Hospice Grief Specialists: Helping Clients Navigate Grief and Loss

Connie DeKreyCoping with the loss of a close friend or family member may be one of the most difficult situations many of us endure. When we face a significant loss, such as a spouse, sibling or parent, our grief can be particularly intense. Each relationship is as unique and individual as the grief reactions that follow the loss; none of us experience grief exactly the same way. Similarly, everyone copes differently, too. The overwhelming sadness typically lessens as time passes, but grieving is an important process—one that may require support from professionals.

Hospice of the Red River Valley offers a robust grief support program with specially trained staff. Our grief specialists offer one-on-one visits, phone calls, resources and literature to family members for up to 13 months after a death of a loved one based individual needs. In addition, we offer classes, support groups and practical suggestions on an ongoing basis during the grief journey. These services are available to anyone who is grieving a loss, regardless of whether or not their loved one received care from Hospice of the Red River Valley.

We spoke with Hospice of the Red River Valley employee Connie DeKrey, LBSW, CT, about the distinct role of a grief specialist and her decades of experience providing care and support.

Share a little bit about your background.

After I graduated with a degree in social work, I worked for the Village Family Service Center. Later I worked at Eventide as the director of social services. I came to Hospice of the Red River Valley in 1993 and worked in direct patient care as a social worker for 10 years, which I loved. When an opening in the bereavement department became available, it was difficult to leave patient care, but I saw many aspects of bereavement work to be appealing and rewarding.

To have experience providing direct patient care has been really valuable in my bereavement role. It helped me have a better idea of what families go through pre-death, which is very important. It also gave me perspective that I may not have otherwise had and an appreciation for the other roles at Hospice, too.

What does a grief specialist do?

My job is to provide support and education about grief and loss. This support is provided to those who are bereavement clients—who either have been cared for by Hospice of the Red River Valley or who come to us as a community client.

We talk through what has occurred in the event of an actual death and work with clients over a period of time on the different legs of that journey. Often as we grieve, we take two steps forward then one step back. That’s normal.

We help clients validate what they’re going through. We help clients normalize and understand what is indeed normal. Grief is not a disease. It’s not an illness. It’s not a diagnosis. It’s a normal, natural part of the living experience. And it’s not a straight trajectory, though we all wish it were. Then we would know where we are at on that path and can then point to an end. But that’s not realistic.

It’s more like a gumball machine. You don’t know on a given day how many gumballs are going to come out, what colors they are, of if you’ll get any at all. And it’s unknown exactly what will trigger your grief on any given day.

The person who died was significant enough for one to grieve so the experience and relationship with the person who has died is forever woven into the fabric of who we are. It’s part of our identity. And so we carry that with us, but we can learn to carry that with us in a positive way. That’s part of the education and support we provide on a one-to-one level. We also offer support groups and classes, speak to the public about grief topics and work in schools.

What qualities in a person help make a good hospice grief specialist?

You have to have compassion. But one must also have an element of practicality, as grief is part of the human experience. One hundred percent of us are going to go through some kind of loss in this life. It will serve us from a practical standpoint to learn as much as we can about loss. It’s important to learn about what it means to have loss, to have death, to have grief in one’s life and our circle of relationships. The more we can learn about something, the better equipped we are to cope.

A grief specialist must also have a good set of antennae because the people we work with typically have more going on in their lives than simply having lost a loved one. In most cases we’re seeing layers which affect grief. We see people with mental health issues, addiction, sometimes abuse, trauma; all these things can be a part of what an individual is going through as they come to talk about loss.

It’s really important to have our antennae out to pick up on those things and know when it’s appropriate to refer our clients for more help for things outside of our area of expertise. We specialize in grief, but we can help connect clients with lots of other community resources.

A good grief specialist must also be a good listener. We must be able to take what the client has said and play it back to the person in a way that helps to clarify the situation for them.

What do you enjoy the most about working as a hospice grief specialist?

I really am encouraged by seeing our clients’ progress every day. Some clients start out lost or in despair, and some even struggle to put one foot in front of the other. But to be able to work with them on an aspect of their lives—grief and loss—and help them navigate through that to get to a point somewhere down that path where you start to see a light come on behind their eyes, that’s where it’s at. That is rewarding and the true magic of the work.

What makes this position special?

This role is special to me because just as bringing someone into the world is sacred, holy ground, the time when you anticipate or experience the loss of a loved one is also very profound. We are invited during such a tender time, and it is really a privilege to spend that time and space with families. Not everyone gets to do that, and it’s never lost on me what a privilege it is to share this time in someone’s life. That’s why it’s special.

If you could tell patients and families one thing about your position, what would it be?

The main thing I want people to know is that grief support is available. Seeking support is not a sign of weakness. Sometimes it’s just a matter of clarifying things. Some people are concerned and wonder if they’re losing it, going a little crazy. They worry because they can’t string together two consecutive thoughts. Grief affects people physically and cognitively, as well as emotionally. I really encourage people to get support because sometimes you don’t know what is and is not normal as you grieve.

If you or someone you know is grieving, we encourage you to take advantage of the groups, classes or individual support we offer through our grief support department. For more information, please call 800-237-4629 and ask for the grief support department, or visit our website.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.


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