more about grief support and said she is determined to pay back the kindness people showed in her time of need.
“There’s a lot of different kinds of losses,” Terry told a group at Horizon Bay Hyde Park retirement home on Oct. 7. “The grief process is the same for everybody, and it’s different for everybody.”
Seven women came that day, which was perfect for Terry. She likes to keep attendance at the Grief Cafes at fewer than 10 people, she said. And everyone must RSVP.
“With grief conversations, less is more,” she said.
She starts every meeting by introducing herself and asking each person to tell the group why they are there.
Crying is allowed, she tells them, but not required. The same goes for laughter.
No one ever has to be embarrassed.
The problem with today’s culture, Terry said, is that grieving is practically taboo, a sign of weakness.
“Our culture does not know how to handle grief,” said Stephanie Hopkins, who drove from Gibsonton to attend the Grief Cafe at Horizon Bay. “What she’s offering to us is so life-changing, and it lets people know that it’s OK to grieve.”
Hopkins told the group she has been mending her relationship with her father after her mother’s death while also caring for her 2-year-old son, who has a rare congenital disorder.
“It’s a group of like minds,” she said about the meeting. “You can connect and help each other.”
Jane Bissler, first vice president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and a licensed clinical counselor and grief specialist, said Terry’s Grief Cafe model is similar to the Death Cafes that have gained international popularity in recent years. The difference with Death Cafes, Bissler said, is that rather than grief, participants focus on death and how to make the most out of their lives.
Because Grief Cafe has taken off so quickly, Terry is searching for people to help lead the groups throughout the Tampa Bay area. She has contacted churches, students and social workers about enrolling in her Grief Cafe training program. All she requires is they have their own grief under control so they don’t break down while leading a cafe.
The first group of people to graduate from the program is in talks to start cafes in Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
Not all of the participants come because of their grief, although most of them have experience with loss, she said.
Dawn Hudson, a life insurance agent, said her clients share stories with her about their loved ones and she wanted to learn how to comfort them.
Terry doesn’t care why people come to Grief Cafe, only that they do.
“What works is a genuine, caring presence and simple things like, ‘I hear you. I hear you, and I’m here for you. You’re not alone,’” Terry said.
That’s the philosophy behind Grief Cafe. As the program grows — she hopes to expand it nationally — Terry wants to change today’s culture from “death-denying to life-affirming.” Changing that perspective is the key to dealing with grief, she said.
“If we deny death, then life is nothing special, is it?” Terry said. “If we acknowledge that this life is temporary, then every day is precious.”
She can be reached by email at grace@grace-terry .com.