With so many choices regarding how we spend our time being of service to others... why would anyone choose to work with people who are grieving? I set about posing that question to both professionals and volunteers. The results warmed my heart, and I hope you will be touched by reading these poignant accounts of what motivates such a deep level of human compassion.
Honoring His Memory
In the early 1990s, Rachel Kodonaz had a successful career in information technology and was bound and determined to break the glass ceiling of corporate America. But her priorities changed dramatically the day her husband walked out of his office, collapsed in the parking lot, and died suddenly of a heart arrhythmia. Rachel's world and her worldview changed in an instant. Returning to work as a young widow in her 20s, and mother of a 2-year-old daughter, Rachel was bewildered by her co-workers' reactions. "They didn't know how to handle me, what to do or say. My grief was the big elephant in the room."
Rachel soon made the decision to leave her job in corporate America and instead focus her efforts on breaking the glass ceiling of grief. She set herself a goal of increasing business' awareness and understanding of what employees need when they are grieving. "Companies think they are in great shape because they have a bereavement policy," bemoans Rachel. "But they need more than a few days off." In the 20 years since her husband died, Rachel has written the book Living with Loss One Day at a Time and founded The HeartLight Center in Denver, Colorado.
Rachel finds tremendous satisfaction in her work as a way of honoring her deceased husband. "I have the satisfaction that I am changing lives as I watch others grow through my experience."
A Sacred Trust
"No one just wakes up and says 'I think I want to be a grief therapist,'" observes Pat Regan, LCSW, grief therapist in Santa Monica, California who was a provider of bereavement services to a Los Angeles hospital for many years. "What I have discovered is that this field is rich in human connection. There is a resonance to it."
Regan describes what she calls "Planet Grief" as a place all its own. "People get blasted up there when the ground is pulled out from under them. Grief has a way of overwhelming our usual coping strategies. People wonder if they will ever feel better. I tell them, 'Yes, in your own way and time the pain will lessen. The waves will not hit as hard or take you down as long. One day you will begin to notice you are feeling better.'"
In the meantime, Pat reassures grievers that they are not alone as she compassionately accompanies them along their journey. "I don't tell them 'I know how you feel' because you can't really know how someone else feels. You know how you felt when this happened to you... but you don't know how they feel."
Pat sees herself continuing to do this fulfilling work because: "When someone shares their grief with you, it is a sacred trust. You hold the hope that they will heal while they are healing. It is a privilege to have this connection with another human being."
Being of Service
Each April, National Volunteer Appreciation Week is a time to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of volunteers throughout the country. Men and women who lead grief support groups shared with me what they gain from giving back, and why they choose to be of service. In their words:
"My personal belief system is based upon the premise that each individual's purpose in life is aligned with our obligation to ease the suffering of others. One of the most traumatic and inescapable events in our lives is the death of a loved one. The sense of fulfillment that comes from being a good listener as grievers express their intimate feelings and facilitating their healing process allows me to witness firsthand the easing of one's suffering. It stirs my heart and provides me with a most gratifying and soulful experience."
"I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a positive contribution toward the healing of children. If they feel better, then I feel better. Really that is how it works!"
"How could we NOT do what we do? I believe if we have made a difference in just one life, we have made a difference in the world."
"Last week I witnessed a very touching exchange between two kids in a school grief group, who four weeks ago didn't know each other. A third grade boy started to sob. He said he was so lonely since his little sister died; he had no other sisters and brothers. A fifth grade boy then got up from the other end of the table, tapped the little boy's shoulder and said, 'I'll be your big brother here at school' ... And that's why we do what we do!"
"To be in the presence of people who are in pain, and willing to share authentically in their group is an honor and a privilege. Group members get to share their lowest of lows and in doing that, start to discover hope and healing."
Hats off to these extraordinary individuals who give so generously to grieving children and adults in their darkest hour. On behalf of grievers everywhere, thank you for your dedication and compassionate hearts.
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.