Grieving the death of a loved one is common. But few of us are able to manage or understand the many emotions of grief and loss, or know how to comfort someone else. There are no set treatment plans, clinical procedures, or a single best way to help.
But, there are people and places who specialize in bereavement through counseling, support groups, workshops, community events, outreach resources, and more.
“Despite what people think, grief is not a linear process or something you get over,” said Erin King, 32, a bereavement support counselor at Hospice of Southern Maine. “For each person, grieving is a uniquely different experience and it’s my job, an honor really, to create an atmosphere of compassion and provide someone space to be heard.”
King said sincere empathy and active listening are critical, and she seems well suited to her profession.
Originally from Antrim, New Hampshire, a small town in the southwest part of the state, she calls Portland her “Goldilocks” town.
”Brooklyn, New York, is too big, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is too small, but Portland is just right,” she said recently. “I discovered this by chance and was sold on the awesome restaurants, Munjoy Hill, the beaches, and live music to name a few things. So, I stayed and in 2017 went to the University of New England to get my master’s degree in social work.”
Through UNE’s field placement program, King spent a year with the Alzheimer’s Association in Scarborough. She became interested in loss as a field, and an area of professional development.
“People face so much with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “They lose themselves while their families lose them.”
Hospice of Southern Maine, also in Scarborough, was King’s second field placement through the UNE master’s program. While she was still interning, a full-time counselor left the agency and she was offered the position.
Bereavement support services at HSM are one part of a multidisciplinary agency that includes the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House, home care, pain and symptom control, emotional and spiritual support, funeral assistance, and other services tailored to each patient and family.
King is especially proud that HSM offers services to the community as a whole and not just hospice families. “We are here for everyone and are free,” she said. “We operate with federal funding, donations, events, and accept medicare. It’s a special place.”
But what’s on the website’s comprehensive list of help isn’t everything.
“People are uncertain about what to say when a friend has lost someone close,” King explained. “They’re uncomfortable and the person grieving is numb. A bit of help would be to tell them you don’t have the words but want them to know you care. Check in with them over time, when other people may have gotten lost in their everyday lives.
“But avoid questions like, ‘How are you?’ and ‘What can I do to help?’ Grief is overwhelming and exhausting. Also, insincere condolences are obvious. So, take small concrete actions. Don’t ask if they want dinner. Just bring one when you think others have tapered off.”
The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges for King and the agency, but true to her character, she also manages to see positives during the lockdown.
“Individual counseling sessions are done remotely, as are groups, and I’m amazed at how people have adapted,” she said. “The good news is we can reach out and offer services to so many more people – people who wouldn’t have come to a group or maybe couldn’t get there.
“However, not being able to grieve and mourn traditionally creates a lack of connection for many. In turn, that creates barriers to moving through grief. It’s a tragedy of the pandemic.”
Now settled in an East End apartment with a deck and view of the water, King, who is single, has a designated spot in the living room just for work. When she closes her laptop computer for the day, she tries to compartmentalize and be kind to herself.
“I love to swim, do brunch, hang out with friends, and walk,” she said.
King’s email signature includes a quote from Angela Davis: “Walls turned sideways are bridges.”
“Bridges, literally and figuratively, are important to me,” she said. “When I’m holding space for a grieving person by remaining silent and listening earnestly, a trust forms. Walls come down.”