Social worker looks behind mask of grief to find ember of hope

By Jeff Petersen, The Observer October 14, 2013 10:44 am

Social worker Teresa Smith-Dixon helps people get through the end stages of life, and their loved ones get through grief. (Phil Bullock/The Observer)
Social worker Teresa Smith-Dixon helps people get through the end stages of life, and their loved ones get through grief. (Phil Bullock/The Observer)

Sometimes aha! moments come early in life. Take Teresa Smith-Dixon, for instance. At age 11, she knew that she wanted to be a social worker. The catalyst was an effervescent Los Angeles County social worker who came into their home when they adopted her younger sister, Linda, and made the experience one to cherish.

At first, Smith-Dixon wanted to be a social worker for children. Only later, while in college at Humboldt State University, and working with a 90-something woman of  strength and vivid memories of a life well lived, did Smith-Dixon decide that working with the elderly, with those who are in the last stages of life or with those who are grieving would be her mission.

Flash forward to today. Smith-Dixon of La Grande is now in her 25th year of being a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Grande Ronde Hospital Home Care Services. She is the bereavement coordinator for hospice and among the staff who follow up with families of hospice patients. She also provides direct social work services with patients and their families.

For 20 of those years, she has led the Growing Through Grief support group that meets each spring and fall, a group that over the past two decades has helped almost 500 people get their lives back again. They share experiences and gain tools to help with coping.

People in grief, too, have aha! moments, some sooner, some later. Smith-Dixon emphasizes that the group isn’t for everybody, but it can provide connections and hope, and help people emerge from the fog of grief.

Some people with strong social networks of friends and family may not need the group, she said. But for some people, even with strong social networks, the group provides firsthand evidence that we are not alone in our grief, that many people are facing similar issues.

For these people, the group provides a springboard for healing.

As Smith-Dixon said, we are all human and all have to face end-of-life issues, whether our own or those of a loved one. It’s critical, she said, that we connect with others during these stressful times.

“When we lose someone, we feel sadness, depression. We cry, we feel anxiety, anger, disappointment, maybe even guilt,” Smith-Dixon said. “Mourning is a healing process, and in the group we try to get the healing process started.”

Some people put off mourning. That is not wise, Smith-Dixon said. It can lead to all sorts of problems, from depression to anxiety disorders, even post traumatic stress disorder and physical ailments like immune deficiencies and cardiac problems.

“Lots of problems can come from unresolved grief,” Smith-Dixon said.

There is no time limit on starting the healing process or joining a group. 

“Even 10 years (after a death), you can always start mourning and begin the healing process,” she said.

We all have to grieve, she said.

“Nobody is exempt, rich or poor,” she said. “You can’t get around it.”

It’s like a river, she said, with lots of tributaries. We are the tributaries, all flowing together, supporting each other, to form a stronger whole.

Social work is stressful. The reward, Smith-Dixon said, is seeing the success stories, the people who come through unimaginable harrowing experiences and build a new life.

“I believe and trust the natural healing process so much,” Smith-Dixon said. “I see so many great outcomes, people who are living fully after tragedy.”

The effect of the group, which often involves about a dozen people, is exponential.

“Afterwards, they’re going to go out and become companions to friends and neighbors when they have their own losses,” Smith-Dixon said. “The benefits keep growing and expanding.”

In bereavement, the reward, she said, is helping people see they have a new life, that they can go on as a tribute to their loved one. It’s helping them turn the corner toward healing. 

“When someone commits to that journey,” Smith-Dixon said, “so much can be done to make it happen.”