Haven of Northern Virginia a place of solace and comfort

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"There is sacredness in tears," American author Washington Irving once said. "They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love."

At Haven of Northern Virginia, a bereavement support organization, tears flow freely and without shame or judgment.

Haven was founded in 1976 by Dorothy Garrett, a woman inspired by the work of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.

Haven began offering its services out of the old police station in Annandale. After that building was sold in the early 1980s, Haven renovated an old farmhouse for its current location behind Hope Lutheran Church on Ravensworth Road in Annandale. The rooms are simple and comforting. Bedrooms were converted to quiet rooms, where volunteers can meet with clients in a serene atmosphere. The living room is a place for support groups to meet. In the administrative office area, volunteers answer phone calls from people experiencing a loss.

In 1985, a group of Northern Virginia builders built a home in Reston in 72 hours as a fundraiser. Haven was the recipient of $100,000 from that effort. The money was invested and was intended to fund emergency repairs. During lean times however, the fund was tapped for operational expenses.

Hope Lutheran provided the house rent-free for seven years on the condition that Haven performed all renovations. Even now, rent is $1 a year, with Haven responsible for all maintenance.

Haven operates with an all-volunteer staff of about 45. The budget is around $20,000 annually, and all revenue is provided by tax-deductible contributions.

Many of the volunteers have served for 25 years or more. Every volunteer must attend 30 hours of training and agree to perform two-and-a-half hours of telephone support for one year, as well as attend ongoing presentations on all aspects of death and dying.

Although Haven is nonsectarian, Arlington diocesan parishes like Holy Spirit in Annandale, St. Mary of Sorrows in Fairfax, Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria and St. Mark in Vienna provide generous support.

People volunteer at Haven for many reasons. They may have used the service because of the death of a loved one and wanted to give something back. Some come because they want to do something meaningful.

One veteran of Haven is Joni Greene, a parishioner of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, who's served as a volunteer or board member for 26 years. She was drawn to the group after her boss committed suicide.

"I wanted to help people talk about their grief and not be (silenced)," said Greene. "Maybe I can help people."

The death of her mother in 1967, and the way people told her, "you're strong, you'll get over it," pushed her to keep her grief to herself, channeling it by keeping a journal.

Christmas can be difficult for people experiencing the grief that follows the death of a loved one. But Greene said that the toughest time is after the holidays in January when the Christmas lights are down and people have a chance to reflect.

"They try to hold it together during the holidays," said Greene.

Greene said that often people don't even acknowledge the death of a loved one to the bereaved during Christmas.

"They don't want to spoil the holiday," she said.

But that often deepens the sense of loneliness.

Greene said there are three things that Haven volunteers do for their clients.

"We listen, we give suggestions and we give encouragement," she said.

Another longtime volunteer and board member with 20 years of service is Sharlene Aukofer, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church. She and her husband, Frank, have been active, she as a volunteer and board member, he as a board member.

There was no death of a loved one that pushed her to volunteer at Haven.

Sharlene has called the work done by Haven volunteers a calling. She said that you see people at their most vulnerable, and that admitting you need help to cope with grief takes courage.

"It's a hard door to walk through," said Sharlene pointing to the front door.

She said the work is rewarding.

Many people who call are hurting deeply and want to end their lives. Sharlene and all volunteers are trained to call the authorities when a person threatens themselves. There have been only two such callers, and both were kept on the line while 911 was called.

At a year and a half, Kathleen Sebek, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Reston, is one of the newer volunteers. There was no recent loss that brought her to Haven, but the death of a friend after a long illness in 1980 changed the direction of her life.

"I knew that loss was a part of the fabric of life and we live in a culture that does not allow mourning and grief," she said.

She came to Haven after retiring.

"I know I can't fix anything, but I can listen," she said.

Inside the pleasant white house in Annandale, tears are shed, but there is always someone there to help wipe them away and to listen.

Borowski can be reached at dborowski@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

To donate

To make a tax-deductible donation to Haven of Northern Virginia go to havenofnova.org/donation.html.

For help coping with a loss or to volunteer

Call 703/941-7000 or e-mail havenofnova@verizon.net.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016