Grief Healing: On Becoming a Grief Counselor

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We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.  ~ Author Unknown

A reader writes: I came across your website, but I believe I have heard your name before. I'm writing for two reasons; first, out of admiration for your work in pet loss and grief, and secondly, to see if you could possibly help me. Historically, I've had an interest in depression and anxiety, but my recent experiences with the elderly have guided me towards grief and loss. Pet grief and loss has always been important to me. As I approach graduate school and the chance to do a thesis and numerous other projects/papers, this topic seems to be dominating my preferences. With all of this in mind, I was wondering if you have any advice for this stage of my career--both academically and professionally.
What experiences have been most beneficial to you? How have you attempted to establish yourself in each successive area that you have relocated to? What professional organizations are helpful? Are there any seminars or events I should be looking for? Any and all help would be most appreciated!! Thank you so much for your time.

My response: Thank you for your kind words about my Grief Healing Web site and my work in bereavement and in pet loss. I’ll do my very best to respond to your questions, and I hope my experiences will offer some insights ~ but keep in mind that when you follow your dream, you will find your own way to get there!

It’s hard to say which of my experiences have been most beneficial, I suppose because I’ve always been the sort of person who tries my best to “bloom where I am planted,” so to speak, and life has taught me to value serendipity!

If you’ve read the Introduction that appears on my website, you know that I’ve moved around the country as I’ve followed my husband’s career. Originally from northern Michigan, we first moved to Princeton, NJ, then to Boston, MA, on to Nokomis, FL, next to Phoenix, AZ, back to Traverse City, MI and finally to Sarasota, FL. Although I obtained my nursing degree from the University of Michigan before I was married in 1965 and worked for 15 years in psychiatric nursing as a clinician, educator and administrator, I had to wait until we lived closer to another university to go after my master’s degree (in Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nursing), which I obtained from Rutgers (in New Brunswick, NJ) in 1980.

Shortly after our two grown sons had left home for college, and just before we had decided to sell our home and move to Boston, my dear little cockapoo Muffin escaped from our yard, got hit by a car and later died. I was completely blind-sided by how this sudden, unexpected loss of my dog affected me – I was simply devastated, and at the same time, astounded and confused at the intensity of my reaction. It's not that I was unfamiliar with grief; by that time in my life I'd suffered many significant losses ~ but this just seemed way beyond my own experience. Wondering what in the world was wrong with me, I began paying some very serious attention to this strange phenomenon of pet loss. Mind you, this was in 1986, so there wasn’t yet a great deal written on this particular topic. Nevertheless, by now we had moved to Boston, and I had at my disposal a number of nearby university libraries and book stores where I could conduct some extensive literature searches ~ and fortunately for me, I had all the time I needed to pursue my interest in this subject. Coincidentally, I happened to watch a television program which featured a social worker in a veterinarian’s office helping a family cope with the euthanasia of their beloved dog. I remember I turned to my husband and exclaimed, “I could do this kind of work!” ~ and I knew somehow that one day, some day, that was to be my destiny.

Over the next four years I kept on reading, following footnotes, gathering articles, and eventually finding my way to membership in Pet Partners (then known as the Delta Society). My husband was offered a position in Arizona, and the first thing I did when we got settled in Phoenix was to contact the Companion Animal Association of Arizona (CAAA,), and offer my services as a volunteer. As luck would have it, they had an immediate need for someone who was qualified to facilitate their monthly pet loss support groups ~ and I willingly served in that capacity on the first Saturday of every month for the next 15 years! (Obviously it was just meant to be!)

Eventually I was appointed (although still in a volunteer capacity) as Mental Health Consultant to the CAAA Board of Directors and its Pet Grief Support Service (PGSS). Over the years, PGSS’s reputation continued to grow and eventually, thanks to the Internet, spread throughout the entire country, and to other countries as well. PGSS was a strictly volunteer organization made up of lay people – not professional counselors – and I offered clinical supervision and participated in the selection, orientation and training of its Helpline volunteers. In 2003, I was invited to serve in the same capacity for the Halton-Peel Pet Loss Support Group in Ontario, Canada and have been doing that as well. I didn’t know this in the beginning, but over the years, my affiliation with both these organizations has given me a great deal of exposure and credibility in the field of pet loss, so even though I've not been compensated monetarily, I've always considered it well worth the time and effort I've given to it.

In 1996 I wrote the booklet Children and Pet Loss, which was published by CAAA not only as a useful guide for parents and veterinarians, but also as an attractive publicity piece and income-producer for its PGSS. Shortly thereafter I was invited by a local business woman (who specialized in after-death pet care) to write a regular pet-loss column for her website, and then to collaborate on writing what was to become my first book, The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet. When I grew weary of contributing so much to someone else’s website and felt a need for more editorial control, I took some adult-education computer courses and, with the encouragement of one of my HOV colleagues and the help of some wonderfully talented people, eventually created my own Grief Healing website, which was officially launched in January of 2000.

At the same time that all of this volunteering and writing and publishing was happening, I came to recognize that the more I worked with grieving animal guardians, the more I found myself drawn to working in hospice in some capacity, even if only as a volunteer. After asking around, I learned that Hospice of the Valley (HOV) seemed to have the best reputation in Phoenix, so I went there first.

As you may know, in most hospices, social workers have the counseling role, and my discipline was psychiatric nursing. To my delight I discovered that HOV had a Bereavement Department, and the employment requirements specified a master's degree in the mental health field ~ not necessarily in social work. I learned that HOV’s Bereavement Counselors (BCs) work with family members after the death has taken place, so their role is not the same as that of a Social Worker (who works with the family while the patient is dying and whose focus is traditional social work). Since my graduate degree was in advanced psychiatric nursing and I was certified by the American Nurses Association as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing, I met the credential requirements for a BC in this agency! I decided on the spot to go after a paid position in the Bereavement Department instead of what I thought I had wanted to do: work as a volunteer with the dying. With the encouragement of the Volunteer Coordinator, I made an appointment with the Bereavement Coordinator and applied for a position as a bereavement counselor.

I brought with me many years of clinical experience, having specialized in grief counseling (which I was able to demonstrate by having published articles on grief issues in the nursing and medical literature, as well as a book and booklet on pet loss ~ copies of which I brought to the initial interview.) By then I also had established myself as a volunteer with PGSS for four years; I shared a copy of the citation I'd been given that year by the Companion Animal Association thanking me for my contributions to the PGSS. This was yet another way to demonstrate to my future employer that I knew something about grief and bereavement, had published about it in the professional literature, and had been recognized for it in my community. I left copies of all these materials with the Director of Human Resources following my interview so they could be reviewed later, as she and my Department Head would be pondering whether to hire me. I truly do believe that it was my writing and my volunteer work in the field of pet loss that persuaded Hospice of the Valley to hire me, because it was fairly unique at the time.

All the while I was working as a BC for HOV, I was becoming increasingly aware of the power of the Internet to offer information, comfort and support to the bereaved, especially after having launched my own Grief Healing website in January of 2000. As fate would have it, over the course of the next four years I became virtually homebound, as I was continually recuperating from one operation after another ~ first on each foot, then a total knee replacement, then three hip replacements, followed by extensive spinal fusion surgery. With HOV's support and encouragement enabling me to work from home, I turned to the telephone and my computer to continue offering bereavement counseling to my clients, by way of phone calls, email and my website’s message board ~ which I soon discovered would serve nicely as a virtual support group!

I also used the time to complete a number of writing projects for HOV, including my book, Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year, along with a number of articles and booklets on various aspects of grief, loss and healing. As a way to share my writing with a wider audience, I launched my Grief Healing Blog, and became an active participant on social media sites (Facebook,Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest). The message board proved to be so effective, so popular and so successful that in May of 2003, HOV officially assumed sponsorship of what now was known as the Grief Healing Discussion Groups, with me as its full-time moderator.

Unfortunately, after a decade of successful service to an ever-growing membership, budget cuts in 2013 resulted in HOV’s decision to discontinue the online service, and my position as moderator was eliminated as well. After careful consideration, not wanting our members be left without the online support they’d become so accustomed to and dependent upon, I assumed sole ownership and administration of the site, where I still serve as moderator today.

I can tell you that the training I've received in pet loss and grief counseling has been by experience (both personally and professionally – by which I mean having endured many losses myself, both of people dear to me and of animals I've dearly loved; and having been drawn to working with the bereaved since I first became a psychiatric nurse – both individually and in groups), by reading, by presenting workshops of my own design on human loss and pet loss, and by attending all sorts of workshops and conferences aimed at bereavement counselors (see, for example, the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) – its training programs are excellent and offered online; you can call and ask to be placed on their continuing education mailing list.) As the most highly regarded association for professionals in the field of thanatology (death, dying and bereavement), ADEC offers both the Certification in Thanatology (CT) and the Fellow in Thanatology (FT). I’ve also found that reading, writing and blogging about caregiving, loss and grief keeps me abreast of the most current literature in my field, and puts me in a better position to offer valid and reliable information to my readers.

If you want to do something in the grief field before you decide to go after a graduate degree or apply for a paid position in it, I would suggest that you do so as a volunteer ~ it's a wonderful way to network and to establish a solid track record. Those with whom you work will become great references for you later when you’re ready to apply for a position somewhere. I don't know what pet loss services are available in your own community, but is there a pet loss support group or helpline near you that may need volunteers? (For a state-by-state listing of pet loss services, see Moira Allen’s Pet Loss Support Page.) Working with bereaved animal lovers is great experience, because the issues of attachment and loss are exactly the same, and the counseling principles are the same as well. And the recipients are so wonderfully grateful for whatever understanding, comfort and support we can offer them.

The Internet is yet another place to volunteer your services and gain some useful experience; many grief sites and pet loss sites offer message boards and chat rooms, and those chat rooms are always looking for someone to host them ~ that, too, could "count" as volunteer work. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll explore some of the pet-loss-related pages on my Grief Healing website; one visit to any of the forums in our Grief Healing Discussion Groups will persuade you that this is an invaluable source of comfort, information and support to those who are grieving.

If you really want to break into the field of grief and loss, there is nothing to stop you. It is a growth industry, after all, because sooner or later we all are confronted with a death, and until it happens to us, few of us know how difficult grief and loss can be without some help along the way. 

So, you may ask, why did I decide to become a grief counselor? Quite simply, at this point in my career I just wanted to do something that would make my heart sing. As a therapist, I was tired of trying to be an expert in so many aspects of mental health. So I decided to become an expert in grief and bereavement, with a side-specialty in pet loss. As you can see, that decision has led me down a very exciting (though never predictable) path. And I've loved every minute it.

I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear, and I hope you will let me hear from you from time to time. Good luck with your studies and with your interest in this field, and I wish you nothing but the best.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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