Group Helps The Grieving Discover Life After Death

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"In our society, we don't talk about grief," says Allyson Danielson. "People tend to act as if the death didn't occur. No one has been taught how to process the grief."

But that's where Danielson and Jo Sanders can help.

For the past four months, Danielson has been the new bereavement counselor for RTA Hospice and Palliative Care. She and Sanders, an RTA veteran and the organization's bereavement coordinator, are now striving to put an as-positive-as-possible spin on the way Rim country denizens deal with the deaths of their loved ones.

RTA's specialty is providing services for patients confronting terminal illness and for their families. The organization relies on an interdisciplinary team-oriented approach that combines expert medical care and pain management with compassionate support for the emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of confronting one's mortality.

Grief counseling for family members has always been provided after a patient's death. But not to the degree to which it is now offered.

"It's not counseling, per se, and it's not therapy unless there's a complicated grief issue," Danielson says. "What we do is teach people how to work through the grief process."

In this team's new eight-week series of group meetings, that process involves carrying out what Danielson calls the "tasks of grieving," which the bereaved need to accomplish to work through their sorrow.

"The first task is to accept the reality of the death," Danielson says. "The second is to feel the emotions involved anger, guilt, any kind of feelings one might have. The third is to adjust to life without them, taking on new roles, getting involved in new activities that maybe you've never done before. The last one is to emotionally relocate the person who has died so that you can get on with life.

"We used to call that 'letting go' and 'saying goodbye,' but we really don't talk in those terms anymore. It's more a matter of changing the bond that you had with that person. You continue to have a bond with them, but obviously it's not the same as when they were alive."

"Closure" is another word the team avoids.

"You never get over grief," Danielson says. "It's never finished. We don't use the word 'closure' anymore because while you want the pain to end, you don't want to lose the bond you had with the person who died. So what you do is integrate the loss into your life, and make it a part of your life that allows you to go on."

Danielson has been a bereavement counselor for 17 years. Prior to her move in September to Payson and RTA Hospice, she spent four years working in a similar position for Hospice of the Valley in Phoenix.

Sanders has been with RTA Hospice since 1994 when it became Medicare-certified. Until recently, she says, "I was doing all of the bereavement counseling by myself. But in the last year, we grew so much that we had to start hiring people to help in different areas."

Enter Danielson, whose presence expands the help RTA can give to those suffering loss.

"Jo has been doing some work with the middle school, doing some groups with the children," Danielson says, "and I'm going into the high school to let the kids know we're there."

"Unfortunately," Sanders says, "in our schools, the kids have to deal with a lot of deaths: parents, grandparents. We're offering our services to help the counselors, because we all know how overworked school counselors are."

Their focus, however, is the bereavement group.

"We try to advertise it as an educational group so that people don't feel like, 'I'm weak and I need counseling,'" Danielson says. "It's simply a teaching experience, just like learning a sport."

"A lot of times, too," Sanders adds, "people can't put words to feelings, and they feel like they're the only ones going through this. When they join our group, they discover that they are not alone, other people have the exact same feelings, and whatever you're feeling is OK and normal."

Anyone can get into the group, the pair say; those who've lost a loved one while in the care of RTA Hospice, or any member of the community in need of comfort and healing.

"Without counseling or a support group, a person may not know how to go through the process of grief," Danielson says. "That doesn't mean that they won't but we can help them work through the process much more quickly than they might on their own.

"And it actually is work," says Sanders. "Part of the reason people stuff (their emotional responses to death inside themselves) is that they don't want to feel the pain; we don't like to be sad. But the faster you confront your pain and deal with it, the more quickly the pain eases."

But not too quickly, both women emphasize. Emotional pain from the death of a loved one "can take a year, maybe three to five years, to ease up enough so that the bereaved starts to feel like himself again," Danielson says. "But we tell people, 'You'll never be who you were before. Life is different now.' It's sort of like learning how to live all over again, hour by hour."

Those lessons, however, can have almost immediate effects, she says.

"I see dramatic changes in every group I do. I see people coming in very downcast or angry and not wanting to have eye contact with me and by the end of eight weeks, they're giggling and having a great time. We're always laughing by the last session or two, and they have all of these great plans about what they're going to do."

Danielson, Sanders and RTA Hospice run three closed groups a year, with once-a-week sessions for eight weeks. Next month they will add something new: an open-ended, drop-in group that will meet twice a month at the Senior Circle.

For more information on RTA's bereavement counseling program, or to sign up for a group meeting, call Sanders at 472-8220.

"The important thing for people to realize when they suffer the loss of a loved one is to simply contact someone," Sanders says, "whether it's through a church, a friend or our office, and go from there."

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