Personal tragedy inspires instructor for Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program

two hands holding

Douglas Smith draws from personal experience in his work with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program. In 1972, Smith had to manage his own grief when his newborn daughter died after open-heart surgery in a Peoria, Ill., hospital.

Smith’s daughter, Kristen, was born with a misshaped heart, brain damage, and other abnormalities. Smith and his wife spent seven weeks observing her through a glass wall, forbidden by the hospital to hold their child.

“Imagine you’re watching your child die but you’re not allowed to touch,” Smith says.

Before the operation, a compassionate surgeon named Dr. Albers bent the rules and allowed the couple to spend a night with their baby. After Kristen died, he knelt with them, cried, and held their hands.

Albers’ empathy taught Smith a lesson about helping others deal with grief.

“This was a real person,” he says. “This was not somebody hiding behind a title or a uniform. Because of those qualities, healing came about.”

Finding meaning

Smith is the lead instructor for the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program, which is designed for counselors, educators, and other professionals who facilitate healing after traumatic events. He has over 25 years of experience as a counselor, therapist, and health care administrator, and is the author of The Tao of Dying and The Complete Book of Counseling the Dying and the Grieving.

UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies offers an online version of the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program that replicates the in-person experience. It includes 20 hours of lectures and assignments, plus 15 to 20 hours for a project. The online program runs from April 5 to May 31, with Smith facilitating course discussions and assignments. The course materials come from Smith and three other experts, each focused on specific aspects of dealing with grief.

The classroom version of the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program begins with four daylong classes, in which participants learn to help clients find meaning in the midst of suffering. A month later, they reconvene to present a final paper or project. The next session runs October 27-30 and December 3.

See the video above to learn more about Smith’s own experience with loss and healing and what it taught him about the nature of a healer. For more information about the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program, contact Barbara Nehls-Lowe at barbara.nehlslowe@wisc.edu, 608-890-4653.