From Her Husband to Her Community
Janet Pottebaum finds joy in helping others process their grief, just as she has processed her own.
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NARRATOR: She is whimsical, yet wise. She has gray hair in a pixie cut, round black-rimmed glasses, and sweet eyes. She sits with her legs crossed on a large chair, foot fidgeting restlessly, and a smile curling across her lips.
JANET: My name is Janet Pottebaum. I am 75 years old or 75 years young. Um, I am retired, but I have have a career with, uh, new hope. I also facilitate groups with Kaiser, but I can’t compare to new hope. <laugh> um, although they’re changing, I’m influencing that. Um, what else did you want?
NARRATOR: Janet Pottebaum. She’s a facilitator at New Hope Grief Support Community, a nonprofit that focuses on offering bereavement support groups and other resources related to grief. Pottebaum also helps people as mentioned at Kaiser Permanente, and at Sunburst, a federally funded program that helps youth with loss. Pottebaum says she’s retired, but that retirement is not one of relaxation, at least not in the eyes of most. This pretty much represents her entire life though.
WENDY:Janet is, she’s a helper as well, and she always looks for what she can be doing. So even though she was director of development at Jewish family and in service, if she heard that people were having problems, she’d refer them to the agency for counseling, for emergency financial assistance. So she really took on more.
NARRATOR: Before Pottebaum retired, she worked at Jewish Family and Children’s Services as the Director of Development. Wendy Puzarne, a long-time friend of Janet’s, hired her.
WENDY: I was out to breakfast with a friend. I met Janet. This friend knew that Janet was in, had done development for another organization. So she suggested we chat. So Janet came in for an interview and Janet is very warm and engaging and she’s also very loving. And the thing that was interesting about Janet is that she asked me if she could hug me after the interview, which is not a very professional thing to do, but it was disarming.
NARRATOR: This warm and loving engagement has continued into Pottebaum and Puzarne’s friendship. Pottebaum continues to get people interested in her orgs, getting Puzarne to sponsor and attend one of New Hope’s events. It seems as though she’s shown this helping hand persona her whole life. But there was a time when that didn’t seem so clear.
JANET: My husband and died in, uh, January of 2016, six years ago, um, of ALS. So it was a struggle.
NARRATOR: Pottebaum lost her husband to ALS, a disease that weakens the muscles and impacts physical function. But, she never held her husband in a bad light, and somehow he has continued to stay with her.
JANET: What my husband gave me was compassion. That was a gift that came from all of this was compassion. Um, and I realized that through new hope and who hope gave me the opportunity to use my compassion to help others.
NARRATOR: Pottebaum’s love has withstood the test of time. But what made their love so special? It seems as though opposites attract.
RACHEL: Um, do you, how do you mean that he gave you compassion? What was he like?
JANET: What, oh, what was he like? He was my heart. He was my everything. Um, I married a cowboy. I’m a big city girl. I came from Chicago. I married the son of a rancher who grew up, you know, between his uncle’s cotton farming and his father raising cattle…. He was the kind of person that would give you the shirt off his back. If you needed it, he was just kind and gentle.
And even through the entire time with the ALS, um, I have to say he died with such dignity. He never complained.
NARRATOR: To outsiders, Pottebaum’s marriage was special, which meant the loss of her husband was one of great sadness.
WENDY: They were just a wonderful pair, great sense of humor or both of them. And his, his passing has just been a tremendous loss to Janet. And she has struggled, you know, um, with some depression, some isolation, and she got herself involved in support groups and it’s really helped her.
NARRATOR: These efforts to feel better were unique to her, but she found a way to cope, and has continued to find ways to feel connected to her loss.
WENDY: She allows herself to be sad and to isolate at times, but she also got a dog. Um, cuddles is, is her name.
WENDY: And she still talks to Harold, she has pictures of him around her home, and she will have a conversation with him, which I think is so sweet and she knows what he would say to her and that he would encourage her. And so that helps her too.
NARRATOR: Pottebaum did what could only be described as remarkable; She lost her husband, felt like she lost her purpose, allowed herself to grieve her husband, and found a new purpose.
JANET: I was, you know, given the opportunity to do something with my life, which most people when they’ve lost a spouse, um, unless they’ve got, you know, kids to take care of, et cetera, let’s say older people. Um, and I, like I said, I lost my purpose. I wasn’t having to take care of him anymore. Um, I needed to find something for myself and there it was, I’ve always volunteered all my life. I’ve always volunteered. Um, and a good portion of my life. I, I worked for nonprofits. Um, so that’s just something that’s part of me, but I needed to find a new place for me to be and succeed and feel good about myself.
NARRATOR: And she did. She found a new purpose and she did it with tenacity. Strength. Love.
RACHEL: Well, just to kinda like sum things up, of course there is no pressure, but um, like if you had to describe Janet or recommend Janet to someone who had never met her, how would you describe her?
WENDY: Um, that is a hard question…. Janet is a very loving, accepting, and I’m gonna add nonjudgmental person who is there to hear, she’s there to listen and offer comfort to those who need it. And that’s in all aspects. That’s just how she approaches her life. She is just a lover and a giver. And, um, and she’s funny and she’s cute and endearing, and I’m so lucky that she’s my friend.
NARRATOR: This is Rachel Livinal, signing out from CityHeART Media, located in Long Beach California.