Charleston native and musician Christal Heyward never wanted to be a grief coach. She was just a “musician friend”.
But when one of her closest friends lost her son in 2014, Heyward grabbed her portable keyboard, grabbed a few more friends and some food, and headed to the woman’s house.
“I started playing music on the piano and people started singing,” Heyward said. “After we left, my friend said to me, ‘It’s something you have to do when people are dying.’ ”
Since then, Heyward and his keyboard have traveled to the homes of grieving families across the Lowcountry, singing his own renditions of gospel melodies and hymns.
Now, she hosts monthly bereavement support groups through her nonprofit, A Time of Refreshing. The group meets every fourth Monday at 6:15 p.m. at Carolina Funeral Home in North Charleston.
At a recent gathering, people packed into the shrine as Heyward’s husband hastily set up his piano and microphone for the evening.
Funeral home staff inquired about the group’s pizza order, a regular occurrence for monthly seances.
Heyward said on average, at least 12 to 15 people attend each month. Some are regulars Heyward knows by name and some were new.
The welcome was pleasant as members quickly learned who was in the room. One was a real estate agent, the other sold alarm systems – “a perfect pair”, according to Heyward.
“You’re all supposed to be in grief and you’re here networking,” Heyward joked, lighting up the room for her debut song.
Heyward has sung as she has for the past 40 years, even recording her own albums and performing on “Showtime at The Apollo.”
People swayed and swayed to the rhythm of his voice, some raised their hands and sang. Others let out cries they had held back for too long.
A Lowcountry in mourning
With thousands of people across the Lowcountry mourning loved ones lost to a myriad of causes, including COVID-19, substance abuse and the rising number of homicides, mental health resources are in high demand.
But in Charleston, as in many parts of the country, those resources are in short supply as demand continues to grow.
That’s why Heyward started his own private practice, The Healing Room, to support residents year-round instead of once a month.
“I love coaching because I can incorporate my music into my sessions,” Heyward said.
Heyward said many of his clients give up talking and choose to sit quietly and listen to him sing and play the piano instead.
Grieving coaches in the Lowcountry are hard to find.
And according to Nanci Steadman Shipman, founder of Wake Up Carolina, a local nonprofit that provides support to families of people struggling with addiction, more professionals who specialize in bereavement coaching and counseling are needed, especially when substance use is involved.
Wake Up Carolina offers family recovery coaches, usually someone who has also lost a family member to substance abuse, to people in need.
She said the need has increased dramatically over the past three years as opioid overdoses have increased in South Carolina.
“When we started saying we’re supporting those who have lost loved ones to substances, the calls started to increase,” Shipman said.
Shipman said the general support groups she attended were great at first, welcoming her with open arms and understanding. That was until she recounted how she lost her 19-year-old son, Creighton, in 2016.
Creighton died of an apparent opioid overdose.
“The immediate response I got was, ‘Oh, that’s not natural. They wanted to do it,’” Shipman said.
“It was hard enough for me to go to a loss band, let alone have to defend my son’s death,” Shipman added. “I always felt a lot of stigma and pain.”
Grief can be a constellation of different emotional and physical symptoms.
Alyssa Rheingold, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, works with many patients who have lost loved ones to homicides. She specializes in trauma bereavement support and sees symptoms ranging from chest pain, nausea and headaches to lack of concentration, memory loss and trouble sleeping.
“Grief can also show up in spiritual symptoms like being estranged from their faith that was once important to them,” Rheingold said.
Integrating spirituality is one of Heyward’s specialties and one of the main reasons she decided to become a grief coach instead of a grief counselor.
“Counsellors cannot talk about their faith in their sessions,” Heyward said. “I like being a grief coach because I can talk about spiritual things.”
To sign up for Heyward’s monthly bereavement support groups, email [email protected] with your name and phone number. To find more information about Heyward’s private coaching, email [email protected]