At some point we will all encounter the loss of a loved one. How we approach and work through the grief depends on the individual according to Heather Shenk LPN MSW LSW, a bereavement counselor with Hospice and Community Care. “Most people grieve appropriately,” she says, “and have the skill sets that allow a healthy outlet and adjustment to life without that person. For the most part people do not need bereavement counseling.”
When counseling is advisable – when the normal grief response becomes something more complicated – Shenk and her peers step in to provide understanding, validation and skills to aid the individual. Recommendations are forwarded from the community, school personnel, word of mouth and hospice families at times.
Shenk specializes in working with bereaved children, those who have recently lost a loved one, but also, in a small percentage of cases, those with anticipatory grief to help prepare and give them the opportunity to process what they are feeling. She employs a variety of interventions depending on the age of the child or adolescent. For younger children she uses play therapy and artsy outlets. For teenagers she says, “It’s mostly talking as they can verbalize what they’re feeling. For all I follow their lead and cater to them whether it’s play, art or talk.”
The services offered are short term, usually three to five or six visits, roughly one month apart and at this point Shenk says, “The child in most cases is in a pretty good place with their grief, and it’s not necessary to meet long term.”
Should additional counseling be required referrals to an appropriate organization are presented as she and her peers are not long-term therapists which requires an entirely different approach.
Shenk’s counseling role is the latest step in her career that began as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), graduating from Lancaster County Career and Technical College and working in a traditional setting. She transitioned into adolescent mental health and decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in communications. While that may seem discordant she regards the two as complementary as nurses spend a great deal of time working with the public, educating and communicating.
Her work as a mental health program nurse carrying a caseload of children developed her interest in social work, and she returned to school for her Master’s in Social Work and obtained her licensure. You might expect a bereavement counselor to have a psychology degree and that is one option, but “Most social work master’s degrees have a heavy psychology component,” Shenk explains. She views social work as an expansion that covers all the bases and gives a larger perspective on the person and their environment.
Hospice and Community Care requires a minimum of a master’s degree and a background in counseling or social work. Her grief specific training was provided in-house.
Is this a difficult job? Yes and no, she says. “What you do on a daily basis is hard, but the goal is to help them out of their dark place and give them a glimmer of hope. Knowing what you’re working towards makes it easier to deal with.”
Shenk says she has learned something from every family’s story and while the circumstances can be very different, what stands out for her is the resiliency. Whether it’s chronic illness, a sudden accident or suicide you’re seeing people at their absolute worst and then “For them to place their trust in you and to see the healthy changes is amazing and humbling. We plant the seeds of hope.”
She advises those considering a counseling career, in any discipline, to make sure you’re doing this for the right reason. Some people are drawn, she says, to any type of helping to fill a void in their own lives. “Their intentions are good, but the lines are blurred.” Maintaining an emotional distance is needed and accomplished through self-care. “It sounds cliché, but it’s very true. You need ways to have healthy emotional outlets.” For Shenk that means exercise, spending time with family and friends and time for herself.
Shenk loves what she’s doing, but as evidenced by her prior roles, LPN, program nurse, clinical liaison, and more, she won’t rule out another change at some point in the future. “I don’t like to limit myself.”
“Why I became…” is an occasional series appearing throughout the year in LNP and on LancasterOnline. If there is a career you would like us to feature, email us at email@example.com.