This article and images first appeared in the Vail Daily on October 22, 2020.
Grief over loss can make for heavy burdens and leave people in crisis. A support group offered for free and now in its third year at Gracious Savior Lutheran Church is helping people who are struggling with grief find the support, coping skills and healing needed to move forward in their lives.
Kris Miller said the group is something the community needs — and something she herself has needed. “There’s other support groups, and the more the better, no matter what, but this one is free of charge. That makes a big difference. So many people don’t have the means to pay for a group of some sort,” she said.
Three years ago this month, Miller faced the tragic death of her husband, Kenny Dahlberg, a longtime local business owner in Avon who ran the Brass Parrot bar for 21 years. “I couldn’t make any decisions, I couldn’t do anything,” Miller said about the grief she was feeling at the time.
Miller learned about the GriefShare program that the Gracious Savior Lutheran Church in Edwards was starting and decided to give it a try. She attended sessions with a friend who helped her through the difficult process.
“What it gave me was absolutely a sense of understanding that other people were going through similar feelings I was going through, and that I wasn’t as alone as it seemed like I was,” Miller said. “It forced me to get out of the house, to be functioning, because I certainly wasn’t. It gave me something that meant something to go through every week, a little bit of strength each week.”
The 13-week GriefShare program offers a video-based curriculum featuring counselors and others who specialize in the grieving process, and provides a safe and welcoming environment for people struggling with loss to openly talk about their challenges.
Pastor Jason Haynes said Gracious Savior Lutheran Church started offering the nationally-available program three years ago after a series of tragic and unexpected deaths among its congregation. The church offers the GriefShare program three times a year.
“We just saw a need within our congregation and we knew there was a need in the community as well,” Haynes said. “That need is still huge.”
The church has also partnered with the nonprofit SpeakUp ReachOut to offer a six-week GriefShare program specifically for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. And on Nov. 9, the church is offering a single-session GriefShare program aimed at helping grieving people make it through the holidays, when pain associated with loss can be especially hard.
‘It’s a Long, Long Process’
Three years later, Miller still struggles with the loss of her husband. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and other triggers can bring painful thoughts right back to the surface.
“It’s not a fast journey, like you can skip to the last chapter of a book and be well. It’s a long, long process. You have forward movement and you move backwards. It’s an ongoing process, but this program definitely gives you some skills,” Miller said. “For me, I am so grateful for the church for starting this program and offering it to the community. It had a big influence on my life at a time that I needed it most.”
Participants in the program have also found healing by helping others navigate challenges with grief. Today, Miller is leading GriefShare groups at the church. So are Terry and Mike Mutter, whose daughter Lauren died unexpectedly in March 2019 after a heart attack at age 31.
A graduate of Vail Christian High School, Lauren Mutter returned to the valley after college and worked for the school as director of admissions and student life. She also coached soccer and volleyball for the school and helped mentor youth throughout the valley with Young Life.
“She was so young and so healthy. It was such a shock,” Terry Mutter said. The loss left the family reeling, unsure how to cope and move forward. Terry and Mike Mutter attended the final session of an ongoing GriefShare program shortly after Lauren’s death, and then attended a full 13-week program, and another one after that.
“I think when you first lose somebody and sit through a session like that, it’s healing on one level, but you can’t absorb it all because you’re hurting so much,” Terry Mutter said.
Today the Mutters are facilitating GriefShare programs at the church, and, like Miller, trying to help others deal with devastating losses that upend their lives.
“We understand that loss of someone you love so much, the questions of how do you move forward, and this program helps you do that,” Terry Mutter said. “That person wants you to be happy again, to find joy again, but it’s a hard thing to do. This group has helped us do that.”
People suffering grief need support, Mike Mutter said. That can be as simple as a hug or someone who can listen and understand. The GriefShare program offers both of those things, as well as tools and resources for people to proceed on their own and reach out for help when it’s needed.
“We are hoping to share Lauren’s legacy of unconditional love, respect and caring with people within the community who are going through the grieving process,” Mike Mutter said.
An Ongoing Challenge
Local behavioral health officials said programs like GriefShare are a valuable asset for Eagle County. Like many rural areas in the West, the county has long struggled with a shortage of timely, affordable services for people trying to manage grief, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other mental health challenges that have only been compounded by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, Vail Health pledged to invest $60 million over 10 years to strengthen the Eagle River Valley’s behavioral health system and improve access to services. Chris Lindley, the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, and Dr. Casey Wolfington, its community behavioral health director, said the area is already making progress on those goals.
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, an outreach of Vail Health, has brought more than 25 new service providers to the area over the last 18 months and is working to bring more. It has placed behavioral health providers within Colorado Mountain Medical clinics, strengthened therapist services at local schools, and is also working to build partnerships with universities and programs to help provide a pipeline for more highly-qualified providers to come to the community, Wolfington said.
“We were so far off what the recommended number of clinicians per population was that every time we add a provider, that person becomes full. When we add another, that person becomes full. Every provider has crisis appointments available, but what we’re seeing is we don’t even really know how to estimate the need because it’s almost a never-ending well,” Wolfington said.
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health created an online navigator service to help people easily determine if their insurance covers behavioral health services. And predicting a growing mental health toll from the coronavirus pandemic, it accelerated a planned launch of Olivia’s Fund to March of this year, creating a scholarship program to help ensure people get needed behavioral health services even if they can’t afford them.
Every person who has applied so far has been approved, some multiple times because they needed more than six sessions.
“We never want someone’s financial state to be the reason they don’t seek services. We want people to get help first,” Wolfington said.
Now in its eighth month, the pandemic has made the area’s mental health challenges greater than ever, Wolfington and Lindley said. The long, slow-moving daily crisis has upended nearly every aspect of life, from work and school to parenting and the social interactions that many people rely on for their emotional and mental health. Fatigue is setting in, but the pandemic is far from over.
“We want people to prepare and know this will not all be fixed in a month or two,” Lindley said. “We’re probably six to eight months out from having any viable vaccine in our community, so the entire late fall, winter, and early spring, we’re going to be living in the same scenario we’re living today — wearing masks, washing hands and keeping distance.”
The hope is that more people will take proactive steps to improve their physical and mental health. Another hope is that the pandemic could help reduce any lingering stigmas associated with people getting needed help for emotional and mental health challenges.
From schoolchildren to parents and grandparents, nearly everyone has struggled in some way to deal with the pandemic and the economic uncertainty, isolation, disruption and anxiety it has caused. More people are talking openly about the toll the pandemic has taken on their mental health and that’s a good thing, Lindley said.
“I truly believe there is not one person in this valley that is not affected by this in some way. We are all stressed more, with increased anxiety and uncertainty, and that is okay and to be expected,” Lindley said. “We need to talk about it and recognize everyone will handle it differently. We want people to seek out resources. If you have a sore tooth, you go to the dentist. If you have anxiety or other concerns, go see a provider. There’s no barrier to getting in. Go talk to a behavioral health provider and get reset and get the help you need and continue to thrive.”
For more information about providers, support groups and other behavioral health resources, visit eaglevalleybh.org.