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Grief awareness spreading in post-pandemic world, says director at Grief Center of Southwest Colorado

Nonprofit to celebrate 15th anniversary in 2024
The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado interns, from clockwise, Devin Wills, Sadie Lewis, Maria Santiago, Kate Osterloh, therapist, Mary Dengler-Frey, intern, Precious Holcomb, and director Judy Austin meet on Thursday at the Durango office on north Main Avenue. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

From people realizing they are undervalued at work to children struggling in school and burnout among health professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic stoked and stirred mental health issues around the United States and the world.

Judy Austin, founder of the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado in Durango, said the pandemic is among the events that drew the most attention to grief in living memory.

The Grief Center was one of six grief centers nationwide selected to collaborate with the JAG Institute of Judi’s House, a nonprofit that provides grief support to children and families, in collecting and analyzing data about childhood grief.

Data collected pre-pandemic projects that one in 12 children in Southwest Colorado will have lost a parent by age 18, Austin said.

That number’s higher than the national average of one in 14 children, according to JAG Institute’s Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, she added.

Judy Austin, director of the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, said projections show one in 12 children in Southwest Colorado will lose a parent before they turn 18. Grief does not receive much attention as a mental health issue in the United States, but it’s receiving more attention than ever after the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

U.S. Census Bureau data from 2021 says 4.3% of children ages zero to 17 across the country have lost at least one parent.

In Montezuma County and among Indigenous populations, projections say one in five children will lose a parent by the time they turn 18 years old, Austin said.

The amount of children projected to lose a parent in La Plata County is closer to the national average at one in 18 children. But as new data from the pandemic years roll in and are analyzed, Austin said the county’s stats could rise even higher.

The way people respond to and process grief can have a huge impact on their lives.

“We’ve benefited from people stopping and looking at grief for really one of the first times, you know, in a large-scale away,” Austin said. “More and more research is showing that people, particularly who experienced grief either during childhood or young adulthood … are at an 80% higher risk for substance use, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”

The Grief Center provides children, families and individuals with one-on-one, family and group therapy with certified grief counselors, Austin said. The center employs 10 counselors and is training several interns. It serves Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties.

Some people travel from as far as New Mexico for therapy because the Grief Center in Durango is the closest option to them.

A therapist’s approach to therapy changes depending on the patient. Austin said the old cliché that everybody processes grief in their own way is true. But the Grief Center doesn’t follow the “five stages of grief” model because it isn’t as reliable.

People process grief differently, but Austin has heard similar stories from clients about grief fading slowly over time.

She said there are moments at different points in the grieving process that are clues somebody is healing.

Speaking from personal experience, she said the first time someone grieving wakes up actually looking forward to his or her day is one sign. Another sign is finding oneself able to laugh again, excluding “dark humor” people use to cope with trauma.

Mary Dengler-Frey, a therapist at the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, said everybody processes grief differently and there is no single correct way to grieve. Grief therapists like herself try to help people understand their individual grieving processes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Up-and-coming therapists weigh in on grief

At a peer supervision session among therapists in training, Mary Dengler-Frey, a licensed therapist who has shifted her focus to grief therapy, said everyone processes grief differently and there isn’t just one right way to deal with grief.

“What we do as therapists is help them understand that their process is their process of grief, and that we walk alongside them and help them figure out some of the deeper issues that come up with grief,” she said.

Children in particular struggle with grief because from a child’s perspective, emotions feel like they last forever, said Maria Santiago, another apprentice at the Grief Center. Therapy can help children understand their emotions are not permanent.

“You can get through really low low, just like you would, you know, come down a crest from a really high high,” Santiago said.

Devin Wills, who has interned at the Grief Center for the last two years, said he is drawn to grief therapy because it’s a powerful force that makes people challenge their belief systems. He also found he is good at talking to children struggling with grief. The experience has helped him recognize and understand his own grief, too.

He said most people’s minds go to death and dying when they think about grief. But grief can manifest after any sort of major loss.

“You move states, you lose your friends,” he said. “ … A major change happened and you lost your routines and the people you know, the people you interact with. It might not be huge, but it’s like, it’s like still there.”

Austin said American society doesn’t look closely at aging, illness or death, or the grief they cause.

She sees grief as a “big container that holds the anger, the frustration, the joy, all of those emotions.”

She also said there are many disenfranchised people in Durango considering the size of the community, and that’s why having the Grief Center in town is important. Many of those people don’t have family, friends or an outlet such as church to go to when grieving.

“A lot of our folks really don’t have anyone that they can turn to. And I think that’s unique,” she said.

Precious Holcomb, an intern at the Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, said grief is all encompassing and becomes part of one’s identity. She has worked with the center for two years and often works with bereaved children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Intern Precious Holcomb said grief is intriguing to her because it is “all encompassing.” Other therapeutic treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy have specific goals and results to work toward. But grief is different.

“Grief becomes like a part of your identity, like it gets integrated into like your story or narrative,” she said. “And it's been really nice, it’s been an honor to … walk through that.”

The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado

The Grief Center is celebrating 15 years of operations. Austin said the nonprofit has four revenue streams, the biggest of which is grant writing.

Over 60% of the Grief Center’s patients receive therapy services free of charge. Other clients pay fees, and those fees, paired with fundraisers and donations, keep the lights on at the center.

Although the Grief Center frequently works with grieving children, Austin said that’s not the sole focus. Closed group sessions are held for bereaved parents, teenagers and families. Individual therapy is also available.

The Grief Center participates in an annual remembrance ride during the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, where 10 cyclists ride and raise money. The center has also received fundraising money from the Columbine Classic golf tournament.

The Grief Center also hosts summer grief camps in La Plata and Montezuma counties for bereaved children and teenagers.

The Grief Center partners with La Plata Youth Services and Durango School District 9-R to provide in-school grief counseling, and it also works with schools in Cortez and Silverton.

Austin said the Grief Center is aiming to focus services on rural areas in La Plata and San Juan counties, and to start more one-off programs in Durango such as half-day retreats or yoga sessions.

The Grief Center’s board of directors is also starting discussions about extending further into the Four Corners, she said.


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