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Grief support: Universal emotion can bring challenges, hope

Newly retired grief counselor Ben Wolfe plans to continue traveling with his wife, Barry, who he met on a hitchhiking adventure in Australia. Wolfe will be speaking March 14 at a two-session Grief Conference sponsored by Sanford Bemidji Hospice and underwritten by United Way of Bemidji. Submitted photo

BEMIDJI – Nationally recognized grief support specialist Ben Wolfe promises that whether you attend a session for professionals or one for the general public later this month, you will leave upbeat and positive because he’s into hope and challenges.

While acknowledging that grief is a universal emotion, the way we handle it makes all the difference in how we come out of the darkness.

Wolfe, who recently retired from his position as program manager and grief therapist from St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked for the past 28 years in Grief Support Services at that institution.

He is also a fellow in Thanatology, or the study of the phenomena of death and of psychological mechanisms for coping with them. Wolfe was instrumental in starting the Association for Death Education and Counseling about 30 years ago and has served as president and on the board.

The two workshops, scheduled for March 14, are sponsored by Sanford Bemidji Hospice, which received funding from United Way of Bemidji, to host the sessions on the grief process.

In the afternoon session from 12:30-4:30 p.m., Wolfe will talk about end of life issues with professionals: “Iceberg Theory-Before and After Death: Counseling Way Below the Surface.”

“When I say to an audience, ‘Look at the person next to you and what do you see?,’ people will describe the person next to them: their physical features, gender, gestures – in short the surface,” Wolfe said. “What is below the surface is not always obvious; in other words, the assumptions are the top of the iceberg.

“But when we start to ask some hard questions: belief systems; hopefulness; family relationships, what’s important for them now and in the future, we begin to see the hidden feelings. Then you have the chance to know that person on a much deeper level because what you find is not always obvious – much like an iceberg whose bulk is below the water line.”

Wolfe encourages families to be pro-active by having discussions about their beliefs and feelings before a medical crisis. He taught for 23 years at the medical school in Duluth and one of his courses was “The Psychosocial Spiritual Aspects of Life Threatening Illness.”

Wolfe said his goal was to show doctors that they will get to the point where they can’t save everyone and that it is all right for families to say “no” to treatments. The patient or the family can say that they would rather have quality of life right now than extend life for another month or two and not be able to do the things they like.

“I want people to understand that denial is not a bad word and we don’t have to talk about death all the time,” Wolfe said recently in an interview with the Pioneer.

“I always like to leave people thinking upstream: at some point my life is going to end and we don’t know when that will be. There is an assumption in our society that we have many, many years ahead of us regardless of our age or until we get to that old, old category. When talking with families when there is illness, it’s like the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. We do live in a society, and especially in the northern part of Minnesota, where that stoic part is so different from other cultures more open to talking about death.”

Wolfe said professionals sometimes need to encourage families and let them know that they can do things together at those times. This might be when hospice comes into the picture.

Hospice teams have the expertise and knowledge to help families, not do it for them but to assist families to say the things they need to say to each other and to end up supporting each other. Doctors can keep a patient alive and control pain; there are support systems in place, so that a lot of what we see today in the American way of dying, and what we are trying to bring out into the open, are “end of life” choices. During the day, the audience will walk away with some very practical things that they will be able to use with families and with themselves; professionally and personally.

The public is invited to attend the evening session, “Hanging on or Letting Go: Wisdom from the Dark Emotions,” from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Hampton Inn Convention Center.

Wolfe will talk about how grief is the one feeling that we try to avoid yet it comes to all of us; sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes as closure. Although a natural human emotion, the ways we handle grief are not universal. An opportunity to examine the way we handle grief, especially the depth of feeling that occurs with the loss of a loved one from death, separation or divorce will be the focus of the evening.

“The idea for me is a quote, “Live life, don’t just pass through it,” Wolfe said. “Life is about taking chances to move forward and a lot of times people find themselves not wanting to take those chances.

“My hope for the evening is to help people explore some of those things that are the most difficult (to face) then we often find ourselves taking more chances, and in turn, having a much better quality of life. It’s about trying to help people reconstruct their lives, because time is limited.”