by Cynthia McCormick. This article originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times.
When Cape snowbird Marie Seufert tells people in her Florida retirement community that she’s a widow, they sometimes ask when her husband died.
“I say, ’No, it was my wife,” said Seufert, 71, who lost Mary Sidlevicz, her spouse of nearly nine years, on Jan. 5, 2017.
“There were people in Florida who kept referring to her as my ‘friend.’ I kept correcting them. It was my No. 1 relationship,” Seufert said.
“I have to come out to people whether I want to or not. I’d rather just play golf,” Seufert said during a phone interview.
Support Group “A Relief”
Seufert said it was a relief when she found a bereavement support group that catered to the LGBT community when she returned to the Cape in May 2017 for Sidlevicz’s memorial service.
During the group that met at the Orleans Council on Aging, Seufert reveled in the fact she didn’t have to explain herself or her relationship or worry about a lack of support from group members who had been in opposite-sex relationships.
“We were a couple. We held hands. We sat close together. We acted like married people who like each other,” Seufert said.
She attended a second LGBT bereavement group held at the Barnstable Adult Community Center for eight weeks starting in May 2019, and hopes to attend a new group at the same location in Hyannis that is scheduled for April.
“I would like to see an ongoing group, to be honest,” said Seufert, who said she suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms after Sidlevicz passed away unexpectedly during a cardiac catheterization procedure just three months after the women moved to Lakeland, Fla.
Standing grief support groups have been a feature of senior centers and hospice programs for decades. They are especially popular on the Cape, where the number of people 65 and older — 30.6% — tops every other county in the state.
But groups specifically geared to the LGBT community are a more recent phenomenon even in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage was legalized in 2004.
The Fenway Institute in Boston, which provided funding for the programs in Orleans and Hyannis, started running LGBT bereavement groups a little over 10 years ago, said Bob Linscott, assistant director of the LGBT Aging Project in Boston.
“There was an elderly gentleman whose long-term partner had just passed away and he was really crippled by the grief,” Linscott said.
A social worker trying to find a bereavement support group that would accept a gay man could find only one that would permit him to join, and that was with the provision “he doesn’t talk about the nature of his relationship,” Linscott said.
“To deal with that kind of discrimination at such a low point is not OK,” Linscott.
Four Massachusetts LGBT Grief Support Groups
Using a grant from the state Department of Public Health, the Fenway Institute funds four LGBT grief support groups annually, rotating locations within the state, but maintaining one in Boston, Linscott said. Fenway is underwriting the cost of the group meeting in Hyannis in April, he said.
The bereavement groups have been a great source of consolation and strength for Seufert, who said she also relies on meditation and support from friends both gay and straight in working through her grief.
Together for nearly 20 years and married by the Yarmouth town clerk in their King’s Way townhouse in 2008, Seufert and Sidlevicz enjoyed golfing, traveling and watching medical shows on TV.
With her angular build and outgoing personality, Sidlevicz — a retired postal employee — filled a room with her presence, Seufert said. “Mary was Mary. Everyone knew Mary. She was very lovable,” Seufert said.
The couple planned to use Florida as a base for cruise ship journeys in retirement and had just added a lanai to their manufactured home in Lakeland when Sidlevicz died.
“I understood I was reacting strangely to things,” said Seufert, a retired loan originator for a bank.
“I didn’t really understand trauma at the time and what happened to me. I didn’t understand how badly I’d be affected by the trauma of her death,” Seufert said.
Seufert said she started to jump and startle at even the most benign sounds, such as the knock on her door by a neighbor in Florida checking on her well-being.
Her blood pressure shot up 60 points at the doctor’s office, and she found she couldn’t bear to watch her favorite show, “Call the Midwife,” anymore.
In unanticipated ways, Seufert found herself reliving the rejection and fear she had experienced earlier in life as a lesbian whose coming-of-age years were clouded by intolerance.
“All the other losses in your life just come flooding in,” Seufert said.
It wasn’t until 1973 — when Seufert was in her 20s — that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of mental disorders.
“You could lose your housing. You could lose your job,” Seufert said. She had to keep the nature of her first long-term, serious romantic relationship in the 1990s a secret.
“When we split, it wasn’t like it was important,” Seufert said.
“I lost friends during the AIDS epidemic, too. You remember how little people cared,” Seufert said.
A Difference for 50-Plus LGBT Seniors
“Sharing grief diminishes it, but people weren’t able to talk about it back then,” said Diane McCarthy, of Bourne, who facilitated the LGBT bereavement group held at the Barnstable Adult Community Center last spring.
While some grief support groups limit membership to people who have suffered fairly recent losses, people were invited to attend Barntable’s LGBT grief support group even if their losses went back decades, said McCarthy, who has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate in thanatology.
“People say a bereavement group is the same,” said Bob Isadore of Yarmouth, who helped start the LGBT Project at the Yarmouth Senior Center as well as hospice and other programs for gay couples.
“Yeah, it basically is. But there’s a 20% difference for the gay community,” Isadore said.
“There’s just something so different in the gay community among the 50-plus generation who lived through the AIDS crisis,” said Shane Bierma, a clinical psychologist at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine, who studies intimacy in gay relationships.
“I do think it’s post-traumatic stress. It’s complex, layered grief,” Bierma said. Abandonment and rejection from families and society formed “its own grief and loss,” she said.
Some of her clients “almost disassociate,” Bierma said. “They think, ‘Well, I’ve lived through that, so I can live through anything.’”
But buried grief has a way of popping up in depression, gastrointestinal troubles and blood pressure issues, which can also severely compromise the medical conditions of people living with HIV, Bierma said.
“It takes a lot of strength to enter therapy,” Bierma said. “But there’s nothing better you can do for yourself. A therapist won’t shy away, won’t get triggered like friends and family.”
LGBT Elders of Color
For Paul Glass, 70, of East Falmouth, president of the Boston-based LGBT Elders of Color, emotionally surviving the loss of two partners during the AIDS epidemic took a monumental amount of inner work.
“I lived with the illnesses, and I was a caretaker back then. You’d be waking up in the middle of the night because they’re convulsing. Add to that grief the fact you are not legally married. It’s humiliating. It’s debilitating. It’s stressful,” Glass said.
“It took me 10 years to get over losing my last partner,” Glass said.
Witnessing the attack on the World Trade Center from a block away on 9/11 escalated the trauma, said Glass, who said he worked for Verizon in Manhattan.
“It was a difficult time,” Glass said. “It comes back whenever you hear about a death. It never really goes away. It gets easier.”
Therapy has helped immensely, as did moving to the Cape and marrying his longtime love, Charles D. Evans, on July 21, 2012.
“I decided the third time was the charm,” Glass said.
Married in the backyard of their East Falmouth home, Glass and Evans were surrounded by a gazebo, pots of flowers and 200 people.
“It was quite an event,” Glass said.
In addition to the support groups, Seufert said she draws strength from a woman she helped raise and considers a daughter, a friend from King’s Way in Yarmouth Port who lost her husband 15 years ago, and friends she and Sidlevicz made at the monthly LGBT senior group in Orleans.
The LGBT seniors called and sent cards, said Seufert, who plans to sell her house in Florida and return to the Cape full time.
“They were wonderful. I’m so close to those people,” Seufert said.
“Grief is called a hidden epidemic,” she said. “Among the LGBT community, it’s hidden and buried and locked.”
Cynthia McCormick wrote this article for the Cape Cod Times with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.