What is your grief process? A Fort Wayne Grief Counselor and residents share their experiences

Few years in recent history have caused as much emotional distress as 2020. With the shutdown and subsequent limits on in-person gatherings, isolation was probably the most shared feeling among residents in Fort Wayne and beyond, but perhaps the one least spoken of emotion is grief.

In Indiana, more than 13,745 residents have died during the pandemic, and 712 in Allen County alone. For many, grief is a private practice, experienced with a select few people or alone when our minds give us the opportunity to reflect on who and what has been lost. But in recent years, there has been an increasing effort to speak more openly about the struggles so many face in the process of grieving.

According to data from Mental Health America, a growing number of people are seeking mental health treatment options, likely due to the pandemic. Between January to September 2020, the number of people seeking help for anxiety and depression skyrocketed 93 percent higher than the 2019 total of anxiety screens and 62 percent higher for the total depression screens.

For me, an interest in the topic of grief started with experiencing it myself when my mother died in 2020, not due to the pandemic, but from a terminal illness. While a number of treatment options exist for those experiencing grief, one treatment that has become readily accessible in cities like Fort Wayne is grief counseling.

I spoke to Mental Health Grief counselor Chariee Reason of the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center in Southwest Fort Wayne to discuss the process of grief that has been universally felt over the last year. Mental Health Grief counselor Chariee Reason

Reason has been in the field of grief work for the better part of the last decade, initially starting as an intern and outreach coordinator at Erin's House for Grieving Children, and later working as a hospice social worker with patients and families who were close to passing. She earned her master's at the IU school of social work in 2017.

With the last year behind us, Reason says there are certain aspects to be looked at as a positive when it comes to grief, and one of those is the increased acceptance around discussing the grief journey.

“We really have seen with COVID for the first time, globally, we all felt that grief,” she says. “Whether it’s the actual death of a loved one, which a lot of us experienced, unfortunately, due to this pandemic. But for a lot of people, it was a loss of a routine, a loss of being able to socialize. For a lot of people, it was a loss of employment. All of those are forms of losses, minor or major, but they all can have elements of grief.”

The Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center in Southwest Fort Wayne at 5920 Homestead Rd.

Reason says she believes this increased awareness of grief has made more people in Fort Wayne and across the U.S. realize it’s OK and even important to talk about their own grief and mental health.

“It’s becoming more acceptable, and we realize that just as much as we have to take care of our physical health our mental health is just as important,” she says.

Still, for many, the idea of seeking counseling can be difficult due to the stigma often associated with therapy or a lack of clarity about when in the grieving process counseling is most effective.

Reason says the best time to seek counseling for your grief is anytime that is best for you. In some cases, with progressive illnesses or diseases like COVID-19, that might even mean seeking help before a loss happens.

“You start the process of grieving long before a person actually dies if the person has been dealing with illness for a long time, and you may begin to already miss that person or to feel what you are going to miss out on,” she says. “Anytime you feel like you need a safe place to talk or to make sense of feelings you haven’t experienced before because we can feel a lot of different emotions at the same time, and they’re not always pleasant. There’s nothing wrong with seeking additional support if you just need to be heard and to be reassured.”

While grief is a universal experience, it is a process that no two individuals experience in the same way. Some may choose to spend their time revisiting all the memories they shared with the person they have lost, while others close off, choosing instead to avoid those things that will remind them of someone who has passed.

Reason emphasizes that different responses to grief are not disorders one must fix; instead, they are each a natural process that occurs differently for everyone.

“Grief isn’t an illness or a disease,” she says. “It is something we all go through and experience at one point. Sometimes, we struggle a little bit. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to us talk about the person we lost.”

In my own exploration into the topic of grief, I was inspired by the famed author and screenwriter, Joan Didion, who wrote of the death of her husband and then her daughter one year later in a series of memoirs released 2005 and 2011. In these novels, Didion revisits her relationships with those she has lost and reflects on the ways their loss has impacted her in the grief process.

What strikes me about Didion is that while many choose to speak about their grief in private settings, she has chosen instead to speak publicly and wrestle with a question many have struggled with: How do I escape this newfound labyrinth of emotions?

In her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes: "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

Reason says many of the people she works with want to be reassured they are normal and be told they are going to be okay because grief can make you feel crazy.

“Sometimes, you can’t make sense of what is going on,” she says.

She refers to this state as having “grief brain.”

“It gets a little foggy where concentration is not there.”

While the process of grief under any circumstances can be challenging, it can be further complicated if the relationship with the person who passed was strained. Reason says that oftentimes those who had a complicated relationship with someone who died will feel an ambiguous sense of grief, thinking they “should feel” a certain way.

In the process of grief counseling, Reason says she often works to reassure people that their emotions are okay, regardless of what they happen to be, and to reach a point of acceptance on their own terms.

“People say you can’t grieve or miss what you don’t have, and I don’t necessarily agree with that statement,” Reason says. “I think you can mourn and grieve something you didn’t have. For example, if it is a fractured parent relationship, a lot of times while the person is alive, there is hope at some point the relationship can be repaired, whether or not there are active steps taken towards that. As long as that person is still living, the thought is: Maybe, at some point, we can come together. Then when the person dies, there is no way to reconcile that. There is a lot of mixed emotion from anger to guilt to sometimes indifference, and that is okay. It’s all about being able to put that somewhere.”

Instinctively, when people think of grief counseling, the word therapy might come to mind, but Reason says there are differences between the two practices. One notable difference is: There is no diagnosis for grief because it is something we all go through.

“Grief counseling is not necessarily trying to fix anything per se,” she says. “It may just be a space you need to talk because you feel like you can’t talk about something with your spouse or children,” she says.

She also makes a distinction between grief and depression.

“Grief and depression can look very similar, and sometimes grief unchecked can turn into depression to where it might need a more clinical response; that is something we monitor with it,” she says. “They can go hand-in-hand, but with the Grief Center, we are not here to diagnose; it is a safe space to talk.”

While there are sad elements to Reason’s job, she says it is not inherently sad to be a grief counselor either.

“There are moments where there are tears and sadness and all those things, but I see the resiliency in people, too,” she says.

In 2019, Reason dealt with the grieving process herself when her mother passed away, and she says she felt reassured seeing the strength her clients exhibited in their own lives, which helped her remember that she could get through her grief, too.

In this way, Reason says those she works with keep her going.

“Life is never quite the same after a loss,” she says. “I always say that it is a journey. It doesn’t necessarily get better…, but you learn how to deal with it differently, in ways to where you can find and begin defining what your meaning and purpose is. When I see people begin to recognize their own strength and their own courage, that’s what keeps me going and inspired in working with those who are grieving.”

For those struggling with grief in Fort Wayne, the city has many outlets and experts who can help you cope with loss and work through your emotions. The We Care Counseling Center located on 2020 E Washington Blvd. provides services for a variety of individuals with different payment options. The Life Transitions Counseling Center works with a variety of counseling approaches for those hoping to resolve changes in their lives and move forward in a new direction. Purdue Fort Wayne also offers zero-cost grief counseling from graduate students pursuing counseling degrees and counseling professors. More options for Fort Wayne residents can be found at GriefShare.

Ultimately, in my own life, I’ve learned that the end goal of grief counseling is to understand how to live with grief without allowing it to consume you. I have learned it is okay to grieve and to be sad. There is no set timeline or string of emotions one must go through to cope with the loss of a loved one. But speaking openly and sharing experiences can help us break the stigma behind mental health struggles.

I wrote about my own grief process in this previous article for Input Fort Wayne. I also spoke with several Fort Wayne community members who have lost family members in recent years and were willing to share their own stories of grief and what they do to remember those they have lost.

I hope their stories will bring you hope and a reminder that you are not alone.

Della Licious, remembering a sibling

The sibling of Della Licious.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

I learned, with grief therapy, that it's okay not to be okay. If you feel like crying, go ahead and cry. But it's very important to share stories about the people you loved who have died. It's important that you remember them, even if it hurts. I learned that I'm stronger than I think. I learned that even something as devastating as finding your own sibling dead won't end who I am, even though it greatly damaged me. I learned that I am important enough to make time to care for my mental health.

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

I tell stories. I keep a few pictures of them near me, and I wrap myself up in the love they gave me and the love I felt for them. I find that storytelling is a great way to keep someone alive in my heart and in my mind. It may bring up bad memories or intense feelings, but it makes them feel near.

Palermo Galindo, remembering a son

The son of Palermo Galindo.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

Throughout my life, I used to hear about the loss of a distant family member or third or fourth degree circles that usually resulted from an older person that I hardly knew or maybe never met in my life.

Nevertheless, death is painful, and most of us are not prepared to live with the post trauma of grief and loss. During my childhood, Dia de los Muertos was a celebration for our departed family members. Nostalgic music and savory aromas from the kitchen, floral arrangements of Zempasúchitl, and incense burning would soon have the whole house smelling so delightfully.

As a parent, you are not prepared to bury your child, and it was an inconceivable abyss and rollercoaster of emotions that I was not prepared for, and here are a few of the things that I am continuing to learn and allowing the universe to teach me what I need to know at that moment.

Without a doubt, feeling pain like no other, this cannot be described. Yet, when things are okay, sudden waves of emotions rise up and make me swim against the currents with a glimmer of angst and despair throwing me for another loop. I learned to surround the heart/spirit and shield my mind with pure love and patience during these awful rollercoaster rides. I learned to rely on family and friends who are genuinely there for you during the hard times.

Sometimes, no words were spoken and just the accompaniment of a caring soul next to you is all you need. I learned that taking one step at a time is a tremendous win! I learned to listen to nature's sounds while taking a hike and admiring the perfection of patterns and colors in a single leaf, enjoying watching how a ripple of water on a pond or lake accentuates the beauty of this body of water, the rhythmic swaying of the waves in the ocean during a moon-glaring evening. I learned acceptance and what it meant for the passing of my son and for me to move forward carrying his memories within me. I learned resilience because my soul has endured one of life's toughest obstacles, and I am still standing after many bouts.

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

I truly believe that honoring the memory of a loved one is instinctive for us. We continue to uncover paintings, carvings, offerings and statutes, portraits, in caves, chambers, pyramids, and sanctuaries all over the world. The raw feelings that come with loss and grief is part of our humanity and keeping the memory alive is natural. In the last five years, I have made an altar for my son, parents, grandmother, grandfather, and extended family and friends during Dia de los Muertos in November. My house almost smells like how I described it earlier. It is a wonderful, healing time. The music and aromas bring the best feelings.

My son's memories will live in my heart, in his sisters, our family members, and friends. Talking about him has become easier, and now we laugh and enjoy these moments. Sometimes, we cry, but after all these years, the cries are less heavy and now are light-hearted moments. He is dearly missed by all of us, and I will continue to honor his life in different ways. For instance, writing this and talking about him today, I couldn't have done it any time before. Therefore, I count this as a tremendous win for all of us! Te quiero y extraño mucho mijo precioso!

Monica Zacarias, remembering a mother

The late mother of Monica Zacarias.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

I have learned a decent number of things about myself that I didn't expect while grieving. From practicing patience with grieving and not having a timeframe as to when it "suddenly" gets better, to how resilient of a person I am, even in the most unpredictable unfathomable experiences. The biggest lesson I've learned is the power of sitting with your own emotions. Allowing yourself to feel everything that comes with losing someone that means so much to you. Some of the emotions I had to sit with were: Feeling lost, confused, sad, alone, angry, and betrayed. Not at her, but at the experience overall and everything that led up to it. I felt resentment more than anything and was allowing that one emotion to take over the rest of the emotions that were trying to express themselves.

By doing so, it took me longer to step into the healthy piece of grieving, which is appreciating her life. It's like, you can't jump to being fit without conditioning, being active, and eating healthy for your body. You can't jump to living with a healthy heart and mind without allowing all emotions, which make us human, to be expressed; even the unpleasant ones. We must honor and validate all emotions that come with an experience for us to fully understand how it is impacting us as a being and how it will mold us, which takes me to the second question. 

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

I definitely agree that there is an instinct to keep someone’s memory alive after their passing. For myself, it didn't come as a quick instinct to find a way to keep my mom's memory alive. The experience was so fresh; the emotions were so fresh that I believe two things, experiencing that moment in the present time that it happened was allowing me to keep her memory alive, and I was so caught up in the grief that I couldn't immediately process an "unrushed-approved-ritual" to keep her memory alive.

Regardless, my mom was on my mind always, with or without tears in my eyes. I believe both experiences are valid keys in grieving, and we should allow ourselves to experience each without allowing it to consume our new reality. I finally got to the point where I could create a "ritual" to honor and celebrate my mom's life. My mom was a house mom; breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert were her thing. She was many things, but vocal and kind while doing so shined. The way we honor my mom in my household is by writing down memories that come to mind: Messages that we want her to hear; poems she's inspired us to write, songs/articles/etc. that remind us of her, and once a month or whenever someone feels like they really need to get this shared, we gather around a homecooked meal and share what we have each noted down.

By doing so, we are normalizing the ongoing grief that happens. We are supporting each other in a common vulnerability and experience of missing the same person. Not only are we keeping her memory alive by sharing personal experiences with her and the inspirations she's fed but, we are also allowing her individuality to inspire the way we move now without her physically here.

Jayson Dees, remembering a grandpa

The grandpa of Jayson Dees.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

I was not close to my grandpa when he died, I am not sure if I learned anything. I can say for sure I regret not having spent more time with him. It also made me a little introspective in consideration of the relationship in my life and how just-like-that people can be gone, and it makes me dread the day I do lose someone close to me. 

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

I “connect” to the memory of my grandpa through stories that my mom and my family tell about him, and hopefully, by connecting to family I have not yet met. There may be other ways to honor and remember him, but I have not worked that out yet. 

Danielle Arbuckle, remembering a brother

Justice Ryan Arbuckle, the brother of Danielle Arbuckle.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

I lost my brother, Justice Ryan Arbuckle, on July 17th of 2020. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him or have something in my everyday life that reminds me of him. I was very angry and hurt when I learned of his passing, and to be honest, I still haven't been able to let go of that anger. I sometimes feel heartless because I see my family talk about him and share their sadness every day, and I guess I haven't actually gotten to that level. Maybe it's because I don't want to accept it.

I see things on the internet, in stores or in movies, and I get that urge to want to share them with him, and that's when I realize I can't. I know grief is different for everyone, but sometimes I don't feel human. I don't feel anything at times, and that scares me. I've definitely learned to communicate more with my siblings, and we've grown closer since his passing. It's unfortunate that sometimes you have to have a tragic event happen to make things change, but I'm truly thankful to be closer with my family, and I think that's the only thing keeping me going.

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

My brother wanted to have a family of his own more than anything. He was raising a child of his partners, and finally had the chance of having a child of his own. He, unfortunately, passed before his son even turned one year old. To be able to see his sons grow, and look more and more like him every day is a true blessing, and it's amazing to see him a little more every day in his son. I've never experienced a death like this, and I guess it's something my mind is still learning to cope with. My brother loved his family, was a lover of animals, and I think I'll try my best to pursue a close relationship with my family that I didn't have before.

Cassey Hurtado, remembering a mother

The mother of Cassey Hurtado.

For many, the grieving process can be transformative. What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

I have learned a lot about how I handle emotional pain, grief specifically, I mean. This time, with my mom, she is the closest person to me that I’ve ever lost, and it felt like I’d lost my voice. It was incredibly difficult to vocalize my feelings to anyone. Anyone who knows me knows that I am very emotional. I cry a lot of tears and feel things very deeply—I’m an empath. When it came to dealing with my mom’s loss, however, I couldn’t verbally process it. During this time, I felt really alone with my grief despite the fact that I had a really strong support system. I don’t think there is anything you can do to prepare with grief, so that was a struggle; it still kind of is.

When we lose someone, there’s an instinct to keep their memory alive within us. Do you feel that? And if so, what do you do to accomplish that?

I definitely feel that. At first, it was so hard for me to talk about my mom without falling apart. At one point, my daughter said she didn’t want to bring my mom up because she didn’t want me to be sad, and that broke my heart because burying the pain was to bury her memory. I knew I needed to find a way to manage my pain so that I could keep her memory alive, so I had to keep talking about her no matter how much it hurt. My kids and I talk about her all the time, and every time I hear a song she loved, I tell them. My siblings and I talk about our memories of her. Every time we see a flower, my daughter asks me if Ma liked that kind.

Recently, I’ve gotten really into gardening, and every time I plant something new or see a flower bloom, I think of her. She loved flowers. Even though she wasn’t much of a gardener herself, I think she would’ve been if she’d had more time. A lot of what I do is motivated by her being, her memory, and I think about her every single day. My kids ask about her and say prayers for her. This year on Dia De Los Muertos, we actually made a little altar for her with her photo and included some things she loved—chocolate, Mazapan, a carnation. It was nice.
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