Let me tell you about Grief
You may have seen our logo or even heard about what we are doing in bereavement services at Wellness Hub. Whether you have or not, I wanted to share some of the back story to let everyone know where we are now. Bereavement healing is incredible and we are fortunate enough to share options for healing at Wellness Hub.
In case you don't know me, I am a clinical social worker with over 30 years' experience who at present primarily does grief work in private practice in Central Massachusetts. I practice in a beautiful suite located at 1 Main Street in the center of town and just for perspective, we are located about 1/2 hour north of Worcester, an hour east of Amherst, an hour and a half outside of Boston and several hours away from Cape Cod.
Several years ago my husband and I bought this building with our friends, and over the years we have renovated the commercial space to allow for clinical offices and a yoga studio. This has been especially helpful as it has allowed me to both open the yoga studio in March and Journeys in October of this year.
We all have our grief histories, and while I titled this "Let me Tell You..." this isn't about grief as much as it is about how our bereavement support services came to be. I consider myself someone who is grief aware or grief sensitive, coming from a family where we honored this, from my own grief experiences (starting at age 12), and my years of being a youth minister where we honored the spiritual side of grieving. My own practice became more grief oriented about 10 years ago and in the last 5 years I have been primarily grief focused. I have worked with individuals, families and group in my office, I have taught Death and Dying at a local college for several years, I have volunteered at several children bereavement programs, and I have provided consultation and training to a variety of groups including schools and other therapists. I have been working with issues of sudden loss, anticipated loss, loss of children, children's loss, sibling loss, overdose/addiction loss, suicide, and birth loss, and have worked with all ages except the very young (under 6). I have worked with people who were preparing for the death of a loved one, people at the moment when experiencing tragic unexpected loss, and together with those on many parts of the healing journey. This is rarely linear and rarely uncomplicated.
I attended the National Alliance for Grieving Children's annual symposium in San Antonio Texas this past July. I spent a lot of time with my colleagues from Comfort Zone Camps where I volunteer, and I met so many wonderful people from hospice programs, camp programs, children's bereavement programs, programs founded after the loss of a child, etc. There were resources from the funeral directors' national organization, Soaring Spirits widow supports, and a wide variety of programs across the country. There were many people there who do research on issues as well. To say I was inspired is an understatement. Long story short, I returned to Hubbardston and decided it was time to create a bereavement program for children and families using holistic supports.
Since July I have:
-identified and linked up with people who could help me in this endeavor (clinicians, business folk, financial folk)
-worked with these folks to create the program and devise a plan of action
-set up schedule including staff and use of space
-developed marketing material in print and online (FB, Instagram, website)
-began marketing - schools, funeral homes, hospice programs, doctors, colleagues
- began networking in person to places like bereavement programs (children and families), hospice programs, schools
-gathered info from already established nonprofits which also offer support groups
-reached out to birth loss providers (I was already co-leading a birth loss support group)
-attended trainings on children's grief, birth loss, and stress and the brain (neuroplasticity)
-offered a training for professionals and workshop for the holidays for the community
and at office
-set up rooms for groups to meet
-worked on signage (not completely done yet)
-obtained broader insurance coverage (esp to cover volunteers)
-found a way to pay the rent
The plan was this: offer bereavement support in the form of traditional support groups in conjunction with yoga/meditation. We decided that support groups would be developed to serve specific populations (age groups, type of loss, etc). We had long talks about whether or not to charge for these services, and came up with the model where people could sign up and be "members" of Journeys such that a nominal payment per month would cover participation in support groups PLUS unlimited participation in any of our weekly yoga and meditation classes. In our 3 month pilot program we are charging $25/mo/individual and $75/mo/family. This membership supports a more consistent and reliable relationship between clients and staff which ultimately helps with communication, with trust (since members know who attends each meeting), and allows us at Journeys to have consistent clinical leadership for groups so that complicated grief issues can be managed and not become counter therapeutic for group members. In my experience as a therapist, there is value to an exchange (in this case, of money) which serves as a contract and denotes boundaries, both helpful components in a healthy relationship. Furthermore, if clinicians provide free services, we run several risks: the risk that we are inadvertently giving the message that clients cannot be part of the healing process, and risk that we devalue grief work for everyone involved. We wanted to focus on empowerment, self reliance, and a growth mindset approach where strengths and skills are supported and encouraged. Finally, membership also creates community. Research shows that grief healing is done most effectively when done with group support, so we focused on this.
(Of note, not one person was upset about having to pay for membership and most say we aren't charging enough. Additionally, colleagues from other bereavement programs applaud this model, having experienced the struggles a free program poses (the need for grant proposal writing, having to do fundraising, etc.) and they agree on the therapeutic rationale for low cost commitment for services. We aren't sure about membership costs beyond our pilot program, but plan to revisit this in early 2019 as we move on to the next phase of program development.)
You may be asking, why yoga and meditation? An entire additional blog is needed here, but suffice it to say that stress takes a heavy toll on the body/mind/soul, particularly the brain, and in the case of bereavement, this can be life altering. Yoga and meditation are proven to help restore balance in the brain and enables deep healing to the whole person.
So in September, flyers were made and mailings went out to schools (principals, guidance/adjustment counselors, nurses), funeral homes, and hospice programs. We fully expected to be a kid and family program and originally thought our model would be that kids and middle schoolers would have group while older kids and parents would have yoga, then then next hour they would switch. Keep it on one night, facilitate things for families, etc. In October, however, we began receiving calls from adults who had lost their parents, young adults who had lost parents or significant others, and older widows. We launched our first group using the membership model for older widows and they are heading into their third month. In November we started our first kids' group and plans are in the works to start a group for adults who have lost parents and for men in recovery. The kids' group is the only one to keep with our original model of support group followed by yoga. (We haven't found a core group for the other referrals just yet but will start other support groups as enough referrals emerge.) For people who have called requesting support groups and are on the waitlist, we have offered membership for yoga/meditation classes until a group forms, and we have several people taking advantage of this.
What are we finding?
Feedback from schools, funeral homes and hospice programs has been positive and the word is getting out. Networking with other bereavement programs allows Journeys to be considered when referrals are made throughout the state so that local referrals can benefit from local support. Self reporting from members are glowing. People are enormously grateful to be within a grief safe-zone, with comments about appreciating that they are able to be most authentic and genuine, and most fully understood by others, when at Journeys. They struggle, universally, living in the world where others dismiss and forget their loss and where they often find themselves putting on a mask instead of painfully reminding others that their hearts remain broken and lives forever changed. Our favorite report came from a mom of a first grader whose dad died. This child had been experiencing great difficulty with impulsive/hyperactive behavior in school and in after school activities, and this mom has been told continuously what "bad days" this child experiences. Even on the first day of group Mom warned us that the child might not be able to sit still. Incredibly, this wasn't a problem AT ALL. This child was focused, calm, cooperative and greatly enjoyed creating grief related crafts which were continually carried with them for the week following group. Why the disparity? It's simple. Kids need to live authentically with their grief. I believe that the thought of kids grieving is so very painful for the rest of us that it is easier to think it doesn't impact them, so we don't easily acknowledge their pain. The power of being in a community where they BELONG, where they can remember their loved one is so very powerful. Adults say they feel most whole and authentic in community, so it really isn't surprising children do too.
The need is huge. According to research, in the state of MA 1 in 17 children will lose a parent or sibling by the age of 18 (and the number doubles by age 24), and the Child Bereavement Estimation Model predicts we have 78,000 children grieving in our state at this time. Yes, THOUSANDS. Estimates from 2010 for widows: more than 14 million in US, 1/4 are male, 2/3 are under the age of 65. Statistics for other losses show startling numbers, and we have a huge lack of available programs for support. Further (another thing for a future blog post), when we don't address grief, we are at risk for a number of ongoing medical and mental health problems, the list is huge and impacts people of ALL ages. Studies show that the best prognosis comes when grief begins to be addressed within 6 months of the loss.
Where do we go from here?
Our plan was to launch a 3 month pilot program to allow for proof of concept and for us to begin to see how it all works. We have learned:
-our target group will be broader than originally anticipated
-supports followed by yoga classes work but we need more time allotted (one hour each isn't long enough)
-need to build referral sources through sharing information and educating people
-need to create network for referral sources for ongoing partnership
In 2019, we will be reevaluating these and other aspects. We will be creating our organizational chart, roles and responsibilities, and create a plan for training and utilizing volunteers. We will figure out whether our program fits a non profit mold and if this is the direction we might pursue.We will begin to recruit and train volunteers. We will develop additional aspects of Journeys to include a family support program (activities etc), and share more information for nutrition etc through wellness coaching and classes. For me, I am joining the MA bereavement network, have coordinated a birth loss collaborative which will meet in January, and I plan on meeting with local doctors to share grief education and information about available resources. I will be doing MBSR training in Worcester beginning in late January, to build our knowledge base around stress reduction. I would absolutely love to lead a training and offer a supervision group for clinicians around grief issues in practice.
As you read this, what can you do?
Our goal, now that we know this program is viable and needed, is to:
-share information about the program
-find people to help
-find money to operate
Right now we would gladly accept donations, but won't know for several months if we will be non profit and can be a recipient of charitable donations for tax purposes. This blog is not a solicitation, however, if you would like to make a donation in memory of a loved one, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll tell you how.
You can also:
-help us spread the word:
-follow us on social media (FB, Instagram, and you can join MindBody from a free app
on your phone and by so doing will receive our emails and newsletters)
-share this with others
-keep us in mind if you are looking for local resources for someone who is grieving
-help us share the community using grief sensitive behavior
-ask people how they are REALLY doing and sit patiently with them as they respond
-don't be afraid of saying their loved one's name, you won't make them any sadder
than they already are, in fact you will help them feel connected and validated
-understand that loss is permanent and grief is life long, and is "normal"
Every act of kindness toward someone who is grieving truly makes a huge difference.
Finally, you can pat yourself on the back for getting to the end of this post! Thank you for your attention, it is greatly appreciated.