Interview with a Hospice Bereavement Support Counselor

Virtual Grief Counseling

COVID-19 changed just about everything—including how hospices provide grief support. From in-person sessions (individual and group) the work changed virtually overnight—and became virtual. Carol Schoneberg, a 30-year veteran in the field of bereavement counseling, found to her surprise that she liked the change and the new medium.

In this interview, Carol talks how COVID-19 changed the bereavement support services at Hospice of Southern Maine, a non-profit agency serving Maine’s York and Cumberland Counties. Carol serves as End-of Life Educator and Bereavement Support Counselor there. She was interviewed by Julie Weiss, LCSW, hospice social worker and Hospice Help Foundation volunteer.

When COVID-19 hit and things were shutting down, how did you decide to switch bereavement support to Zoom?

On March 13, 2020, the agency suspended all in-person bereavement services. I had been hearing little pieces about Zoom, and I just said, ‘We can continue. Let’s continue as we have been, just on Zoom and Face Time, and see what happens.’ Within the space of a day, the three of us [in the bereavement department] had contacted each of our clients.

What were you expecting? How did you think it would work?

I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe foolishly, I thought some elderly clients might say they didn’t want to deal with the technology. But not one person said that. I would really try to encourage them. ‘Is there anyone in your family who can help? Perhaps a grandchild who might be willing to help you?’ People were incredibly willing to learn whatever skill they needed to continue grief counseling.

How did it work?

Within two weeks we were going full steam. In the first year of the pandemic [from March through November 2020] we completed seven 8-week bereavement support groups—the same numbers as pre-Zoom. We continued to have specialty groups, like those for parents who have lost adult child. We completed two Healing Through Writing workshops. Filled to capacity.

The most wonderful thing I discovered really quickly is that there’s an intimacy to Zoom that is hard to articulate. I hesitate to say, I almost prefer it. I think it’s because of the intimacy. You’re right there, right now. There aren’t the distractions that there might be. I feel that I can read somebody the same way that I read them in an office. I’m more focused on the person‘s face and they’re seeing my face. It does not hinder in any way that I have seen the person’s ability to have the full range of emotions. There’s something really powerful when the tears fall.

I suspect it has to do with one’s type and nature, and whatever mine is, this is how I experience it. There are people I know who are never going to feel that way. But the feedback is that it’s incredibly valuable, as much as being in person.

One or two clients said, ‘I can’t wait until we can actually be together, and as soon as that happens I don’t want to do this any more.’ The missing piece is hugging, and that’s such a huge piece in grief, but for the most part, people said, ‘I wouldn’t have gone if I had to drive from Casco, but the fact that I could sit in my pajamas and have my cat sit on my lap and comfort me, I wouldn’t change it for anything.’

What benefits do you see to using Zoom, rather than meeting in person?

A few months into the pandemic I got email from an out-of-state hospice telling me about a family with  connections in Maine, but now a key family member was living in Paris. They wondered if I would be willing to take her on as a client. And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and we met together for probably 5 or 6 months, and that was wonderful. I had another client whose husband died under my care, and she moved to Europe, and I continued to see her [by Zoom] in Amsterdam. And then, in our groups, we’ve had people from Hawaii and South Carolina and Florida. You name it. These are people who we would not have been able to serve.

We didn’t know we had the capacity to do this, but now that we’ve done it and know how powerful it is, we’ll continue to offer it. It’s great. And grief is grief, no matter where they are. Their grief is human. Looks the same, smells the same. There’s no geography.