Every Monday afternoon, residents in the Northwest Arctic Borough and Point Hope can get a counseling session to help them with a challenging yet common experience: grief.
Telehealth therapist Mary Zielie started grief counseling at Maniilaq Health Center in July and has served 20 different patients since then. Her patients attended sessions to get help dealing with the loss of a loved one to illness or suicide, witnessing something traumatic or even losing a house or feeling a loss of culture, she said.
“Lots of that is a loss of a loved one and a lot of times, it may be somebody that they had lost recently,” Zielie said. “Or maybe even a long time ago — maybe it was 10 years ago but it’s still affecting them as if it happened yesterday.”
After working in behavioral health at Maniilaq for about four years, Zielie said she noticed that the theme of grief was brought up a lot by the clients. Last year, she tried creating a grief support group, but the idea didn’t get a lot of engagement.
“With the grief, people can feel very vulnerable,” she said. “It’s difficult to talk about the most vulnerable part of our lives in front of other people.”
Zielie decided to switch to one-on-one counseling sessions, which her clients have found helpful, she said.
Grief counseling looks different for everybody, she said. Some clients need only a session to share what they are going through, while others need several visits. Zielie listens to her clients, provides them with information about different shapes and stages of grief and helps them implement coping skills into their daily lives.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are various stages of grief, and going through them can take different time for different people and the process is often non-linear.
“You can go back and forth between stages, you could skip the stage,” she said. “If they’re still grieving over a loved one after a year or something, they may get feedback from others, ‘Oh, you should be over it,’ ‘Oh, it’s time to move on.’ But that’s not really how grief works. It’s really a different experience for everybody.
“A lot of times that can bring some comfort just knowing that it’s okay, no matter how they’re responding,” she said. “Everybody grieves differently and so, at any part of their grieving process, they’re welcome to come in.”
Coping skills Zielie helps her clients master include mindfulness and being aware of how they process the experience. She also encourages them to connect with other people who are experiencing loss or connect to their spirituality or religion.
“Connection is really huge,” she said. “That’s something that really helps with the healing process.”
To get an appointment, people can call Maniilaq intake manager Ashley Nies at (907) 442 7645 who will ask them for their basic information and connect them with Zielie. Sessions happen on Mondays between 1 and 5 p.m. If clients call on Monday, the wait is usually not longer than an hour, Zielie said.
The session duration — which happens either over the phone or via Zoom — typically lasts around an hour, but it is possible to speak to Zielie for more or less time.
“One major thing we wanted was to be able to have really easy access to grief counseling,” Zielie said. “When people are struggling, you know, the last thing they want to do is a ton of paperwork and having to wait to see a counselor. ... This way, if they’re struggling, they know it’s available Monday afternoons.”
Correction: The previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only Kotzebue residents are eligible to sign up for grief counseling. All residents in the Maniilaq service area — those living in the Northwest Arctic Borough and Point Hope — can receive the service.