Donna George knew since eighth grade that she wanted to be a social worker.
“It must’ve been something I had a real desire to do,” she said. “I think it just came natural to me, to really want to support people.”
In the years and decades after, George worked her way up to eventually become manager of bereavement services at Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, where she helped counsel people grieving the loss of a loved one.
On Feb. 27, George celebrated her long history with friends and colleagues at Hospicare at her retirement party. George, after 27 years working at Hospicare, announced that she would be retired by the end of February, a decision she calls difficult but meaningful.
“[I saw] that life is short, and I do have the opportunity to retire from my full-time position,” George said. “And my goal is to do a small private practice so I can continue to work in the field without having a full-time position. It was a big decision to make, but I think it’s the right one for me right now.”
George, now in her 60s, has had decades of experience in her field, but she didn’t start off as a counselor. For many years, she worked as a receptionist at physicians’ offices while she traveled around different parts of New York state. She also became a Fellow in Thanatology through the Association of Death, Education and Counseling’s certificate program.
Her journey at Hospicare began in the 1990s, when Hospicare’s residence on East King Road in Ithaca first opened. She heard about a job opening through a friend and started out as an administrative assistant, joining what was then just a 10-person team.
Once at Hospicare, she learned more about bereavement and helping others, which sparked her to continue her education.
“I had a two-year business degree when I started here and then went on to get my bachelor’s degree and then I went on to get my master’s because I just loved working with people who were at a real difficult time in their life and being able to support, and being here at Hospicare gave me that opportunity,” George said.
George had the opportunity to work in many different areas of Hospicare before eventually becoming the manager of bereavement services. She described her role as offering various support groups and sessions for the Hospicare community. She said she offered a wide variety to accommodate the many ways someone can grieve.
“Grief really is about the loss of a relationship, and even though we’re in a family system, everybody grieves differently because people have had different relationships with the person that died, so any opportunity that we offer for grief is really an opportunity for each individual person to share their grief,” George said.
Due to her longevity, George saw Hospicare grow with her, and she always loved the work she did.
“I didn’t see my work here as a job. I never did,” George said. “It really was a privilege to walk alongside people who are grieving and that they trusted me to be open and vulnerable at a time when they were really hurting.”
Through her work at Hospicare, George said she learned more about grief and loss and how it can look so different for so many people. But talking to so many people has also taught her a valuable lesson.
“What I’ve learned in the 30 years is continuing to embrace the Hospice philosophy around grief, and that is that it’s not something you get over; it’s something you learn to live with,” George said.
George has passed down her love of Hospicare and caring for others to her family. Her children all volunteered for Hospicare as they grew up, and their work provided plenty of conversation as a family.
“Hospice became a part of our family,” George said. “I certainly couldn’t talk about the clients that I saw because of confidentiality, but it gave a platform for talking about life and death.”
Since then, George’s daughter became a nurse and her son became a social worker. George said they’re happy to see their mom grow in her field. Now, George has her sights on a private practice, one where she would counsel on end of life, grief and loss.
“I’m a clinical social worker, so I really wanted to still offer support and continue to learn in this field, and so, I really would like to continue doing what I’m doing but continue it with less hours,” she said.
George knows from experience that grief can be complicated and hard to cope with at times, so she offered some words of advice for people coping with the loss of a loved one.
“I would say to be gentle with themselves, not to judge how they’re grieving,” she said. “There’s not a template that you should grieve in a certain way. If you’re having a good day, embrace it and not feel guilty.”
Through it all, George said she will always remember her time at Hospicare and the people she was able to help.
“Some of my fondest memories is seeing people who have been in the depth of grief be able to flourish again in life, and they’ve been able to go on and be able to have a very fulfilling life even after a loss that they never thought they’d be able to recover from,” she said.
Recommended for you