The holidays can be a difficult time for those who are grieving. We sat down with Michelle Miller, M.A., MFTI, who is a bereavement counseling intern at Hospice by the Bay, to talk about grief and her experience as a bereavement counselor.
San Francisco Bay Times: What is it about the holidays that make grief more intense?
Michelle Miller: For many of us, the holiday season brings up memories of special times with loved ones whom we have lost, so it’s natural that we may grieve more than other times of the year. The most helpful way to cope with these feelings is not to suppress them, but to embrace them—making a special visit to the cemetery, lighting a candle at home, or visiting a place that was special to your loved one.
San Francisco Bay Times: Do you think members of our LGBTQ community have special bereavement issues or needs?
Michelle Miller: Coping with loss is hard for everyone, and we all grieve in different ways. For members of the LGBTQ community, the grieving process can present some unique challenges.
Although people are more accepting of our lifestyle than in the past, and although same sex marriage is now legal, we still experience stigma. Imagine losing a partner of 25 years and not being acknowledged by your partners’ biological family—being left out of end-of-life decision-making or excluded from planning and attending the funeral. Or, having to grieve in secrecy because you haven’t come out. Grieving in isolation can be devastating.
There can also be a tremendous impact on LGBTQ families. Even though families with two moms or two dads are legally equal, marginalization still exists. For example, I’ve been married for a while now, and straight people often still refer to my wife as my “partner” or “special friend.” If a family or relationship is not held with the same value as a “traditional” one, this can cause disenfranchisement for both those who are grieving and those supporting them.
What’s the answer? Have a discussion about your end-of-life preferences with your partner or spouse—before you get ill; document it in an Advance Directive so that wishes and roles are clear. If there is family discord, identify close friends as “chosen” family with whom you can be open about your grief. Hold a separate memorial service surrounded by your support system. Seek outside professional LGBTQ-friendly support, either individual counseling or a support group; this is particularly important for those who have a limited support system or are not fully out. Local LGBTQ resource centers, such as the San Francisco LGBTQ Community Center and The Spahr Center in Marin, can be of support as well.
San Francisco Bay Times: What bereavement resources are available? How does someone find resources sensitive to the LGBTQ community?
Michelle Miller: Hospice by the Bay has a comprehensive Grief Program that is available to anyone in the community—regardless of whether or not the loved one received end-of-life care from us. We provide bereavement counseling to individuals and families, ongoing support groups, Camp Erin for grieving youth, and annual Services of Remembrance. We also provide community crisis outreach and grief education, often a critical need when a death impacts a school or workplace.
If you are a member of the LGBTQ community and are seeking help, Hospice by the Bay provides a safe place. We welcome everyone, honor diversity, and understand that you may have unique needs. Whether it’s Hospice by the Bay or another professional, look for someone who is involved with the LGBTQ community. You may want to interview them ahead of time to ascertain their sensitivity.
San Francisco Bay Times: Why did you become a bereavement counselor? Is it difficult to do this kind of work?
Michelle Miller: I’ve experienced many profound losses in my own life. Most significantly, in 2001, my eight-year-old daughter suddenly died. I’ve also lost a partner due to health issues and a brother to suicide, and went through a painful divorce. As part of my healing process, I became a peer grief counselor. That experience helped me to find purpose again and to realize that I wanted do something more meaningful. So, at age 48, I began a new journey. Previously a supervisor at REI and a life coach, I returned to school for a Masters in Counseling Psychology and found my calling—grief work.
In helping others, I have found my own measure of personal healing. Grief is a landscape that I am personally familiar with, and I find healing in helping others who must navigate this difficult path. I like to think I hold a “lantern of light” to assist others on their journey. Grief is not something you get over; it is something you go through and live with.
San Francisco Bay Times: What if someone is interested in becoming a bereavement counselor?
Michelle Miller: Bereavement counseling takes special training—and special people. It’s not for everyone, but it is a calling for others. The qualifications: emotional maturity, respect for others, excellent listening skills, and that sense of “a calling.”
The need is great and we at Hospice by the Bay are looking for qualified individuals to join our bereavement team. Interns start with participation in our paid, year-long, part-time Bereavement Internship Program. Candidates must have a master’s degree in mental health, counseling, psychology, or social work, and be registered as an intern with the Board of Behavioral Sciences.
I am currently an intern in the program and it’s my “dream come true.” The work is fulfilling, I have felt well supported by my supervisors and colleagues, and it’s an opportunity to give back to the community. I get to be myself and I feel appreciated. I am a proud member of Hospice by the Bay’s bereavement team! To me, Hospice by the Bay exemplifies grace and integrity in its practice of caring for those at the end of life, and in caring for those left behind.
For more information about Hospice by the Bay, including its bereavement services, visit www.hospicebythebay.org or call 415-927-2273. For information about the Bereavement Internship Program, email email@example.com