December 19, 2018

Michele Prince: Helping Kids and Adults Through the Grieving Process

After years of working in advertising, Michele Prince decided to go back to school to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and Jewish communal service through USC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In 2012, Prince, now 51, who attends Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice, became the CEO of OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. The nonprofit supports kids as young as 4 and adults of all ages who have lost a close loved one: a parent, a partner, sibling or child.

OUR HOUSE offers services in English and Spanish in multiple locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County, including West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Koreatown, where it operates out of The Karsh Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Now in its 25th year of operation, Prince spoke with the Journal about the important work the organization provides and why she’s drawn to help the grieving.

Jewish Journal: Much of your work focuses on bereavement. What is it about this work that called to you?

Michele Prince: My mom died when I was 16 and there was nothing like an OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center that my family found. And so, when I [went] back to school and actually learned about this agency, I was like, “Wow, that’s what I am going to devote my life to: making sure people have those kinds of resources.”

My mom’s death actually followed two earlier deaths. The year before, my sister’s 4-year-old son drowned. It was a terrible tragedy, the worst anyone can imagine. And the year before that, one of the boys in my social circle within the Jewish community killed himself. So that was pretty intense to grow up with and not a lot of support, and that’s why I do what I do.

JJ: Is there a stigma surrounding grief support?

“There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy.”

MP: There is still a stigma around grief support and just about getting help, period. Couple that with a stigma around anything to do with death [and it’s] a doozy. It’s certainly been reduced. But for many people it doesn’t even occur to them to reach out for help. But then many people think, “I’m OK.”

We still have such a bootstrap society of just pull yourself up and get over it. But that’s why we’re here, because we know it really helps to be in a grief support group with others who understand what you are going through. And I really believe in it. We see miracle after miracle every day.

JJ: What does a miracle look like?

MP: Let’s say we’re sitting in this room and it’s the first night of a young widow/widower group. So they are in their 30s and 40s and they are dragging themselves in here, and their faces are gray, and their clothes are disheveled, and they can barely get up into the world. And then they do the work in the group and they are comforted by the group leaders and their co-group attendees, and in 18 months, our group leaders will share with us, “I heard the laughter” or, “There was a little lipstick.”

They were just holding themselves up a little bit more, re-entering life with a little more resilience or vibrancy than when that group started. And it’s not Candy Land. It’s still painful. And grief doesn’t have an end date. It’s a process and a path that people follow. And so we help them find that glimmer of hope and that transformation.

JJ: Is this work depressing?

MP: I try to be really protective of the staff because they are hearing people’s worst day like 14 times in a day. They are taking that phone call that if you heard it once, it would devastate you. So it is hard. But that’s different than sad because everybody is very mission focused. They know that transformation that I was describing is possible for that person who is calling. We know it’s going to be better for them.

JJ: Do some people feel, “Well I have my rabbi, I’m OK”?

MP: Some people do feel that. But first of all, many clergy members are not amazing at this. Even if they are skilled, again, the idea of being in a group is so powerful because even if [the bereaved] do meet with their clergy member a few times, that’s still short-term. And it can be comforting, also, to be in a really neutral place whether their congregation gets every gold star: They came to shivah, they brought meals, they had Friday night services, or on the opposite end, nobody came, they didn’t call, if they came they bumbled. So in both of those scenarios, people can come here and they can be honest about the things that went well and didn’t go well.