Grief counselor relies on humor to ease pain

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BILLINGS, Mont. - Carol Whiteman knows what it's like to grieve. But the many losses in her life have strengthened her resolve to help others.

Whiteman, a member of the Crow Tribe, spends her days working as a professional grief counselor. When tragedy strikes, when people die, or when other emotional needs become too pressing, Whiteman is there to help lighten the load.

"I believe the Creator prepared me for the work I'm doing today," Whiteman told participants at a recent regional Indian health conference in Billings. "My training is always ongoing. I just try to do His will in all areas of my life."

Whiteman's road to her profession has not been easy. She said her childhood was heavily tainted with trauma, including sexual, mental and physical abuse. Other pain came later.

"The punches didn't hurt as much as the words," she says now. "It affected all my relationships with men and my relationship with my Creator. I was stuck in anger and rage for years and years."

Whiteman said drinking alcohol helped her through some of the hard times, and overeating came in a close second. But once she got married and started having children of her own, she realized that her self-destruction had to end.

In 1973, Whiteman quit drinking. A few years later, she fully accepted Christianity and vowed to continue improving her life, as well as the lives of others.

Her introduction into grief counseling came a bit farther down the road, after her son-in-law was killed in a car wreck at age 22, and her mother died after six long months in a Billings hospital.

Whiteman, who lives outside Pryor, said she spent a lot of time in the hospital during her mother's illness and many of the staff came to know her well. One man, Richard Becker, urged her to train to be a chaplain at the hospital's pastoral care center. She took his advice and her life has not been the same since.

Whiteman has held on to many of her traditional Indian ways, and she blends the old with the new in her work as a Capuchin priest. While most of her work is done on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, she spends a lot of time traveling to Billings to be with families whose members have been hospitalized. She's also a certified masseuse and has studied reflexology. Both practices, as well as traditional sweats, are used to help soothe her clients.

Whiteman has also studied substance abuse issues during coursework at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency. The additional training, she said, gives her a better understanding of what people are going through when times are difficult.

"Drugs and alcohol permeate all aspects of our lives," she explained. "A lot of alcohol counselors realize that grief is part of their client's alcoholism," be it from generational land and cultural losses, or traumatic things that have happened within their own lives.

While grief surfaces in many forms, Whiteman said the process follows predictable patterns once it starts. First there is shock, usually followed by anger. Then there may be bouts of blaming and self-pity before acceptance finally takes hold.

"There's all kinds of ways it comes up," she said, and even a telephone that stops ringing just as you pick it up can trigger the same reactions. The same is true, she said, with learning you have a serious illness, or even growing up as a foster child.

"Death isn't the only loss we experience," Whiteman explained. "Grief is the intense response to change, even if the change is positive."

Whiteman concedes that one of the driving purposes of her work is to continue healing herself.

"The pain in your life just keeps building and building in layers and layers," she said of the time before she confronted her own problems and began turning them into things that could be used to help others. "Because of the pain in my life I became too serious."

Along with getting away from alcohol, Whiteman said learning how to forgive played a big role in her emotional recovery.

"Forgiveness is one of the most important healing things in my life," she said. "I had blocked out the good with my pain."

Because her work usually deals with the solemn and sad, Whiteman said she tries to surround herself with positive, upbeat people during her off-hours. She also rents a lot of video movies, mostly comedies, to help keep a positive perspective.

"I really believe humor has gotten Native Americans through a lot of things," she said.

But whenever the call comes for help, be it day or night, Whiteman is ready with an embrace of compassion, a steady hand, or a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes the best she can offer is a place for a grieving person to tell their own story, free from distraction.

"I try to help them reach some sort of peace about the whole situation," she said of her work. "I try to treat this with a lot of respect. The journey is very sacred."