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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Annandale farmhouse offers a haven to the bereaved

For people grieving over the death of a family member or friend, there’s a safe, comforting place in Annandale to share one’s feelings and begin to heal.

Haven of Northern Virginia provides free group sessions, workshops, and one-on-one counseling, all led by volunteers in a 100-year-old farmhouse on Ravensworth Road.

Haven is tucked away behind the parking lot of Hope Lutheran Church but is not affiliated with it. In fact, it’s nonsectarian and the counselors don’t talk about religion. “We’re very careful about that,” says Sharlene Aukofer, Haven’s deputy director.

The six-week group sessions take place in the spring and fall. There are separate groups for widows and widowers (the next one meets on Saturdays, 2-3:30 p.m., beginning April 12); people dealing with losses due to suicide (Wednesday evenings, beginning April 16);  and general bereavement (Tuesday evenings, beginning April 22).

In the winter and summer, Haven offers a two-hour, one-time workshop. There’s also a drop-in suicide group on Saturday mornings, and people can drop in any time without an appointment just to talk.

All the volunteersthere are about 30 of themgo through training but are not professional counselors. “We’re called ‘listeners,’ says Aukofer.

The group sessions give the bereaved an opportunity to talk about their loss, share memories, and connect with other people in a similar position, she says. Group members often continue meeting with one another informally after the six-week session is over.

Group sessions take place in the living room.

Haven was started 38 years ago by Dorothy Garrett. She’d had a tough time when her aunt was dying so she decided to create a place where people can come to talk about death and dying, says Haven volunteer and board member Joni Greene.

Garrett and a cadre of volunteers leased and fixed up a derelict, bullet-riddled building on McWhorter Place that used to house the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department and opened for business in September 1976. Garrett also established the Hospice of Northern Virginia, which later spun off and became Capital Caring.

In 1985, Haven of Northern Virginia had to find a new location. Hope Lutheran Church agreed to give an old dilapidated farmhouse on its property to Haven in exchange for fixing it up.

One might think it’s depressing to spend a lot of time talking about death, but the people who volunteer at Haven don’t see it that way. “We’re here because we want to be,” says Haven Executive Director Jill Bellaccico. “It’s rewarding when you can see people getting better.”

After all the talking, listening, and crying, “people are ready to rebuild their lives,” says Aukofer. “We see them come in with their head down and shoulders slumped, and six weeks later, you can see a smile on their face and they say, ‘I think I can make it,’” adds Greene. “We help them through the grief process, but they’re the ones doing all the work. There is no quick fix.”

Many of the volunteers have been through the grief process themselves so they feel they can help others get through it. Prospective volunteers attend an orientation session, are interviewed, and have to provide three references. “We want to make sure it’s something they really want to do,” says Greene. “It could be very intense. It’s not for everyone.”

Volunteers have to commit for the long haul, because they could be assigned to a client who needs help for six months or a year. People can continue to come for one-on-one sessions as long as they want, she says. “We never tell anyone we think they’re finished.”

If you would like to take part in an upcoming group session, participate in other Haven programs, or are interested in volunteering, contact Haven at 703-941-7000;

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