When I tell people where I work, I get a lot of different reactions. Some people clam up and try to change the subject, others immediately start sharing all their personal grief experiences, and others say “You’re too happy to work at a grief center.” That last one always makes me cringe.
I have worked at The Grief Center for six years now, and I am constantly inspired by our mission, by our namesake Tess (check out her story here if you haven’t already), and by the amazing people I get to work with each day.
But it was really intimidating when I first joined the team as an intern in 2014. I had experienced the death of people I loved, but I didn’t feel equipped to speak on the subject of grief. I was surrounded by counselors with multiple degrees and years of experience, but now I was the one representing The Grief Center to the community through speaking engagements and public events. I was so scared I would say something wrong, hurt a grieving heart, or upset someone who knew more about mental health than I did.
Over the years, I have learned so much from my Grief Center work family, and I wanted to share my biggest takeaways this month, because mental health and grief don’t have to be scary topics, and you don’t have to be an expert to discuss grief. We all face loss, and the more we can destigmatize these uncomfortable emotions, the more we can bring these incredibly important conversations into the light and make sure that those who are struggling are (1) not ashamed to ask for help and (2) know exactly where to go to find that help.
So without further ado, here are 5 things I learned about mental health working at a Grief Center.
This was a big one, especially for me. I come from a religious background and I consider myself a woman of faith, which made grief hard for me. Part of me felt that if I really had a strong hope for the future, then I shouldn’t grieve - that this wasn’t normal.
But guess what?
Losing someone you love is really, really hard. Whether you talked to that person every single day or hadn’t spoken to them in years, whether you knew they were dying or were totally shocked by an unexpected tragedy - the only thing normal about loss is the grief we all feel.
Just because grief is the normal emotional response to loss, doesn’t mean society is okay with talking about it. I noticed this in my own reactions to others sharing their grief journeys with me when I began working at The Grief Center. My initial reaction was discomfort - I wanted to offer a quick solution and move along because I wasn’t sure how to stand in the space of this person sharing their pain.
I had to get over that real quick, let me tell you. And I’m so glad that I did - I watched our counselors in groups or when speaking to the community and learned how to hold space for grieving hearts without making them embarrassed to share or throwing platitudes around in an attempt to deflect. I listened as our Clinic Administrator coached hundreds of individuals through the intake process, allowing them to share their stories with her and receive validation of their feelings before they ever stepped foot in our building. And I saw the power that those simple actions had on grievers.
And I wondered - why don’t more people do this? Why didn’t I do this before?
And the answer is, because society has decided that grief is uncomfortable to talk about - and personally, I think we need to change that.
There’s a reason I’ve been working at a counseling agency for so long. It’s because I truly believe in The Grief Center’s mission.
Mental health needs to be a priority. We cannot pour from an empty cup, we cannot heal our hearts if we refuse to address the complex emotions that impact our thoughts and actions, and we cannot solve a problem if we are pretending it does not exist.
Caring for your mental health sometimes feels like a luxury or a last resort. It may be seen as something reserved for the privileged who can afford to acknowledge their emotions, or something that is sought only after it can no longer be ignored (for example after an intense breakdown or after inpatient treatment). Working at The Grief Center taught me that our mental health needs to be something we check in on regularly, kind of like changing the oil in a car. For some of us, it will only be something we seek help for when the light comes on. For others, we may need to schedule regular maintenance appointments. Some people may have fancy cars that don’t need regular oil changes as long as you keep the fluids fresh (this analogy got away from me…). But, we all need to be checking in with our mental health regularly and seeking help and support when we need it, without feeling bad about prioritizing ourselves.
Now, a barrier to mental health care can be cost, but that is why I believe places like The Grief Center are so important. We accept insurance, but for the uninsured, we have a sliding fee scale that is based on income, and if you cannot afford that, we work with you to waive the fee or get a scholarship. No one is ever turned away for an inability to pay.
Opening up to people is hard. Sitting in a room with a stranger and telling them your deepest emotions can be very scary. But it is also a path to healing.
Isolation can be one of the most damaging things to our mental health, and it’s something we have all had a lot of this past year. When we’ve had no one to talk to but our own inner monologue for 12 months, opening up to another person about our pain and struggles may feel like the last thing we want to do. But I have seen it literally thousands of times over the years - sharing always helps with healing.
Even if all you do is tell your story and realize that you are not the only one who has ever faced these challenges, it can be enough to help you begin to move forward.
One of the loveliest things about humanity is that we are all unique! No two people on earth share the exact same emotions, thoughts, or experiences.
Working at The Grief Center, that translated into being flexible in our programs and services. Grief groups were exactly what some people needed, while others thrived in individual counseling sessions. Some couples needed to be seen as a unit, processing their loss together, while others needed separate sessions to really open up and explore their own grief. Some teens needed to have their own counselor and clammed up as soon as their family was in the room while others opened up and shared freely in a Family Group setting. As an employee, it meant being flexible and attune to the needs of the client in front of me rather than recommending a one-size-fits-all path through our services.
But in the bigger picture, it means what works for me and my mental health will not always work for you and yours. And that’s okay! I think people can get preachy when they find something that works for them. I don’t think this comes from a bad place, as it’s only natural to want to share something you believe will truly help someone else, but in the world of mental health I think it’s important to have some humility around your own experience. I will happily share what has helped me care for my mind, body and soul this past year, but I will never presume that the exact same prescription will work for everyone.
Happy Mental Health Awareness Month everyone! I hope these kinds of posts spark conversation in our community and inspire healthy change.