Sandy Kearns is a grief counselor on the Kenai peninsula with a unique approach to helping people deal with the loss of a loved one. Kearns and her husband Dan Musgrove built Winter’s Grace Guidance Center as an alternative to traditional therapy options, with Kearns using her 26 years of experience as a grief counselor and her own personal experiences with loss to develop her model.
At Winter’s Grace, people are welcomed into Kearns’s home as a guest rather than a client. Kearns works with individuals or families and incorporates activities ranging from journaling to meditation to animal care into her sessions. Kearns also has four dogs, a cat, and two horses that are central parts of her grief counseling. Kearns and her clients will play with the dogs, feed the horses, and take walks around her ranch as a part of the healing process. “I’m not going to diagnose you. I’m not going to analyze you. I’m just here to help you carry your burden,” said Kearns.
Each session is personalized to the individual, and Kearns said that this is because each person deals with grief in a different way. When working with a family, for example, the mom may make coffee or do yoga while the kids color or play with the dogs.
“Children don’t typically respond well when asked a bunch of questions, it feels like going to school or showing up for duty. They’re much more inclined to open up while playing or coloring or interacting with animals,” explained Kearns.
Kearns has worked as a clinical counselor for many years, most recently at Providence Alaska Medical Center. After experiencing a number of personal losses in a very short period of time, Kearns decided that she needed to reevaluate her approach to dealing with bereavement, and that’s when she started exploring equine-facilitated wellness and animal-assisted therapy.
Question: Do you typically host one family at a time?
Kearns: Yes. There are those that prefer a small group, and we do that when people request that, and typically that’s six people in a group. So when you want to share your feelings in a group setting we have our Hospice Grief Group, we have the grief group at Central Peninsula, we have a group here for those impacted by suicide. The community is really good about having some grief groups. What we offer here is a therapist’s perspective on what’s going on with you personally. Then people find it a little bit safer to talk, as well.
Q: Would you say that the grief you’ve experienced personally is what led you to do this? Was starting Winter’s Grace part of your own healing process?
Kearns: Yes, very much. It was the move away from clinical counseling where I diagnosed people and billed insurance. Because people who are grieving, they just don’t seek help. They do it by themselves. Because there’s a stigma and people think ‘I don’t want to cry in front of somebody,’ and ‘I’m self-sufficient,’ and ‘oh, time will help.’ But they hurt. They hurt, and they need other people, whether through a church, an agency or an individual facilitator like myself or others in the community to share that journey with them. But they’re hesitant because of price and time and ‘Oh, I don’t want to be analyzed,’ and yet when they do one of these resources, they feel better. And then they say ‘I wish I would have done it sooner.’ So I think throwing ourselves into Winter’s Grace and working with the animals and you know, my dogs were beside me all the way just as my husband was and my friends were. People respond differently. Physicians respond differently. Thank goodness I had great physicians that told me ‘It’s okay to be vulnerable, Sandy,’ because we’re supposed to be strong! We’re here to help other people. But when the helper hurts, what do you do? So we turned to nature, and to animals, and to just spending a lot of time.
Q: So how long have you guys been doing this now?
Kearns: After Dan and I got married, I was still at Providence at the Cancer Center. I was the interim director and we built the Susan Butcher Family Center and I was doing all the counseling for the children and the families. I really loved my job. I’d been there eight years and helped build the Cancer Center. I loved working with individuals with cancer and those bereaved from someone in the family with cancer, but I also wanted to be married and have a family. So I moved down here in 2013. We started on the other side of the road at the Jim Dollar farm. We built a barn, and learned a little bit of care-keeping, and then had this series of losses and decided that we just needed to make things easier for ourselves, the animals, and for people. So we spent a year building a home here.
Musgrove: It was nice in the respect that we had never built a home together, and knowing what we knew from our existing place over there, we were able to draw things up and put a wishlist together to try and incorporate what our current lifestyle was. Probably one of the huge things that was just very gratifying for me: After we got the place built, we had a friend that’s in a wheelchair visit us. We opened one of the garage doors, he drove his vehicle in, unloaded, and he was able to cruise everywhere in the entire house. It warmed my heart to see him be able to do that, and he said rarely can he ever go to anyone’s house and do that.
Kearns: That’s what we wanted. We wanted to welcome people that have had different things in their life that have caused them to change courses. No one has to be a victim, however we do change courses sometimes and that can be pretty unexpected.
Q: What would you say to someone who’s considering coming to you, but they’re not necessarily sure if it’s right for them?
A: Well, we always talk to everybody over the phone first. So you’ll give me a call, we’ll visit by phone, we’ll determine if we’re a fit, I’ll help you understand better what we do. I’ll give them my Facebook, website, and Linkedin profile, and have them ask around town. But there’s no obligation. If you don’t want to commit to the full hour-and-a-half, then let’s just talk a little bit by phone.