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South County spotlight: After personal loss, a grief counselor finds her calling

When families who live in South County, Rhode Island are finding their way through grief, HopeHealth grief counselor Marsha Ireland is there beside them.

Grief is a path she knows well, ever since it entered her life 17 years ago. It has held profound heartbreak for her, as well as profound hope. And it’s a path she believes no one should have to walk alone.

“I needed to work through loss, so I could hold that space for others.”

Marsha was not always comfortable talking about loss, or even thinking about it. But when she was 36 years old, it found her anyway. That year, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Seven months later, in the care of HopeHealth’s hospice services, he passed away. Their children were 7 and 9 years old. Loss was no longer something that happened to other people. It felt like it had become their whole world.

“You’re just trying to survive,” Marsha says. “You’re trying to just put one foot in front of the other. You find yourself asking, ‘Did this really happen?’ How do you know where to go, where to turn?”

At first, Marsha was in a sort of battle against her grief, deeply uncomfortable with the many ways that it would show up. But after awhile, she realized that resisting it was adding another layer of heaviness to an unspeakably hard time. “I was not comfortable with the grief experience. I felt the burden of that,” she says.

At some point, she stopped turning away from her grief, and instead, became more interested in understanding it as a vital part of the healing process. As the years went on – as her kids became teenagers, as she met and fell in love with her current husband – that interest kept pulling at her.

She went back to school for psychology, eventually specializing in the study of bereavement and loss. When she was about to graduate, she called HopeHealth for an internship. By then, she was well into her 40s. “I might be the oldest intern you’ve ever seen,” she joked with the team. After she spent a summer supporting families who were grieving, she knew she’d made the right choice.

“I thought, This is where my path is. This is where I belong,” Marsha says. “I’m comfortable talking about grief. I’m comfortable sitting with someone who’s grieving. This is a topic that, most people don’t want to go there. But I kept going there. I needed to work through loss not only academically, but also personally, so that I could hold that space for others.”

“Everyone needs something different to heal.”

Marsha’s work as a grief counselor, like all of HopeHealth’s services, is deeply rooted in the community. For her, that’s South County, Rhode Island.

“South County is a tightknit community. We have clients who don’t want to go past The Towers. We understand that, and we go to them,” says Marsha. “We meet in our beautiful Wakefield office or we go to their homes when needed; we go to their long-term care facility, we’re in South County Hospital. That’s part of what we do so well at HopeHealth: We support and serve families in the comfort of their own community. I feel strongly about that.”

When a patient passes away on HopeHealth’s hospice services, their family always receives a call from the grief support team. In South County, it’s often Marsha on the other end of the line. She’ll offer her condolences, and explain that she’s there anytime for free grief counseling – today, next week, anytime, for as long as 13 months after the death of their loved one. They can talk on the phone, or get together in person. If they prefer Zoom or FaceTime, or any other platform, she’ll fire up the app. They can tell favorite stories about their loved one. They can talk about their heartbreak. They can sit in silence.

“Grief is so individual. Everyone needs something different to begin to heal. I want to truly honor what each person needs.” – Marsha Ireland, Grief counselor

Sometimes Marsha’s clients are in their 90s, with no living family members. Part of how she can help is by connecting them with a community. Sometimes her clients are part of a big family, and she can help them accept their individual experience with grief, even if it looks different from their relatives’.

Whoever she supports, and however she supports them, she reassures them they’re not alone.

“Grief feels that it will last forever, but it is impermanent. Love is permanent,” she’ll tell them. “Grief counseling is walking with you while you’re healing. Walking with you through the journey.”

“We grieve together.”

Recently, Marsha has felt the HopeHealth community walking beside her too. In the span of two months, between December and February, she lost three people who were incredibly special to her: her beloved mother, her father-in-law, and the father of her late husband. Her father-in-law was in South County, on HopeHealth’s home hospice services. The father of her late husband passed away at HopeHealth’s Hulitar Hospice Center in Providence.

“I am so thankful for the incredible care that my loved ones received at the end of life,” she says. Her colleagues reached out to carry her too: “They would remind me, ‘We are here to support all of you,’” says Marsha.

It’s a renewed perspective on her calling as a grief counselor.

“I hear over and over again from families what an amazing, peaceful process HopeHealth made out of a difficult situation,” says Marsha. “We’re entering the world of families at their most vulnerable time. We’re taking a situation that has no cure. We can’t reverse the ending, but what we can do is meet all of the families’ wishes and goals with passion and compassion. We really do that. I think we do that well. It’s a privilege to serve these families, and help them heal.”

She often thinks of her late husband, who kept his sense of humor throughout his illness. In his final days, he’d turn to her and say, gently teasing, “How are we going to get out of this mess?”

Every time, Marsha would give him the same reply: “Together.”

It’s the same thing she tells the families she meets at HopeHealth. “We all need support and help from each other,” she says. “That’s how we grieve. We grieve together.”

Are you struggling to cope after the death of a loved one? A virtual support group might offer comfort. Call (888) 528-9077 or with questions.

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