Suncoast Hospice Bereavement Counselor Joe Bixler

When your husband or wife dies, it can feel like losing a piece of yourself. You’ll mourn, grieve and forever change. There’s help to find peace and meaning in your life again.

Suncoast Hospice, a member of Empath Health, offers many support groups to help spouses and others who are grieving the loss of a loved one. These six-week groups are open to anyone in the community and held at our three community service centers or other community locations.

In this Q&A, Suncoast Hospice bereavement counselor Joe Bixler shares his path to counseling, the unique challenges grieving spouses face and his work supporting groups to connect, heal and grow.

Q&A: Suncoast Hospice Bereavement Counselor Joe Bixler, MSW

1. What’s your background?

I was a skilled craftsman for 28 years and wanted to find one final career. At 53, I earned my master’s degree in social work through a part-time distance program of the University of North Carolina. My grandbabies were born in Florida, so I relocated here to be closer to family and search for hospice job openings.

Suncoast Hospice was the most recommended organization, so I applied and got hired. I’ve been here for more than 12 years doing counseling with family members whose loved ones died in our care as well as facilitating grief support groups for the community. I like what I do helping people heal. It’s a good fit for me.

2. Why did you want to work in the hospice field?

My father was a Presbyterian minister and died when I was four. The fact that death comes to us always has been in my head since I was a child. Because of that early experience of loss, that’s probably why I’m good at this work.

3. What counseling specialty did you develop?

I’ve had specialized training in therapeutic techniques that help people who’ve had traumatic experiences.

4. What are grief and mourning?

Grief is the process we go through after a significant loss. Mourning is the outward expression after the loss. We generally heal from grief over time as we adjust to the new change.

5. What are the signs of grief?

Physical fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep deprivation, loss of concentration, impatience, irritability or other ways it manifests. You have to go through it.

6. What spouse loss groups do you work with?

Here in North Pinellas County, we mostly see people come to our spouse loss groups, which we’ve designated for those in either retirement years or working years. I’ve worked with younger adults to elders in their 90’s. Younger participants tend to come in for individual counseling once or twice, and then they find their way and move on to what’s next. Typically, we see people who’ve been married for several years. It gets harder the older you are because you’ve had more time with your spouse or had multiple spouse losses, it’s more difficult to see a future for yourself and you must learn how to reconnect with the world.

7. How do you provide support?

I try to help people mourn in a healthy way. Many individuals often are surprised at how much grief affects and changes them. In early grief, we talk about how you can find normalcy and redefine your way after you no longer have your partner. Some may still be working or have family to take care of, while others may have been caregiving for their spouses and no longer have anyone to care for. We try to help everyone gradually open up, not feel as angry or guilty, figure out what’s next in their lives and focus on moving forward.

8. How’s the grief of a spouse different?

A spouse loss is hard. Spouses may feel anger, guilt, loneliness, anxiety and/or the loss of an identity, a role or a voice. We have lots of veterans and spouses of veterans in our groups, and the military was a huge part of who they are or used to be. For those who were caregivers, they may feel a sense of relief that the suffering and caregiving are over.

9. What are your support groups like?

Our groups offer safe spaces for people to come share their stories. The group process can be helpful to talk about the loved one you’ve lost, express your feelings and share a commonality and bond with others. This process works well.

In the first three weeks, we do storytelling, share memories and discuss changes in roles. People need to hold onto memories. They may bring in pictures or practice journaling, rituals or other simple ways of remembering.

In the last three weeks, we cover social support, anxiety, next steps in life and other topics. I like for participants to use an echo map tool to identify who they can access for support. We like to see our groups support each other and have a life after our meetings end. Oftentimes, group members develop close relationships and continue to check in or meet up for lunches and dinners. Anxiety and grief are closely related, and we discuss how to practice self-care and stress-reduction activities. We finish our groups talking about next plans in life and ways to find pleasure and happiness again.

10. How can friends and families be supportive?

People grieving a spouse often fall by the wayside. Our participants tell us they feel like their support system is tired of hearing about the loss. It’s helpful for people to be a listening presence, not judge and to include them in one-on-one and group outings.

11. What’s most meaningful about your work?

It’s meaningful to help grieving people find some healing. Sometimes, they might think that because they’re feeling better, they’re forgetting. We need to help them heal by focusing on the present. They deserve to heal.

You’re Not Alone

Have you lost your spouse? Join our spouse loss support groups to share your story and get support.