Elder Care

Shared Knowledge Walking Groups

By John F. Tomczak

For some time I have been at a loss to explain why the Walking Group Program at Victoria Hospice has been so successful. I have been involved in this Program since 1988 and in all that time I have heard nothing but appreciation from the more than 750 bereaved folks that I have met. It has always been a mystery to me how perfect strangers can meet in a Walking Group and become friends for life in a very short time.

I had asked my friend Elmer for his understanding, or his explanation of why the Walking Group Program at Victoria Hospice has been so successful. However when you ask Elmer for an opinion you have to be prepared to wait for the answer. Finally this is what Elmer said, “walking and talking is a form of palliative care that is little understood except by the bereaved.”

The key words here are, “except by the bereaved.” and that leads to the question why do the bereaved appreciate and understand this benefit? I am fond of saying that bereaved people are best helped by bereaved people but that is an observation and does not explain why.

John Ralston Saul in his book “On Equilibrium” explains why bereaved people seem to have the ability to help perfect strangers who have in common with them the loss of a loved one.

Saul uses the analogy of the monarch butterfly to explain this phenomenon. These beautiful creatures, with a brain the size of a pin-head, winter in Mexico, summer in northern Canada and reproduce in the United States on the way. It takes three generations of the monarch to make the round trip over thousands of kilometers which means no single monarch makes the round trip. Yet they fly precisely the same thousands of kilometers year after year.

What Saul is describing is not instinct. There is no element of the intuitional choice. There is no conscious choice of risk taking. They are not making up their minds to follow the nomadic life. Nor is this a product of understanding. It is, if anything, shared knowledge. It is innate shared knowledge.

Why should it be so difficult to accept that what a butterfly can do in a non-analytic and essentially inexplicable way, a human ought to be capable of doing?

I have been involved with the Walking Groups at Victoria Hospice for 15 years. During all this time I have not understood how it is possible to meet a person who has also lost a loved one and have an almost instant rapport with them. The folks I met in 1988 mean the same to me today as they did on that first day in a parking lot at the University of Victoria.

I have no idea why I have been saying for many years that bereaved people are best helped by bereaved people. I have no idea why my friends mean so much to me. Perhaps it is as Saul points out; we all have a shared knowledge. Humans have been around for quite some time but individually humans are here only for a brief time, like the butterfly. None of us have travelled the entire journey, so to speak. Yet we all have the capability to love, we share a measure of compassion and a lot of what we know and are comes from shared knowledge.

I have no doubts about Saul’s explanation of how “shared knowledge” enables us to understand and to relate to the experiences of others. However the mystery remains to me as to why people, unless they have experienced the same trauma, are unable to empathize with the situation. Perhaps it has to do with our inbred reluctance to put ourselves in the place of our friends and their troubles. If people understood the bereaved condition we would not hear so many of those ill-advised and somewhat trite remarks the bereaved are used to hearing.

As Saul has pointed out we all have a measure of “shared knowledge” but somehow that is hard for some to accept. It seems to me the need for discussion before the fact, as it were, is great.

Copyright John F. Tomczak. All rights reserved