Podcast #140 What Do Grief Groups Offer? with Jennifer Flaum

The HeartLight Center in Denver, CO is a nonprofit grief center offering in-person and online support to those who are grieving or supporting grievers. Executive Director Jenn Flaum talks with me about how they strive to “adapt, connect, and create what’s meaningful” for all those who come through the door. What are the different things that grievers need? What does a grief group look like? How is “peer-based support” different? When you need support, why choose a group versus individual counseling?

The HeartLight Center in Denver, CO is a nonprofit grief center offering in-person and online support to those who are grieving or supporting grievers. Executive Director Jenn Flaum talks with me about how they strive to “adapt, connect, and create what’s meaningful” for all those who come through the door. What are the different things that grievers need? What does a grief group look like? How is “peer-based support” different? When you need support, why choose a group versus individual counseling?





Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hullet and welcome to the Best Life, Best Death podcast. Today I’ve got a guest who’s a local here in Denver near me, and it’s Jennifer Flom of the Heartlight Center. Welcome Jennifer. Hi Diane. Thank you. I’m excited about this because I first heard about the Heartlight Center maybe two years ago and the work you do for families around grief and loss is, is just palpable in our community.

So I was thinking. You know, let’s just start off. Tell us sort of intertwined. What’s the purpose of the Heartlight Center and how did you get involved in this work? And you’re now the executive director. 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah, happy to. I’m so grateful to be here. So Heartlight Center was actually founded in 2001. We are a nonprofit and our mission is to provide meaningful, accessible grief support and education.

And what we recognize with that is that Meaningful and accessible means something different to really everybody but also to individuals at different points in time. So we really serve two different populations people who have experienced a loss, but we also serve people, professional and volunteer caregivers who are supporting those that have experienced a loss.

 And then the way that we do that is through really community connection programming and resources. So the way that I got involved is actually very, I would say, synchronistic to how I will describe Heartlight. HeartLight is really based on organic relationships and connection. And I was in the field of hospice and palliative care.

I was a social worker and then in a role of a hospice administrator and built a tremendous relationship with people at HeartLight Center through that work as a professional and working with families and people who were near death and their grief experiences. For And it was through those relationships that a friendship was formed with the, the founder Jennifer.

And then when she was able to retire, I was able to step in as the executive director. So it’s been just a remarkable journey again, based on relationship and connection. And now we’re able to offer lots of variety of different programs. So we have virtual and in person programming here in Denver.

And then we just we’re blessed to be able to offer in person programming on the Western slope in Colorado in an Albuquerque, New Mexico. So working with communities to identify what the needs are with individuals to identify what would be most helpful for them and then adapting programs specific to those needs.

Diane Hullet: Wow, I mean, that’s you’ve just said a mouthful, right? Because I did a lot. I almost want to back up to this accessible and meaningful, because I think is at the crux of programs like yours, right? Are any questions. community that’s trying to offer programs to support people who are grieving or anticipating grieving or caregiving, they’ve got to be accessible and they’ve got meaningful.

How does Heartlight Center sort of flesh out those two access points? point. So those two words. 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah. So when we look at meaningful initially we started our programming again years ago really focused on grief support groups and that can be really, really meaningful to some people. But sometimes when we’re grieving, it doesn’t help us to externally process, or maybe we’re more private and want to keep information or our stories to ourselves.

Maybe we are able to drive to a certain location. So in order to really look at what’s meaningful to me at this point in time might be, might not be meaningful to you at that point in time. So we, we backed up and we said, what are the first things that people generally really struggle with or could use resources for?

And really the first thing right after we lose somebody is that immediate shock and. While we’re in that same stage of, gosh, we’re experiencing this shock, maybe numbness. What is our world now looking like? We still have to function and in our collective society is saying, okay, but your bills are still do Oh, and by the way, you may or may not need to sell your house.

You have to figure out how to close an estate. You have to figure out how to close a Facebook account, all of those logistics that we weren’t anticipating. And now we also have to do, while we’re experiencing the emotion and our life is kind of needing to be reorganized. So, what we’ve said there is we offer a program and a seminar called First Steps.

which walks people through how to navigate the logistics after a loss. And what, what we do, that’s virtual, so people can log in there are other people on the call that can help share this is what worked for me. We can also just answer frequently asked questions and then connect people to resources that could be helpful.

Some a lot of times we see people really struggle through that initial period and Most people are able to figure it out, but it doesn’t have to be that hard so getting kind of those tips and tricks, in that that program again is donation based so it’s no cost People can log on to that seminar Donate as they are able to and get answers to those frequently asked questions So that’s the first real meaningful thing.


Diane Hullet: because as you backed up and took a look at it, you realized that was a need that wasn’t being filled. That there’s so much to do. It’s so daunting. It’s confusing. And it’s, we haven’t had to know it in our lives until we have to know it. And then all of a sudden there it is, Oh, I need to know all this stuff.

And how do I get support to do that? And I’m in shock and numb. So that’s really interesting that logistics actually plays an important role. Yes. 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah. And, and we all grieve, we all grieve in our own unique way. Some of us are more intuitive grievers. So, you know, we really feel everything and express things with our hearts.

Others are more instrumental grievers. So I feel better when I have something to do. And in first steps is really designed really for both for those instrumental grievers, like, I mean, if you think of a family system or friends that you know, really anybody in your community can start to say, Oh, yeah, that’s the person when something happens, they go into do mode.

This is the person that goes into let’s process and talk about our feelings mode. Like, and we all typically have a combination of both. But again, going back to the word meaningful, what our program, you know, we do have different programs to meet the needs for really, we hope anybody, if they’re reaching out to us, we’ll find something meaningful to them.

So we. Moving on from First Steps we also have support groups we have open support groups where people can come every month it’s a different group of people each time, but people are invited no matter where they are in their grieving process or how long their loss occurred, you know, how long ago, they’re welcome at any point in time to come and join those groups.

We have closed groups which are more curriculum based and they’re four to six weeks. So those groups, they’re the same people each time and, and have more of a curriculum. So it’s less organic, but we can, we have tasks each week that we want to talk about or topics. So those are two other programs.

Then we have we call it Heartlight Workshops. And those are on various topics. So we have coming up. We’ve got a music workshop. So using music to work through our group. We’ve offered yoga workshops. We offer a singing bowls event where people can come and explore. Yeah. How to process through sound.

 So we have a variety of different workshops on various topics. So again, no matter who you are or what phase you’re in, in that grief process you’re hopefully we’ll find something that’s meaningful to you. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah, and then the accessibility piece you’ve made some of them virtual, some of them in person.

So there’s just a range of ways to plug in. I love that heartlight center has kind of evolved based on what you see people need. Right? So not so much a top down. This is what we offer, but more. What are people asking for? What would be meaningful at different stages and to different types of people?

Absolutely. Is this an unusual model or do other kind of grief oriented centers take on this kind of approach as well, as far as you know? 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah, so it really depends. And I think, you know, at Heartlight, what you’ll, you, we aren’t prescriptive. And we’re really based on community and peer based support.

So that is a little bit different than, than some other places. And our programs are very unique. So even some of the other peer based or community grief centers, typically they’ll have a little bit more structure in terms of their programming. So I think what’s unique about Heartlight, I’ll give an example.

We offered, we had several people reach out and say, gosh, can we, we need to start a loss to suicide support group specific to people who have lost somebody to, to suicide. And Heartlight said, okay, as soon as we have three people that are willing and able to, to come to that group, we’re happy to find a facilitator We will start that group.

So that group started on average, we had about 12 to 14 people that came every month. And then, at, at one point, some members of the group said, gosh, it might be really nice if we had a group that focused on transforming after the loss of a suicide. So, kind of after that first initial year really asking those questions of who am I now?

What, what do I do? Sense of identity. But being in the same room can be difficult to hear those initial. Stories that people are still sharing. So how do we combine and still support people where they are? And, and we listened. And so we were able to then start a group specific to those that you know, we’re a little further away from their initial loss in terms of time.

 And so started that new group and that’s really, our programs are very organic people come to us and want to offer something and So we can create and maintain that space really depending on who’s involved at the time. So love to get feedback from people and say, gosh, we, we would love to do this.

 Or, or more of this and so that we can adapt what we’re offering. And, and our offerings vary from state to state and location to location. It’s really important to us, and I think we can do a better job of this in all of our communities to not duplicate services. We don’t need to compete with existing programs.

And so, really learning about what is available, how do we come together, and learn about what every other organization or individual is offering. So that we can be use, use our resources the best way possible and not confuse people who are looking for things and say, gosh, but there’s five different groups in the same area.

You know, what do I do? 

Diane Hullet: Right, right. That does, that does bring up a big question. I love that your words are like adapt and connect, right? And really create what’s meaningful for people. This is a broader question, but. You know, for listeners who aren’t in the Colorado area or New Mexico, where you’re now offering things.

How do people even begin to sort out which groups make sense for them? What do you suggest that people do? 

Jennifer Flaum: Yes. So we all enter this space. And again, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, especially if we haven’t experienced a loss before. And we can be surprised if we have experienced a loss before because our reactions, And what comes up for us at each time can vary no matter what.

So always like to, to recommend to people, you know, and I think we organically usually find who are our support people in that friends, relatives, our church community. Having a couple people that we know that we can really lean on and that we feel safe with. So, that can, that’s, you know, usually the start.

And then sometimes we are surprised by how different people in our lives do or don’t show up for us. When we’re, when we’ve experienced a transition that grief really forces us to move into. And, so when we really are looking for, Gosh, I. When we’re, we ask ourselves, I wish somebody just got it. That’s when it can be really nice to find a grief group in your community.

 Because what we see when people come to peer based groups is we walk in as strangers, but we’ve shared this deep, common experience. And because we enter that space with a shared experience or a shared loss, it’s There are, even though we’re strangers, sometimes all we have to do is exchange a look from across the room, and we hear people all the time say, you get it.

I don’t have to explain myself here. So if we feel more isolated, or if we feel like people in our initial circle aren’t really getting it, then we’re Or you feel alone, that’s when I recommend, gosh, it might be a great place for you to go find a group in a peer based group, so you can really be in a space where you don’t have to explain everything feel like you have to justify what you’re feeling, immediately people understand.

And then, if grief is really impacting our day to day life, and our functioning or if we have experienced something that feels traumatic, or would like some more individual support, that’s when I recommend that people, Seek out a professional therapist or counselor. That’s 

Diane Hullet: really important. I love the way you’ve distinguished those two or differentiated those two.

That makes a lot of sense to me. So there’s time for a group. There’s a time for individual support. I think that what people found and it got so exacerbated by the pandemic is this isolation piece. So many people feel isolated and especially grief is an incredibly isolating experience. Mm hmm. 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah, and we as people are meant to live in community, and we are meant to be around each other.

And there is, again, time to retreat and do really introspective work. And Grief It invites us to do that, and invites us to look inward, and ask big existential questions. And sometimes questions that can feel overwhelming. We talk a lot in group about identity. Who am I now that I have lost a child or that I’m no longer a couple with my spouse or have experienced this transformative moment in time.

And what does this look like as I move forward? So it invites us to ask those questions that really we, only we as individuals can answer for ourselves. But to find space and people to explore those questions with can help relieve that isolation and can help us really look deeper into who we are and what our, our experiences mean to us personally.


Diane Hullet: Yeah. I sometimes think about how really, really we’re all walking around with grief, whether it’s named or not named, whether it’s kind of slow and chronic or a recent something that happened or something that happened when we were younger. And, and so it’s there it’s present for everyone. And yet we rarely talk about it.

And so I think this, there’s such a place for more conversation, connection, acceptance, willingness to get help around it, willingness to see that not speaking of it can really lead us into some difficult, depressed places. And where’s, you know, where’s our village? I keep loving this word village lately.

Yeah. There’s a book that I love called The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. This is by a man named Francis Weller. And Francis Weller, I’m not going to name all of them, but he talks about these five gates of grief, kind of in this really big picture way as humans, like what do we grieve?

And one of them that he names that I think is so interesting is he, He names that as humans, we were really meant to be born into connection and community and a village. I mean, if you look at the history of humans, that’s what it was all about folks. Right. And, and he says that we have a modern grief that we didn’t get born into our village, most of us, many of us.

And so. There’s something about current, secular, modern, dominant, western culture, I’ll call it, that doesn’t necessarily have an automatic village that we’re born into and held by. So I think it’s sort of up to us to find that and create that. And then, in these times of loss and grief that are more specific and personal, We’ve got that village to lean into.

So I think about that. I think how am I creating a village in my life or how am I supporting those I love in creating a village that will come around us and support us when we go through these big places and a place like the Heartlight Center is just that. It can be part of that village of support.

You know, one of your newsletters recently just made me just. I just cried. I just thought it was such a beautiful story. Do you want to describe some of those stories that come up in the newsletter? 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah, I’d love to, you know, and we talk about village, what you said about villages really resonates too, because when we think about villages, I think oftentimes we think about numbers of people and things that we’re doing with them.

 You know, so, oh, I went to a movie with seven girlfriends and wasn’t that wonderful, or I went to a restaurant and it was filled and crowded and there were all these people and grief really invites us. Yeah. To create and find villages that have deeper meaning. And I think one of the things we, you know, we think about when we think about So many times talk about it’s like, Oh, grief is sadness and shock and anger and denial.

And then all of a sudden you accept it and you feel better. But really thinking about grief on a, on a, let’s say different level to really talk about, I’ve received this invitation to find depth and meaning and answer some of these bigger questions. And that then can bring about. All of these other feelings and questions, but finding our village can also look like in community can look like, gosh, who can I connect deeply with?

And who can I really be? Who can really be present with me and comfortable in that space and silence where we might not have answers and we might not feel better. And we might also laugh. So really just being present and authentic in that space. One of the, and we’ll see that in groups all the time.

I, people are sometimes surprised. They’ll come to group and they’ll say like. Gosh, I thought it was just going to be sad and I’ll often call people if they’ve never been to group before and say, you might be surprised when you come in that people are giving each other hugs. They’re talking about bowling.

They’re laughing. And then we move very organically into a deeper conversation that might, might bring about sadness or other feelings. So it doesn’t have to be. Just one, one way or one feeling or emotion. So one of our you’d asked about our letters and in one way that people can find meaning when we talk again about meaningful is by sharing their story in a way that can help somebody else.

When we’ve experienced something so profound or transformative to us, a lot of times we look as people to find meaning in, in what happened and what our experience. And one way to find that meaning is to give back to somebody else. So we at Heartlight, we offer a program called Heart to Heart. where people can write and share about their story in whatever way that looks.

So we’ve had people submit haiku poems. We’ve had people submit letters to somebody else. We’ve had professionals talk about their personal experience of grief when they’ve lost somebody and working with families alongside that process. So it’s really from one person to another, my heart to yours, anybody can submit those letters.

And we’ve gotten just some Profoundly moving and beautiful expressions that people can share. And then if we are in a space of grief I invite people to visit those heart to hearts. They’re all on our website. So again, especially like in the middle of the night, we can’t sleep. What do we do? I, that can be a really lonely and isolating time.

 So I say, you know, let’s be intentional about what we’re looking at. And what messages we’re inviting into that space when we are feeling lonely. And these are all messages of, of hope and personal stories. They aren’t clinical they don’t have jargon. They’re just from one person to another.

So invite people to explore those and submit them because they will help somebody else. 

Diane Hullet: Beautiful. And then you use those sometimes in the newsletter, which must be how, how that story landed in my inbox. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Beautiful. And, and, and just to say a bit about that story that moved me. So it was about a man whose wife died very suddenly.

And it’s a sudden impactful death for him. And he went out on a walk and came back and his wife was gone and it was such a shock. And it, he writes just beautifully about how disorienting it was and how isolating it was and how depressing it was. And eventually he made his way to a group and eventually within that group, he connected with people.

And eventually he connected with a particular who had also lost a spouse. Very suddenly, very dramatic. And so they could talk about that experience and really connect in the deepest possible way over what had been a tragedy for both of them. Long beloved relationships. And eventually the two of them dated and eventually they knew that this was the next step for them.

So it was just this incredible arc from a long marriage to loss. To remarriage, and he wrote about it in such a beautiful way. So that’s the kind of story that you might find on that heart to heart section of the heart lights or website. Yeah. 

Jennifer Flaum: And they, you know, I would add to that their personal story is they really went through their own individual growth experiences around their loss, both of them have shared that they feel like coming to those groups, I.

I hear more often than not I feel like heartlight saved my life and it wasn’t heartlight that saved somebody’s life or that walked somebody through something. It wasn’t the organization. It’s the people within and really our, our role is let’s open the space. Let’s provide the space because what you see in these groups are that it’s the people that come to group and the community that’s formed.

That’s what makes the difference. So, it’s, it’s a very unique place. 

Diane Hullet: Say a little about like, I, I know that people sometimes say, Oh, I’m not a group person. I would never feel comfortable sharing like that. You know, for people who are listening, who haven’t attended some kind of group like this before, what would they expect?

What would they find when they walked in the room? 

Jennifer Flaum: Yeah. So I think at first it’s kind of nice to open that up with like logistics what does a grief support group look like? And the first thing that, that people will find when they come to Heartlight, Heartlight also hosts. groups out in the community as well.

We’ve had some in libraries. We host groups in funeral homes different places. Typically you’d walk in and see other people that are in that same space. Chairs are usually in a circle, sometimes with tables. Some groups prefer that. And then, as people arrive, they’re greeted. I think one of the things, again, that can be surprising initially when you walk through the door is people are, are greeting people in very kind ways.

 It can be really scary, especially the first time. We usually have somebody at the door to watch the parking lot. Because we’ve heard so many stories of I came, I sat in my car, I couldn’t get out. But what you will find is that there’s nobody in that space that doesn’t get that. And so everybody really joins that conversation and those moments with grace and compassion.

And again, there’s just this unspoken, I get it. I get it, and I’ve got you as people enter that space. And then for, for any of our groups we have people who come who’ve experienced their loss 10 days ago. We have people that come that have experienced their loss years ago. So people are in various points in time.

And initially sometimes people say, gosh, that, how does that work? And my response is, it works absolutely beautifully because the people who are, Just starting to navigate what life is with this loss can look to and hear from people that have been there. And then we share organically really. What are, what are some ways that have been helpful?

And one of the most powerful things is that we, we enter as strangers and then people leave having this connection that almost on a spiritual or soulful level. Sometimes that means that they go bowling and out to dinner. Other times it means that we just leave with a sense of peace. And a sense of community, even if we don’t, you know, go somewhere or do anything afterwards, it doesn’t mean you have to find new friends.

 But, but there’s nothing like the gift of feeling seen and heard and understood. And that’s what happens in those groups. So we intergroup, we everybody’s invited to introduce themselves and just say who they’ve lost. And then people are invited to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable. 

Sometimes it can feel really good to listen. Other times it can feel good to share. And there’s no pressure to do to share or talk about anything that you don’t want to. We have a lot of people that come and just listen. 

Diane Hullet: And who are the folks who are facilitating? 

Jennifer Flaum: So at Heartlight, our facilitators are peer based facilitators.

They, we everybody applies and then we have background checks and then people go through a facilitator training. Really, the role of the facilitator is to hold space and then find commonalities and then maybe share some education as people have questions, but really, it is to kind of hold and hold that space for everybody else.

That’s in the room. So our facilitators, some of them are, are, you know, trained in grief and loss in terms of professionally trained. So therapists and counselors, others are people who have been to group and then want to give back. And so our facilitators of a group, and then others are people that have just been in the field and are, are willing and able to share their experience and expertise and hold space.

Diane Hullet: Beautiful. Wow. I, I’m just, I’m so struck. I love having this kind of high level conversation, not even so much about grief itself, although a little bit of that, but just how to get support, how to find support around grief and loss. And you know, that there are centers like this, there are places like this, there are individual therapists, and then there are also places that are holding groups in these really profound ways.

And I, my experience is if you haven’t, Tried a group the the sense of being seen and the sense of somebody getting it Is, is just unlike any other. It’s a little hard to describe because you think, well, I don’t want to go lay my whole story in front of a bunch of strangers. Like, why in the world would I do that?

But these are strangers who will get your story and strangers who are holding the space and making a container. Which will transform the grief in a way over time that just being alone with it or being with people who don’t quite get it simply won’t move it in the same way. It doesn’t hold it in the same way.

Jennifer Flaum: And I usually encourage people. Especially if they, especially people that say, I want a group, like this is something that’s important to me. Not every group is for everybody. And, and good news. A lot of groups look different. So depending on who’s in the space at the time, who the facilitator is, what location you’re in all of those things can create these variables.

So I encourage people if they’re interested in this, if you go to group and it doesn’t seem like a fit, Find another one. Try three times because you never again, there’s so many variables. Every each week in each month and who’s there in that space and time. The other piece too, is that some people initially think I don’t know.

You know, I’d like to go to a more Christian based group, or I’d like to go to a more mindfulness type of group. So, there are those groups as well, and there are organizations that offer those. So, at Heartlight, our groups are non denominational. But in religion and spirituality come up as topics, but they aren’t at the base of those groups.

But if that’s really important for somebody we will help find them and connect them to what’s most meaningful to them. So if you start in one place and it doesn’t feel right, but it’s still something you’re interested in, I encourage people to try again. 

Diane Hullet: Beautiful, beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Jennifer.

I was thinking maybe I would close by reading a poem. Wonderful. 

Jennifer Flaum: How does that sound? This sounds like how we end groups. Ah, 

Diane Hullet: I love it. If I can find it quickly here. This is a poem from The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, this book I mentioned by Francis Weller, and he writes, There’s a poem from the 12th century that beautifully articulates this lasting truth about the risks we take when we choose to love, and it’s called For Those Who Have Died.

It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch, to love, to hope, to dream, and oh, to lose. A thing for fools, this love, but a holy thing, to love what death can touch. For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was a gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy, tis a human thing, love, a holy thing, to love what death can touch.

Love and grief two sides of the same coin. Yeah. Well, how can folks find out more about the Heartlight Center? 

Jennifer Flaum: So We invite them to visit our website and that is www. heartlightcenter. org They can also give us a call at seven two zero seven four eight nine nine zero eight and then there’s contact information on the website.

They can send an email. We recognize the courage that it takes to reach out if you are grieving or if you’re supporting somebody who is. And so if we don’t have what people are looking for, we will do everything we can to find them the place or the group in their community that would be most helpful.

So we welcome people to sign up for our newsletter, to email us, to call and we will be as best support as we can. 

Diane Hullet: Beautiful. Thank you so much. I appreciate all the work you’re doing in the world and what, what fun to steer that ship, you know, to guide and support this meaningful, accessible grief work for people.

Jennifer Flaum: Thank you. I tell people every day if they’re questioning. If there’s good in the world, they can come work with me just for a day. ’cause I see the good in people every single day. It’s 

Diane Hullet: beautiful. Oh, that’s lovely. Well, thanks so much and you can always find out about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com.

Thanks for listening.

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.