When Michele Prince was 16, her mother died. Her mother's death was the third loss of a close relative that Prince had suffered, and her family decided that she needed to see a therapist. Prince, now 35, remembers the experience as detrimental to her emotional well-being. "I distinctly recall at that young, raw age, the social worker saying, 'Oh well, chin up, at this age, as an adult, having a parent is really a luxury, so just get on with things.' It was very bad advice, and my goal is to prevent that from ever happening again to someone who has had that kind of a loss."
A recent graduate of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Prince teamed up with fellow student Amy Berkowitz, 27, to actualize that goal. For their master's project, the women created a bereavement Web site, where those who are grieving are able to find the resources available to them in the community to help them through their dark periods. The Web site is a resource guide that lists both synagogue and agency support groups and counselors in the L.A. area, and provides links to other sites where Jewish mourning rituals are described.
"I was working as a hospice volunteer, and for the past year I was a medical social work intern at the USC hospital. I could really see -- through that work and through loose networking in the bereavement community -- that there really was no easy access to groups and counselors who specialize in that kind of work," Prince said. Berkowitz was inspired by her experience as an assistant director at a bereavement retreat, where she saw how helpful good support groups are in giving strength to those who have experienced loss.
The information for the site was gathered in an informal way, with Prince and Berkowitz networking through the Westside Valley Bereavement Facilitators Network and through word-of-mouth referrals to find people who were experts in bereavement counseling. Each counselor was interviewed before being placed on the site. Prince and Berkowitz also contacted every synagogue in the L.A. area to find out what bereavement services they offered. The site also has listings for those with specialized needs, such as helping those who have lost a relative to suicide or lost someone in a violent way. "We made sure that we covered the whole geography of L.A., and the outlying areas as well," Prince said.
Prince said that the site picks up where shiva stops. "After the shiva is over, the shloshim [30 days of mourning] is completed and nobody in the community is making meals for the mourners anymore, they find themselves feeling really lost and needing someone more to talk to. This would be the time for them to look at our site," she said. "The other piece of this is that there are so many people who are not affiliated, who don't have a rabbi for counseling, and who don't even know about shiva, but in their time of loss, they feel more comfortable working within the Jewish community -- so this is a place that they can turn to."
The site is currently being funded by HUC-JIR and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health, an affiliate of the college. The founders are planning on updating the site on a quarterly basis by adding more resources as they become available, and they are also thinking about rolling out the site to other communities across America.
But is working in bereavement depressing? Prince was sanguine about it. "I feel that we are providing a wonderful resource," she said "I can identify with someone's loss on a very deep level and a very personal level, and I feel that we are really putting resources out there that help to heal."
To access the Jewish Bereavement Project Web site, visit www.jewishbereavement.com .