Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

Dr. Bill Austin and Brenda Mallery, LCSW Story


Recently certified by renowned Grief Expert David Kessler, Bill and Brenda are leading grief recovery support groups

by Rob Lauer

Brenda Mallery, LCSW and Dr. Bill Austin

Brenda Mallery, LCSW and Dr. Bill Austin

Grief is universal. At some point, everyone experiences the passing of a loved one or a life-altering loss. And yet, though woven into the fabric of life, grief's emotional impact can seem overwhelming and crippling. Seeing a need for more effective grief counseling, two local professionals in the field, Dr. Bill Austin and Brenda Mallery, LCSW, decided to join forces and take action.
Dr. Bill Austin of Tidewater Pastoral Counseling has helped countless people through his practice, his 36 years as pastor of Virginia Beach Christian Church, his books, and his long-running monthly column in The Shopper.

Brenda Mallery has enjoyed a distinguished career as a Virginia Beach-based clinical social worker. She was called to counsel survivors of the May 2019 mass shootings at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

Recently, Bill and Brenda honed their counseling skills by completing training with internationally-renowned Grief Expert David Kessler and earning Grief Educator Certification. Now, in association with St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, they are leading recovery support groups aimed at helping Hampton Roads residents dealing with the emotional impact of grief.

"Grief isn't a mental health disorder or pathology
but a normal healthy response
to a major loss in life."
                                   -Brenda Mallery, LCSW

"Grief is universal but personal," Brenda explains, "and we each experience it differently. There is no "one size fits all.' Grieving the death of a child is different from grieving the loss of a spouse. Grieving someone who died of a drug overdose or sudden illness is very different from grieving someone who died slowly over time. Grief isn't a mental health disorder or pathology but a normal healthy response to a major loss in life. The intensity of the grief is in proportion to the loss."

"Grief is an aspect of love," Bill observes. "People sometimes tell those who are grieving to move on and "get over it. That's baloney. You don't "get over it. People try to put a time limit on it, but grief is complicated. I still deal with feelings about my parents who have been gone for years.

"There's a phenomenon called a grief burst," Bill continues. "Something seemingly unrelated to the person who has died suddenly triggers powerful emotions about them. After my dad died, I went to a church convention where I saw an elderly couple serving Communion, and all at once, these powerful feelings about my dad came to the surface. Another time, while visiting Goochland, I walked into an old house where the combination of the furnishings and the smells triggered deep emotions about my grandpa. There is a Greek saying: "Your heart is wax, and people make an indention in it that never goes away.'"

"Grief uncorks all sorts of
unexpected feelings.
Some can be difficult to
acknowledge at first."
 -Dr. Bill Austin

"In our society, we want things fixed quickly," Brenda adds, "but grief is a process. It doesn't go away, but we can develop coping skills to live with it and move forward."

Though much has been said and written about the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), Bill has shifted his approach over the course of his career: "Instead of focusing on passing through stages of grief, I've focused on tasks. The first task is the most difficult: accepting the loss. Some people imagine that the lost one is on vacation and will be coming back."

The second task is to express all the complex powerful emotions associated with grief-such as anger. One emotion Bill has seen people wrestle with following the death of a loved one is relief.

"In my own life, when my sister-in-law died, I felt relief," Bill recalls. "At first, I thought, What's wrong with me? I know I loved her, so how can I possibly feel relieved now that she is gone? Living daily, even hourly, with uncertainty, wondering if this will be the last time that we'll see our loved one or if she'll be here tomorrow or an hour from now-that uncertainty can feel crushing. It's only natural to feel a sense of relief when that burden is lifted. Grief uncorks all sorts of unexpected feelings. Some can be difficult to acknowledge at first.

"One category of feelings I've witnessed over the course of my ministry are what I call Historical Feelings," Bill continues. "The death of a loved one will bring to the surface emotions related to the past and a family's history. The death of a parent will sometimes trigger arguments between surviving children."

Another task that Bill gives those dealing with grief is to reinvent themselves. "We define ourselves by relationships," he explains. "We're someone's son or daughter, husband or wife. When that person passes, we need to find a new way to define ourselves independently of them." Though its outcome is positive, Bill acknowledges that this task can, at first, feel like a betrayal of the person who has passed-all of which demonstrates how difficult and confusing it can be to walk through grief's emotional landscape.
"In these grief support groups, our job is to get members to talk from their gut," Bill says. "Any feelings that we don't deal with get stronger. But if we bring them out into the light, we can deal with them. We encourage people to talk about their feelings-in a safe, non-judgmental environment. We go around and ask how their week went, and we deal with that. They can express whatever they feel, and we won't say it's wrong. We ask them what it is about their grief that people don't understand, what they'd like to tell others."

"Grief needs a witness," Brenda concludes. "I hope these groups will be a place where feelings can be validated. Often, we minimize what someone is feeling in the hopes of moving them forward. But witnessing is validating those feelings and walking the journey with them. Who better to walk with you than others who are experiencing grief themselves. That's where the group comes in. Bill and I will just drive the bus. The people in the group will say where they want to go and when they want to get there."

For information on
Bill Austin and Brenda Mallery's grief recovery support groups,

St. Aidan's Episcopal Church
3201 Edinburg Drive
Virginia Beach
(757) 340-6459

Tidewater Pastoral Counseling

7305 Hampton Blvd.
Norfolk, VA 23505


Offices in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk