Editor’s note: Reporter Jaya Flanary recently completed Whatcom Hospice Bereavement Center’s six-week Sudden Loss course.
Cushioned chairs create a circle in a room, each equipped with a box of tissues and a binder. Soon, strangers will saunter in, sit down, stare at one another, and share secrets about feelings and thoughts they’ve had since losing a loved one.
The room at 2800 Douglas Ave. in Bellingham is home to Whatcom Hospice’s Bereavement Center, which offers support groups, memorial services, keepsakes, and, starting this summer, a kids’ grief camp.
Services are open to anyone who has experienced a loss, even if their loved one didn’t go through the hospice program. Last year, the center served about 1,300 bereaved, and this year it is expecting to serve the same number or more.
“Our community has gone through so much sudden loss with COVID, with the opioid crisis,” said Michelle Walsh, bereavement coordinator, who has been a social worker since 1989.
This is why, Walsh said, they added a six-week Sudden Loss series this year.
“It felt like the group connected immediately,” counselor Rick Sievers said of the first Sudden Loss group.
Sievers, who has been a counselor since 1987, said it takes a lot of bravery to just walk through the door, which is the first step in “moving” grief, followed by talking and just being present with others.
The counselors who lead these classes include Walsh (who is in her seventh year at Whatcom Hospice), Sievers (who initially was a volunteer) and three others: Cheryl Smith (a clergyperson who first worked in hospice in the ’80s), Denise Katterhagen (who worked in the hospital’s emergency room prior to Whatcom Hospice but was “burned out” from the pandemic) and Lulu Verneuil (a clinical social worker who has worked in hospice for 15 years).
During classes, they are “companioning” — a phrase used by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition — meaning they are “not experts,” Walsh said, and don’t intervene in organic conversation unless the group is going on a tangent.
For adults coping with a loved one’s death in the past year, the center offers a one-time Newly Bereaved Class (in person or on Zoom) and a six-week in-person course. A four-week writing class is currently offered on Zoom.
“The more homogeneous group is, the more easily you are seen and heard,” Smith said of offering specific courses.
The Newly Bereaved Class helps people understand a not-so-simple idea: The whole body experiences grief — physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and cognitively. After the session, group members are invited to sign up for one of the six-week courses.
“Sometimes, someone might not even share more than a sentence or two, and yet there’s a change in an hour and a half,” Sievers said. “Just being together, being seen and hearing other people — ‘I’m not alone in this even though I’m unique.’”
Grief counselors grieve, too
Leaving work every day as a grief counselor is a process in itself. When asked what they do to get their mind off of the day’s work, the team said they watch TV (Smith enjoys crime shows), connect with nature, read, listen to music (Walsh prefers classical because it has no words), spend time with pets and family, avoid talking on the phone, and create art.
“When I walk out the door, it’s easy to compartmentalize, just like it is probably for everyone that comes in here,” Sievers said. “I’m kind of tired too. And yet I just love this job. I love our people so much. I’d say it just takes diligence to keep my own practice going and find some joy.”
Joy can be hard, however, when grief takes over your life — professionally and personally.
Smith, whose parents both died in hospice services, said her goodbyes to them were changed because of her work in hospice. She understands the importance of rituals, connecting with others and letting go.
Two years ago, Smith’s daughter died, a loss that has made her focus more on work. “I’ve had to subsume some of my own grief to support others,” said Smith, who is retiring in two months.
Smith said she is already grieving the loss of her job.
“If you live long enough, you’re gonna have loss,” Sievers said. “And not just losses from death, but divorce, job loss. COVID was this amorphous sort of blob of loss.”
Bereavement through COVID-19
The pandemic affected the bereavement center as it did everything else. The counselors sent out Wolfelt’s book “Grief One Day at a Time” to people grieving in quarantine and advocated for online courses, which PeaceHealth and Whatcom Hospice supported. A lot of other hospice centers, Smith said, stopped offering grief groups because of the challenges of the virtual world.
Verneuil, who joined the team less than two years ago, admired the ways it adapted to COVID-19 when she interviewed for her position. She said it was clear they were constantly asking, “How could we do better? How can we meet the need in a new way?” These questions led to drive-thru events to give out luminaries and plants to bereaving people to honor the memories of their loved ones at home.
They also “ramped up” the volunteer program, Smith said. Currently, three volunteers — there have been as many as eight — take clothes and other materials from folks who complete the grief classes and use them to sew memory keepsakes.
The bereavement team also offers support and education to facilities such as assisted living homes and businesses, and this year they began offering groups in Blaine. In the future, they hope to work with Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College to encourage more young adults to sign up for the courses, which trend older in age.
“You’re separating from family when you’re a young adult, but when you’re an old adult, you’re gravitating back toward family,” Smith said. “That makes that support aspect of grief very different.”
Smith said that while working with adults, she has noticed many people end up talking about a childhood loss they never got to talk about, which only makes the grieving process more difficult as an adult.
Grief for kids
Grief is experienced differently by everyone, but it especially varies for different age groups. Kids, for example, grieve as their brains are developing, and they re-grieve as they age, said Verneuil, who is the team’s child/teen counselor.
If a child loses someone when they’re 6, they will understand death in a new way a few years later. At 16, they might re-grieve when they’re learning to drive (maybe the person they lost was supposed to teach them) and later, they might re-grieve when they’re choosing a profession (maybe the job reminds them of their loved one).
“This is sometimes the biggest feelings [kids] had in their body ever,” Verneuil said. “They’re also grieving within a family, so their security is really shaken. Maybe one of the people who died is their primary caregiver or was financially the one to bring resources. So they’re wondering, as a small child, ‘What am I going to do? Who’s going to drive me to ballet? Can we afford dinner? Can we afford this house?’”
When Verneuil was introduced to kids’ grief during her career in hospice, she realized that youth want and need to talk about death. She said she enjoyed giving them the tools and words to use while running grief camp at least 10 times in her previous job.
“It’s a pretty powerful transformation to watch campers come on a Friday and leave on a Sunday,” she said. “Some of the campers look different.”
Grief camp gives kids who are “bottling it up” the chance to balance talking about their loss with play, something professionals and families can’t necessarily provide, Verneuil said.
Whatcom Hospice’s grief camp, Camp Kaleidoscope, is free of charge through the support of the Whatcom Hospice Foundation and relies on about 50 volunteers. Children ages 6 to 12 are welcome to apply as long as they are experiencing a “significant death loss.” The bereavement team is also hoping to add a teen camp next year.
Grief camp is like any other camp in certain ways — cabins, lake time, ice cream and s’mores — but campers also get a chance to do arts and crafts activities that honor and memorialize their loved ones, participate in rituals with photos and luminaries, and participate in a scavenger hunt that teaches coping skills.
If a family is unsure whether or not to send a child to grief camp, Verneuil encourages them to meet her before making a decision. She recommends not forcing a child who doesn’t want to go — it may just not be the right time.
Verneuil said camp invites kids to express their grief however they want in a safe emotional and physical space, and kids aren’t required to talk about who died while there.
“It’s not for us or me to decide what they need,” she said. “It’s for them to, just like a grief group for adults, come and get what you want and what you need.”