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Redirecting Grief Into Volunteer Work (Like Bethenny Frankel) Can Be Life Changing

The Skinnygirl founder lost her on-again off-again boyfriend Dennis Shields in August. 

Bethenny Frankel says her hard work organizing relief for those affected by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina last week is helping her heal from her own personal tragedy. 

The Real Housewives of New York City mogul has been mourning the loss of her on-off boyfriend Dennis Shields since his passing on August 10. “The work I am doing for hurricane relief is a good outlet, but I’m trying to not get too immersed and not avoid the grieving process and feeling,” Bethenny tells PEOPLE. “I am going through an emotional storm and must go through and not around it. People are suffering way more than I am. People have helped me get through my despair with their love and inspiration and now it is my turn.” 

Dennis was Bethenny's biggest supporter, cheering on her Bethenny's B Strong charity organization work for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. “He embraced and applauded everything I did and cheered me on from the sidelines,” Bethenny said. 

Personal Space spoke with New York based grief counselor Jill Cohen, who applauded Bethenny's efforts to help others to help heal herself. But, remember to care for yourself, she adds. Cohen has specialized in bereavement counseling for adults and children, and has worked with hundreds of children at Comfort Zone Camp, the nation’s largest bereavement camp for children. 

How can volunteering or doing charity work help a person through grief?

"It can give the griever a sense of fulfillment, of purpose. Even a sense of 'giving back to others' if the grieving person experienced much help and support from others during the illness or circumstances which preceded the death of his or her loved one," Cohen says. "It may be considered a way of acknowledging how important was the help that his or her family received either before a death, during, or right afterwards. It is a way of showing that they appreciated the help so much that they were inspired to do it for others, too. A true way of putting that gratefulness into motion, or action. This can help people find some fulfillment in the time of grief, as long as it does not become the focus of life in a dominant way."

When you lose someone, it is healthy to throw yourself into work for others?

"After a death, the grieving person can often feeling tired or worn out, out of sorts, maybe in a fog, not fully functional or not fully present in their life, relationships and daily activities. To add a thrust of volunteering or charity work to the mix can be overwhelming," Cohen says. "It adds more pressure, time demands, and social interaction that may be too overwhelming, especialy at the time of early grieving. Trying to adjust to the 'new normal' and trying to dedicate time to doing work for others is not going to be a healthy situation. A person in grief must take the time to take care of his or her self, begin to heal, attend to one's own needs and that of other grieving family members, and to try to keep things together. Adding something extra will add stress, overload and other challenges. Yes, throwing yourself into work for others may distract you or take your mind away from grieving and remembering your loved one. But mourning time is for grieving, adjusting, remembering and healing.
"However, if a griever wants to help someone out on an 'as desired' basis, in small doses or gestures, that can be thoughtful and productive. The bottom line is that it's necessary to strike a balance and to recognize that mourning is the time for a griever to be taken care of, more than taking care of others."

By doing this, are you avoiding grief or helping others?

"Again, there has to be a balance," Cohen says. "The reason for helping others has to come from an authentic place of really wanting to do that, not as a way to ignore one's own self care, to neglect the grieving process, to be used as an excuse to not have the time to really grieve. Being part of a large charity event or a major volunteer effort can always wait until life settles down a bit. If you try to avoid grieving with extra activities, it will catch up with you later. So, i'ts always best to honor that this is your time to grieve the loss of a loved one and work to adjust to life's 'new normal.'"

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