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‘You just have to need our help’


After losing one of her brothers to cancer in 2009, Teresa Lopez sought and received help from grief services provided through Hospice of Petaluma, which is operated by her employer, St. Joseph Health. She found so much solace in the program that she began training as a volunteer grief counselor herself.

But shortly after she finished the program, Lopez’s family received another shock — another brother, Geronimo Lopez, fell ill and died on Christmas Day last year. Shortly after, Lopez lost her 83-year-old mother from illness.

As the losses mounted for Lopez, a single mother of two and longtime Petaluma resident, she kept returning to the grief counselors and staff at Hospice of Petaluma to help her cope.

“I don’t know where I would be without it,” she says. “I’m extremely grateful. It’s a comfort knowing that there were resources there when I needed them.”

And while Lopez is an employee of St. Joseph — she works in the community benefits department — the programs provided through the system’s three hospice facilities in Sonoma County are available, most without cost, to anyone.

“We are open to anyone in the community that is trying to cope with loss,” says Bev Miller, the grief services coordinator at Petaluma. “You don’t have to have used our hospice services. You just have to need our help.”

Besides Petaluma Valley Hospital and other regional medical centers, St. Joseph operates Hospice of Petaluma, Memorial Hospice in Santa Rosa and North County Hospice in Healdsburg. Anyone who is struggling with the death of a family member or friend can contact the hospices to request counseling, get referrals or attend any of a number of group sessions. There is no cost to take part in the grief programs, which are covered by donations.

The facilities average about 170 patients a day in end-of-life hospice care, but they provide grief services for hundreds more, whether or not they have a friend or family member in hospice. This year alone, St. Joseph officials say, 789 people have sought counseling or other help through their programs.

Lopez says even she was unaware the breadth of the programs before she found she needed them.

“I don’t know that people really understand all that is available and that it’s pretty much free of charge,” she says. “There’s no commitment, no expectations. You can come for one group session or see a grief counselor one time, or you can go more if you need it.”

Because Lopez lost her brother on Christmas, this time of year is hard on her. She’s not alone, according to Miller, as many people struggle during the holidays.

“Holidays are a time of year that’s often focused on family and people feel their losses more acutely,” Miller says. “Even people who aren’t struggling with loss can have problems this time of year. But when you’ve had a death close to you, it amplifies that.”

Along with eight-week grief support groups offered throughout the year, there are drop-in groups, including one called “holiday blues.” During group sessions, people have opportunities to express their grief and share experiences with others who are going through similar struggles.

Miller, who came to grief counseling three decades ago after suffering her own loss, says the main goal of counseling is to help people learn to understand and, eventually, live with their grief. There is a balance, she says, between taking time to feel the pain and loss of a loved one and then moving on with life.

“Grief needs to be experienced in different ways and people need to find what works for them,” she says. “For some, taking a long walk helps, for others it’s going to the ocean or perhaps it’s staying home. However you can tune into what you’re feeling, that’s helpful. As long as it’s not destructive.”

In counseling sessions, Miller says they talk a lot about facing the “holiday blues.” One way is to change your holiday traditions.

“Sometimes it helps to be able to do something different so reminders of the person you have lost aren’t as strong,” she says. “Some people make the change just one time but for others, it can a way of starting a new tradition for the future.”

Some people find solace in talking about their loved ones and sharing happy memories. Others will turn to creative outlets to express their grief, and still others might volunteer or do something for their loved one’s favorite organization or charity.

“In our society, we talk about moving forward and forgetting,” Miller says. “But that’s unrealistic. So what we try to do is help people integrate the loss into their life, no matter how that looks or feels to them.”

And, she says, if you’re faced with helping someone close to you who has suffered a loss, just try to be patient and present.

“The best thing you can do is just to listen,” she says. “Sometimes just being there for someone while they are sad is the kindest thing you can do.”

It’s a sentiment that rings true for Lopez who, while she found many helpful lessons through counseling, says it was just having someone to talk to that resonated most. That’s why she encourages others to take advantage of the services.

“To have a really sacred place to share your grief and pain in a constructive and safe environment was so important,” she says, “It’s truly beautiful.”

(Contact Elizabeth M. Cosin at elizabeth.cosin@arguscourier.com)