This community of deeply caring and community-minded people was hugely important to me when my husband died. I learned that while I grieve privately, I heal in community.
Grief circle member and now volunteer
Healing Circles Langley began out of our desire to give back to the community that supported Kelly and me after I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2006 and given a prognosis of only three to 12 months to live. Prognoses are notoriously unreliable. In 2014, Kelly, too, was diagnosed with stage I kidney cancer. Although his prognosis was good, we decided to dedicate the rest of our lives to helping other cancer survivors.
What we learned from our own experiences with cancer is that 1) we each have an inherent ability to influence our own healing, and 2) it is much easier to access that ability when surrounded by a supportive community. If Healing Circles Langley has a cultural equivalent of DNA, those two principles would be coiled around each other in a double helix.
Yet by the time we opened our doors in January 2015, cancer was not our only motivation. We wanted to provide a nurturing, supportive place where those impacted by illness, a life-changing condition, or grief and loss could explore and engage in their own healing.
In the last five years, Healing Circles Langley has continued to transform into a place that provides social and emotional support to anyone who asks for it—including us. Thirteen years after my diagnosis, I have no evidence of disease. Kelly, however, is now living with challenging glioblastoma, and the community we wanted to give to without strings attached is once again giving back to us.
The need for social support
None of us knows when illness will strike, a loved one will die, or pain will take over. We can’t control whether our friends move away, or when our jobs are lost. But it’s nice to know that, when tragedy, trauma, or even loneliness show up, there’s a place to go and people who care. That’s why we have Healing Circles Langley.
Recent research shows that social support can be more influential to our health than more widely known factors, such as diet, exercise, and sleep. There are four key takeaways:
- Positive social support improves your health and longevity.
- Negative social support detracts from your health and longevity.
- No social support is a health risk equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
- Social support is not equally distributed in our society.
What if the circumstances of your life mean you are diagnosed months after moving and have no social network built yet? What if the network is weakened by divorce or death? What if you never had one? Could a community of volunteers offer social support in a meaningful enough way to influence healing? That is the social experiment that underpins Healing Circle Langley.
Even in the Whidbey Island community that prides itself on its strong community bonds, this support is not always available when needed and, for many, it doesn’t exist at all. We have found that those who most frequently come through our doors are:
- Those with health issues
- People experiencing grief or loss
- People moving to the island
- Elders who have lost their friends and family networks to moving or death
- Young people trying to fit in
- Overwhelmed parents
- Singles of any age
- Sandwich generations
However, over the five years that our doors have been open, we have learned that we all need a sense of belonging, of meaning and purpose, and that we all need support from others during our experience of being human. Anyone whose social networks cannot support the multiple dimensions of grief and loss, the crisis of a new diagnosis, or the lasting impact of trauma and life crises can find solace at Healing Circles Langley. Anyone who wants to enjoy the blessings of meaningful relationships can find a second home, and those of us who come to offer support eventually need it ourselves.
What we offer
Our program has grown organically, an evolving match between the needs of the community and the gifts of our circle hosts. Together, we explore three key areas: the heart of healing, the art of wellness, and the well-being of the community.
- Healing circles unite people with something in common. We offer healing circles for those living with cancer, chronic pain, and chronic illness. We offer circles for veterans and people who are aging. There are circles based on gender and race as well as two primary grief circles. Circle of Solace supports those who have recently lost a loved one, and Re-Imagining Life After the Death of a Spouse/Partner supports those whose grief has transformed over time.
- Discovery circles are for those who like to process life’s challenges through the arts. We currently offer The Poetic Apothecary, Art Circle, Circle of Song, Navigating Grief Through Writing, and The Mystery and Magic of Writing for Self-Discovery.
- Learning circles are for those who share an interest in a topic or wish to develop a skill in wellness. Our current learning circles include Healing Into Life and Death: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully; Breathing Together as the Climate Changes; PTSD: What It Isn’t, What It Is, and What to Do About It; and Friends, Family and Dementia Awareness. Wellness activities support anyone in the community and include: Insight Meditation, four levels of Yi Ren Qigong, and Healing Sound Bath.
- Caring circles support those who care for others, including the Circle for Family Caregivers, Circle of Hosts for our volunteers, and social gatherings for the community at large.
With the help of 30 trained volunteers, we also offer private Circles of Two on both a drop-in and scheduled basis, as well as free one-on-one integrative medicine sessions.
This year, we will increase our focus on wellness and family support by partnering with the newly opened Soundview Center, a physical therapy and wellness center. Its new non-profit arm, Roots of Wellness, will be a multi-generational, creative program of Healing Circles Langley.
Benefiting the community
Healing Circles Langley has grown from two monthly circles to hosting 60 circles or events per month. During the school year, we service approximately 700 visits per month.
All of this has been accomplished without any paid staff. We raise all our own money through the generosity of local Whidbey donors. It’s a bargain. We provide 90 minutes of support and education for less than the cost of a latte per person.
Our sense of community now extends far beyond Whidbey Island. We have hosted visitors from around the world and respond to patients who learn of us through our website, regardless of location. When Dimple Parmar joined us in circle from India last spring, she said, with her infectious smile, “I can’t believe I’m here.” We couldn’t believe she was here either. The connection with Dimple has been profoundly moving to us and is a true gift of this work.
Our community members say it best:
I am so grateful to have a place to be able to openly share my feelings with others who understand what I’m going through. At Healing Circles, I have found friendship, resources, healing, and strength to keep going. Thank you! I couldn’t do this without you.
It’s a place to talk deeply about life-and-death issues. Sharing with others who are in the same situation helps me find the gifts in the changes in my life instead of only the sorrow.
This circle is the most important part of my week. We experience tears, pain, and equal parts laughter about what it is to be human. What emerges is love.
Healing Circles Langley. An amazing place that should be replicated in every city and town in this country.
We hope it will be.
You can view the calendar that describes all offerings at Healing Circles Langley here.
Header photo by Joan Soltys for the South Whidbey Record