Grief and Bereavement Services – Question and Answer with Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes

My name is Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes, and I am the coordinator of Eastern Health’s Bereavement Services at Dr. L. A. Miller Centre in St. John’s, NL. My work is more than a job to me, it is truly a passion.

Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes, coordinator of Eastern Health’s Bereavement Services at Dr. L. A. Miller Centre

What led you to this career – was this always something you were interested in?

My career has evolved from community ministry that is religious care and spiritual care, to a more general focus of spiritual care in an intercultural and interfaith environment. We help people explore and reflect on their life using their religious and spiritual resources.

When I embraced the profession of spiritual care, it grew out of my need to care for and explore people’s meaning and purpose in life. I’ve felt inspired to embrace the challenge to support people spiritually – to be a spiritual guide throughout my career.


Why is this an important service and why should people consider availing of it?

The Grief and Bereavement Service offered by Eastern Health helps people cope with the pain of separation. This is pain that everyone experiences at some time in their lives. The grief process is often a struggle, a passage or a pathway, and it may lead to illness which is one of the symptoms of grief. It may also eventually lead to an improved life. It is helpful when grief is worked through and managed, so it can heal and foster wellness.

The great majority of grieving people are helped by the support of family and friends. Other grieving people are helped to cope with their grief by bereavement information sessions. A smaller number of people are helped by grief and bereavement programs, grief support groups and individual counselling. There is also benefit gained when family and friends learn how to help each other to grieve which reduces the need for specialty grief bereavement services.


What are a few things people might not know or understand about grief and bereavement?

Sometimes, people think that time heals and there is some truth in this. But, in reality, some people are at risk of complicated or traumatic grief which likely needs professional assistance. A person is not helped by people saying, “get over it,” or “you should be over it by now” because, it’s been two weeks, or two months, or even two years.”

Some people struggle with accepting the reality of the loss of a loved one, which is why societies/cultures have rituals of passage to the afterlife, whatever they conceive that to be. This reinforces the reality of the death, as well as bringing a community to help support the family and friends in their grief process. Many people don’t realize the importance of memorials, i.e. doing things in memory of a loved one. This helps people to reconcile with their loved one or to feel a connection such as an acknowledgement of the significance of the person in their life.


Are there any misconceptions about grief and bereavement?

Grieving people sometimes assume they can manage their own grief and they shouldn’t cry because it’s a sign of weakness. The reality is that tears are as physiologically therapeutic as laughter, and equally necessary in the grief process. Crying is an emotional response to the emotional pain that the grieving person is experiencing. It’s an involuntary response because they feel hurt by the loss and it’s a shock to their nervous system. Society sometimes treats all grief as the same, which is ignoring the significance of the depth of the relationship with the loved one, and the dynamics which may be happening in the grieving person’s life.

Sometimes people assume that given all the grief symptoms they are experiencing that they are losing their minds, or they are experiencing a severe illness. In these circumstances people need reassurance from their community that they aren’t mentally ill or physically ill. They may, in fact, be experiencing the stress of the loss or the shock to their body due to the loss.


How is the service evolving at Eastern Health and throughout the country?

The number of referrals to Bereavement Services has increased steadily since it began in 2010. The referred clients are seen primarily by myself as the coordinator of Bereavement Services. However, clients are also seen by Eastern Health counselors who receive referrals for grief counselling. They include social workers, psychologists and pastoral care practitioners. It is a regional service and people anywhere in the Eastern Health region may avail of this services for individual grief counselling. Clients experiencing complicated grief or traumatic grief may also be seen by myself via the telehealth service.

Over the past two years the number and variety of support programs available have expanded. Our service collaborates with Pastoral Care and Ethics to offer an eight-week Bereavement Information and Support Program to the public. Bereavement Services also collaborates with Home and Community Palliative Care to provide Spousal Grief Support groups in St. John’s and in Upper Gullies, CBS and a Parent Loss Grief Support Group for adult children who have lost a parent(s).

In keeping with the organization’s strategic direction focusing on healthy workplace, several grief and bereavement educational opportunities are available to staff, such as Supporting Staff with Grief:  A Guide for Leaders and A Grief Counsellors Peer Support Group.

In November 2017, the Canadian Hospice and Palliative Care Association coordinated the first National Bereavement Day, a significant initiative to help shift the public perception towards the universal nature of death.  Also, in 2017, Eastern Health collaborated with St. Elizabeth Health Care, Toronto and Memorial University’s Religious Studies to host a research project that introduced people to The Reflection Room experience, an opportunity to help reflect on death and grief.


What type of things do you hear from people who have availed of Grief and Bereavement service? How does it benefit them?

We have compiled the evaluations/feedback from people who have attended the bereavement information sessions and some of the responses include the following:

  • “Thank you it was helpful to hear the stories of others and to see how the grieving process changes;”
  • “The session was very important to me;”
  • “Quite happy I attended;”
  • “Structure of meeting was open to sharing”;
  • “This was a great start for me”; and
  • “Finding it helps a lot and to see you are not alone.”

People who have received individual counselling appreciate having their various feelings and reactions to grief validated. Bereavement support and care acknowledges the pain of separation caused by the death of a loved one. The healing of the grief pain is helped by providing people with opportunities to talk about their loved one and to feel they can continue to connect with them. Sometimes people have had extraordinary experiences in which they feel the presence of their loved one which helps the person to feel reassured that their loved one is alright even though they have died.

I am passionate about my work because I believe the service we offer at Eastern Health makes a difference. I have found that one of the side-effects or outcomes of grief is that trust is undermined, and that people have trouble trusting life.  This service, in both group programs and individual therapy, fosters trust and validates the severe emotional pain due to separation from their loved one.

If you or someone you know could benefit from Grief and Bereavement Services, please visit 


This story was written by Brittany Mitchelmore, communications specialist at Eastern Health, and Mag Snook, Administrative Assistant at Eastern Health’s Bereavement Services.






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