In May of 2016, C. Russell Bond of Wilmette founded a Meetup.com monthly support group for LGBT widows and widowers. The group's most recent September meeting happened to fall one day after an anniversary date with much personal significance for Bond.
On Sept. 9 of this year, Bond marked the 46th anniversary of the first time he met the late Donald G. Tabler at a long-gone Rogers Park gay bar called the Greenleaf. Sept. 9 was also the 19th anniversary of Bond and Tabler's 2004 wedding in Toronto, just a little more than a year after same-sex marriage was legalized in the Canadian province of Ontario.
But what amazed Bond about this year's anniversary date is that it also coincidentally fell on the official dedication of a Wilmette sesquicentennial landmark. To celebrate the village's 150th anniversary, Wilmette residents were invited to purchase personally inscribed sidewalk bricks along Ouilmette Way. Wilmette officially incorporated on Sept. 19, 1872, so the landmark's dedication squeaked in with just days to spare within the village's sesquicentennial year.
Bond paid upwards of $300 for an inscribed brick that commemorates the Wilmette home that he had shared with Tabler starting in 1979. So it was wonderful for Bond to have the sesquicentennial landmark's dedication land on two important anniversary dates for him and his late husband.
Bond finds it strange that even though there is a history of prostate cancer within his family, it was what ultimately claimed Tabler's life. Tabler was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000, and he lived on through multiple treatments until his death in December of 2012.
But Bond personally keeps the memory of Tabler alive via his monthly LGBT Widows and Widowers support group.
"I was always a group person," said Bond, adding that he and Tabler previously ran the social group North Suburban Gays from 1982 to 2007.
"I wish I had done more for Don before he passed away, and I started to have all these regrets," Bond said. "I thought, if I'm having these regrets, there must be others out there. So that's what finally encouraged me to start the group."
Bond's own grief counseling following Tabler's death was a mixed bag. Bond said he lucked out with individual counseling in the first year, since the assigned therapist through his insurance happened to be gay.
But it was more difficult when Bond sought out grief counseling groups. Bond remembers reaching out to a support group at an area Catholic church.
"I specified basically in the email that I lost my partner and that I was gay," Bond said. "And I never heard back from them."
He also attended a more secular grief support group run by the Cancer Wellness Center in Northbrook. But Bond often felt out of place because so many heterosexual group therapy members dwelt so much on their children and grandchildren.
"It just wasn't relevant to me," Bond said. "Don was my first gay experience, and I met him when I was 32. So, I didn't have much of a gay single life by the time I was widowed."
The first few group meetings of the LGBT Widows and Widowers were held initially in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. But it was not a comfortable fit for some attendees.
"People wanted to talk, and they didn't feel comfortable in a public setting to talk about those issuesespecially if they weren't necessarily out," Bond said. "So that's when we started meeting in people's homes."
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the support group switched to online meetings via Zoom. The shift ended up attracting many out-of-state attendees, so Bond now alternates group meetings between in-person and virtual sessions.
Frank Gassmann of Chicago has been a member of the group for more than four years. He continues to attend what he calls "a safe space to share my feelings."
"I continue to participate to help others who've experienced a more recent loss," Gassmann said. "It helps my grieving process when I provide support and guidance to others."
This year's August and September meetings for the LGBT Widows and Widowers support group explored the topic "Embracing a New Identity: Navigating Life After Loss."
"All of a sudden, you're not a couple anymore. You're that third wheel and it's very awkward with your coupled friends," Bond said. "Your whole social structure now changes and you're an individual again."
Bond occasionally runs into friends who question why he continues to run the LGBT Widows and Widowers group so many years after his husband's death. But Bond has several responses, even for those who have bluntly told him that he should just move on.
"With all of the psychology books I've read, most of them say the greatest loss you will experience is your spouse. And they will always be with you," Bond said. "Just the fact that you reminisce about your partner, it's not a morbid feeling. You're celebrating the life that you two had together."
The next meeting of the LGBT widows and widowers support group is 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15. In order to attend, participants must officially register through Meetup.com at www.meetup.com/lgbt-widows-and-widowers-support-group-meetup.