By TIM ROWDEN
The Grief Project
Kristen Ernst lost her son in 2004. As she worked through her grief, she noted how hard it was to find grief and trauma counseling and set out to change that. Now an MA, LPC and owner of the Center for Hope and Healing, LLC in St. Charles, Mo., she provides support for others struggling with grief.
“When I went to get help with my own loss, I noticed that there were a lot of people who were just like ‘Yep, move on.’ I had turned to my clergy and then I had turned to professionals And I noticed there was not a lot of training around grief counseling for clinicians, so I went back and got my master’s in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and decided to work with this population.”
Ernst started working with Provident Behavioral Health, working with the suicide crisis line and the Hope After program, a case management program for people who may have been hospitalized with suicidal ideation. At the same time, she was also doing hospice work.
“I started really diving into grief and helping people through loss and traumatic loss,” Ernst said. “Hospice has a different kind of people who have this anticipatory grief that they’re preparing for. They’re having this experience beforehand. But when there’s suicide, there is no preparation for that. It can be incredibly isolating. I think suicide loss has that even more because there’s so much shame attached to it. I like to educate and support and empower people to have the resources to feel like they’re not alone.”
Ernst’s practice centers around suicide intervention, prevention, and resolving trauma through dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma resolution EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and somatic experiencing systems, a whole body approach to dealing with anxiety
“It’s trying to help people eliminate not only the stigma, but sit with them, a whole table of people – mostly parents – saying ‘I see you, and I feel just like you.’ So much of this is about helping people feel like they’re not alone,” she said. “What you see in suicide classes, there’s so much trauma involved, because maybe they have found their loved one, or there’s everything surrounding that incident, so their cortisol levels are through the roof. A lot of what we do, even in groups, is teaching people how to resolve that trauma, get into therapy, and work through and see how that affects your central nervous system, because you’re kind of in fight or flight all the time.”
The Center for Hope and Healing also provides complimentary group sessions free of charge, sponsored by Baue Funeral Home in St. Charles. During the covid-19 pandemic, when support groups were forced to shut down, the Center opened its doors to virtual group sessions sponsored by funeral homes across the country.
HONORING YOUR GRIEF
“We teach a lot about having something in your daily life to honor them, to say, ‘Hey, I love you. I miss you. You still matter.’ So you’re always honoring them, and by honoring them, you’re honoring your grief,” Ernst said.
“I have a gentleman who got an LED candle and put it in his kitchen. It’s on all the time, he said, so every time he lets the dog out he sees the candle and thinks of his daughter.
“For myself, I had a Christmas stocking. And the next Christmas, of course, I didn’t want to not put the stocking up. So I put the stocking up. And that year, I just was moved to write him a letter and put it in the stocking. And I totally forgot about it. Then the next year I pulled out the stocking and said ‘Oh, I forgot I wrote that letter.’ So I wrote another letter. And I have done that since 2004. Writing a letter to my son every Christmas and put it in this document so when I go to get the Christmas decorations out, I pull out all the letters, and I look at how my grief has changed over the years. And how, like, the very first letter I can barely read the words because my hand is shaking and I’m crying so hard that you can barely see the ink. And that tells me it’s not that it necessarily that it gets better, it just gets different.
“I have another client whose husband passed away tragically and she got a candle and had their wedding picture decoupaged on it, and she takes it everywhere. Every holiday they set it in the middle of the table at that holiday, or that wedding that she would want him there. And they light the candle. That’s how she feels like he’s there that those events. So that’s a nice tradition. And she’s been doing that for two to three years now.
“I know somebody who their loved one had a jar of dimes. He was always collecting dimes for some reason. She had one of the dimes made into a necklace. We call those linking objects. And any time we see those things that’s something that links us to them and makes you closer to them.
“There are all kinds of ways to just honor that person. Sometimes, it’s a donation to their favorite charity or something that makes you remember them.”
SHARING YOUR STORY
Sharing your story can have a healing effect, Ernst says.
“It eliminates shame, and also that isolation piece so you can see ‘I’m not alone in this this, this is my story’ and know you’re sitting across the table from someone else who has had a similar lesson and we’re all sharing our stories to help each other.”
As a society, we’re not actually very good at grief.
“As with the funeral, there is a shelf life to grief,” Ernst said. “People kind of check on you for a while, and then that kind of that tapers down. And then people don’t want to even bring up. They don’t want to bring it up if you look like you’re doing well, because they don’t want to make you cry. But there’s never a moment that you’re not thinking about who you lost. I think it’s really comforting to come to a safe place, and be able to talk to other people that have had a similar loss, and be able to say their name, so much about it is saying, you know, like, this is my love, this is my person. And everyone at the table is not like not making eye contact or changing the subject or, or some, like, I know, they are well intentioned, but some cliche about ‘Well, now you have an angel or now you whatever,’ which is not helpful, not helpful at all. That feels like a verbal assault so many times. I do a lot of education to people that are grief adjacent that haven’t gone through things like this and say, here are the things not to say you know, you can do these things that are more helpful.”
“I think a big part of it is being able to share your story and share your person’s name without someone shying away from it, not being afraid. Listening is a huge part of the healing process.”