Kara (the gothic root for “care”) is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization and renowned grief center, providing powerful, free grief support services to the San Francisco Bay Area from their Palo Alto home since 1976. Truly, the breadth, success, and compassion of Kara’s programs are nothing short of amazing — due to their dedicated staff and volunteers. Cindy Ainsworth, the Executive Director of Kara, and Stephanie Demos, the Development Director at Kara (both grief counselors), graciously agreed to be interviewed by SevenPonds for our most in-depth Professional Advice yet:
Aurora: Can you tell us a little about Kara, your history and services?
Cindy & Stephanie: Kara was founded 35 years ago, for the purpose of providing emotional end-of-life support. Initially, Kara’s services were designed for adults, primarily based on the principle of peer support: that in our time of grieving, we need to be with people who have experienced similar loss. Kara has since expanded to offer both individual counseling, and specific support groups for traumas such as the loss of a young child, the loss of an adult child, sibling loss, spouse and partner loss, and loss to suicide. We now have a family program, and services for youth and teens; Camp Erin was created 10 years ago to give children ages 6-17 a place to grieve. We have a professional caregivers group as well, providing a safe place for them to talk about their experiences.
We offer community outreach programs where we go out on site and help schools, organizations, and corporations anticipating or experiencing a death of someone in their community. When someone comes to Kara for services and their needs are beyond the scope of peer support, they can receive professional help through Kara. Additionally, we periodically host one-day conference or speaker events, where experts in grief and loss or end-of-life educate our community.
Aurora: Wow! What’s next for Kara?
Cindy & Stephanie: We are interested in extending our programming to bolster resiliency, like mindfulness-based stress reduction for people grieving, parenting classes for people grieving (instead of simply support for grieving parents), and more education-focused initiatives. As more and more organizations are realizing that grief is often a common thread underlying certain behavior and mental health issues, we would like to partner with those organizations (such as addiction support centers) and offer grief counseling in conjunction with their services.
Aurora: Could you share one or two of your most rewarding or memorable experiences at Kara?
Stephanie: One for me was my first year at Camp Erin. The way that the very first night of camp, the little boys were able to connect with one another and be honest about their loss… Listening to them say it out loud, and fall off to sleep. I couldn’t sleep myself I was so moved.
And recently, a Japanese person came in to talk about being so far from home when the tsunami hit.
Cindy: One of the clients featured in our video: a man whose two-year-old daughter ran out between two parked cars and was killed. So horrible, and yet he was able to move beyond the immediate impact, saying that while he would do anything to have his daughter back for a single day, she taught him that every moment is precious. Hearing from a client that we can make that kind of change and inspire hope is very rewarding.
Aurora: I bet. How do you think Kara has impacted our cultural dialogue (or lack thereof) around death?
Cindy & Stephanie: It’s a very personal issue and because we are a culture that is essentially death denying, it’s significant that Kara advocates openness and lives by that policy. We create a safe space, where people can talk about whatever it is they’re feeling and express a wide range of emotions — it’s not just sadness; sometimes people experience anger, or guilt, or all sorts of feelings on their personal grief journey. At Kara, all emotions are OK. We speak about things openly and honestly, without glossing over anything.
I see this approach beginning to permeate a little bit; people are starting to have an open dialogue about death, and realize how connected we are with other human beings, because we are all going to grieve.
Aurora: So true. Do you have any words of guidance for SevenPonds readers who may be coping with grief?
Cindy & Stephanie: There are a number of good websites (including our own), which offer resources for people who are grieving, or supporting someone in their time of grief.
But if I was really talking to someone coping with grief, I would say, give yourself time. There are many physical symptoms associated with grief: headaches, sleeplessness, poor memory, etc. We encourage people to be easy on themselves and their bodies, first and foremost.
There is no right and no wrong way to grieve, but you must be expressive. For some people, that expression is nonverbal — but grief lives within you, and you need to externalize it somehow; that’s the healing door. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint, and it’s important to respect your own process and understand it will change you, probably for the rest of your life. And that’s OK. Be as patient and kind with yourself as possible throughout the process. Self-forgiveness is huge.
Thank you so much, Cindy and Stephanie!
You can call Kara’s office at 650.321.5272 Monday through Friday, 9 am to 4 pm PST.