“You would be crazy to stay in this profession if people did not get better,” says Linda Gill, who has devoted her adult life to walking with others through the dark night of grief.
She believes her work as a grief counselor and advocate for community-based grief support is the result of a direct calling from God. She was working as a neonatal critical-care nurse in the early 1980s at Duke University Medical Center and had felt “like a square peg in a round hole” for a long time. She loved being a nurse, but she couldn’t shake the notion that she should be caring for the whole family, not just her young patients.
She experienced the sting of death acutely. When one baby with a heart defect died, the child’s family was not there. Gill went into a break room and pounded the wall. “Why do I stay in this insanity? she asked herself. “This hurts too much.”
Then, she said, it was as though “God typed words in my mind: Linda, you do it for them and their families, and you make a difference.” At that moment, “something was conceived inside me to help families struggling with a loss,” she said.
Later, a baby was born with his organs located outside his body. He didn’t die, but there were surgeries and complications, and the child suffered a major stroke. Gill “helped the parents be his parents” while the baby was in the nursery and taught them how to provide basic care for their son. “That family lost the experience of having a normal baby to take home,” which was also a type of grief, Gill said. She has stayed in touch with the family, and the son “now lives happily” in a group home.
Those experiences and others sealed Gill’s commitment to minister to people dealing with grief. “We don’t have the power to change circumstances,” she said, “but if we are walking with people through their circumstances, that changes the experience itself. That is the basis of everything I’ve ever done.”
Gill’s nursing career eventually brought her to South Carolina, where she was able to “write [her] own job description” at Lexington Medical Center as a clinical specialist working with families with critically-ill babies or who had lost children at birth or near birth. Over the next five years, she started four separate grief support groups and co-founded the South Carolina SIDS Coalition.
In the late 1990s, her position at the hospital was eliminated “because insurance wouldn’t pay” for a nurse to provide grief support. She began to pray in earnest about her dream of starting a grief-care ministry called “Joy in the Mourning,” inspired by Psalm 30:5, which says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” She continued contracting with the hospital while working on a master’s degree in clinical counseling from Columbia International University.
She earned her counseling degree in 2003 and went into private practice. At the same time, she started Joy in the Mourning Center for Life Losses, a nonprofit organization designed to provide free or low-cost grief programs to people in and around Columbia, including support groups and classes for people dealing with grief stemming from various losses of life. The center also provides educational programs and workshops for churches and other organizations to train others to help “those who are heartbroken or hurting.”
“Not everybody needs professional grief counseling,” said Gill, “so, in addition to counseling, we are trying to offer the other forms of support people need. Grief is not something you get over — you work your way through it, like a maze, and everyone in the family has a different labyrinth.”
Joy in the Mourning Center doesn’t have a paid staff and relies on sponsorships from businesses and other groups to fund its programming, much of which it provides for free. Gill is available to speak to churches and says the center can also “come alongside churches” to help meet needs in instances where a pastor might be overwhelmed with a lot of deaths or other crises.
“What we need is for a lot of people to come alongside what we’re doing,” Gill said, “but society doesn’t want to think about death. This is not a Linda Gill thing — it’s a God’s thing.” Gill hopes Joy in the Mourning Center will grow and eventually spread to satellite locations across the state.
In the meantime, she intends to keep diving headfirst into work “that would be crazy if people didn’t get better and heal from their losses.”
“It is the joy of my heart to watch God at work in healing broken hearts,” she said, “and to be allowed to be a part of that process with him.”
For more information about Joy in the Mourning Center for Life Losses, visit joyinthemourningcenter.org or call 803-407-3185.