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Funeral home offers on-site grief counseling

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Linda H. Phelps is director of the Grief Counseling Program at French Funerals and Cremations. She will direct the Grief Resource Center after remodeling is completed in October. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nowhere is grief more palpable than at a funeral home, as families and friends say goodbye to loved ones.

Of course, the grief doesn’t end when the funeral does, and that’s why French Funerals and Cremations is building a first-of-its-kind on-site Grief Resource Center staffed by a full time grief counselor.

Linda H. Phelps was brought in by French seven years ago as a grief counselor because, “the feedback from families was they wanted ongoing grief support after the funeral,” she said.

French responded with an in-house grief counseling program, and Phelps provides up to three one-hour grief sessions to French families at no additional cost.

In an attempt to expand those services to the larger community, French is now building a Grief Resource Center at the rear of its funeral home property on University, north of Lomas. The center will be in a remodeled multi-bay garage building and construction should be complete by Oct. 1, said Phelps, who holds a doctorate in educational gerontology and is a licensed marriage family therapist.

“Traditionally, grief counseling has not been part of our services,” said David Houston, chairman of the New Mexico Board of Funeral Services, which licenses and regulates funeral directors, funeral homes and crematoriums. “I do think it’s a good idea, and having a grief center, a place that is readily available to people, would provide additional resources to the families we serve.”

Houston added that, as far as he knew, French Funerals is the only funeral business in the state with an in-house staff grief counselor, and the only one in the state to initiate the construction of a resource center.

During counseling sessions, Phelps said people are encouraged to talk about their personal grieving process, “the feelings, thoughts and images that occur at the time of loss,” she said. “I help them bring those out, share them and process them. That’s the state of mourning, and it’s very painful for people to do, but it’s essential for them to move forward through the grief process.”

Phelps stressed that what she does is grief counseling and support, rather than therapy. She counsels adults and children when they come in with a parent, but does not work individually with minors. She also conducts grief and loss workshops at French.

Helen Van Cleve has attended a number of those workshops in the two years since her husband died. “I was overwhelmed when he died and Linda helped me to emotionally move through the grieving process and to share with other people who lost spouses and needed to move on and deal with being alone,” she said.

The sessions imparted the message that “somebody else cared about what was happening to me emotionally and that it was perfectly normal and I just need some time to go through the grieving process,” Van Cleve said.

The soon-to-open Grief Resource Center has struck partnerships with the Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico, Samaritan Counseling Center, clergy and members of the faith-based community, and first responders, including police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs.

In addition to grief counseling, the new center will have the capacity to accommodate up to 60 people for workshops and seminars.

The Grief Resource Center will initially be supported financially by French, but it will be a operated as a nonprofit. It is expected to eventually become self sustaining and funded through grants, donations and fund-raising activities, she said.

“Grief and loss affect all dimensions of our lives — the physical, the psychological, the spiritual and the social,” Phelps said. “In order to process it and work through it, we need to be able to talk about it.”

The new center provides the forum for those discussions to take place, she said.

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