A SOURCE OF COMFORT

ALUMNA HELPS FAMILIES COPE WITH GRIEF-EVEN ACROSS THE MILES

Sooner or later, all of us will face the loss of someone we love. But while the experience is universal, helping the bereaved to heal often takes a special blend of empathy and expertise.

Joan Abess, B.S.N. '68, has an abundance of both. A highly experienced nurse and certified bereavement counselor, she's also a 19-year survivor of ovarian cancer-which gives her advice to seriously ill patients and their families a special resonance.

Abess reaches out to grieving families who are too far away for personal contact through Bereavement by Mail, a unique program that she founded ten years ago and operates pro bono. Next of kin and significant others are first sent a packet of information and inspiration. They then receive a monthly Hospice publication for the first year, which concludes with a personalized letter. Abess communicates with some families with e-mails and phone calls; if they're in town, she may take them to lunch to see how they're doing and offer suggestions for additional services that may be appropriate, such as professional counseling. Most of those whom Abess has helped never meet her.

Abess is the veteran of a distinguished nursing career of more than five decades. Her first job upon arriving in Miami in 1958 was at Doctors Hospital. In the early '60s, she helped open South Miami Hospital as the new facility's associate director of nursing. After earning her nursing degree at UM, Abess served as chair of nursing practice at Jackson Memorial Hospital and then returned to Doctors Hospital to serve as director of nursing.

Abess witnessed firsthand the end-of life care issues that inspired her to focus on bereavement counseling after she was named vice president for patient relations at Doctors."Dealing with dying patients and their families in the ICU and on the other units, I was able to help many people during very stressful times," she recalls.

Abess is a strong supporter of the new M. Christine Schwartz Center for Nursing and Health Studies; in fact, she sits on the committee responsible for raising money to complete the facility. The Schwartz Center's handsome main lobby was named in her honor through a gift from the Alma Jennings Foundation. Ever-grateful for her education at UM, she remains passionately committed to her bereavement work. Asked about the single most important way to help patients and families through the process of dying, her reply is simple: "Listening-that's the best thing you can do."