January 3, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Grief is incredibly complicated, says Gabriela Martinez.

Expressions of grief vary widely depending on the individual, family, and cultural context. Grief can be immediate or delayed. It may affect children and adults in different ways. And many things can trigger it, like the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a serious illness, a life-changing injury, or separation through life circumstances like immigration challenges or incarceration. 

But there is one universal constant. “Nobody ever wants to become a part of this club,” says Martinez, the bilingual (Spanish/English) outreach and inclusion coordinator for Grief’s Journey, formerly Ted E. Bear Hollow. “Any of these losses can be such an isolating experience. We want to make sure no one has to go through their grief journey alone.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Creighton University, Martinez’s career has focused on equity and inclusion, an area of special interest for her, she says. Martinez herself is a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1990s.

“I was raised in a very social justice-oriented family. My dad worked a lot in New York with the [El Salvador] Consulate, so I was raised around a lot of politics. One of his big motivators was the death of Óscar Romero (an archbishop and outspoken social activist assassinated in 1980), who just became a saint under Pope Francis,” she says.

She spent her early years in New York City surrounded by other families from Central America, so when her father took a job opportunity that brought the family to Omaha in the early 2000s, Martinez experienced some culture shock.

“When I first came here, everyone would say, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican.’ But there are people who speak Spanish from other countries,” she says. “There are a lot of differences between Latino cultures.”

Martinez says human services agencies and nonprofits must find ways to increase awareness and reach individuals who need their specific programs and services, especially underserved and vulnerable populations. The challenge is compounded two-fold when individuals and families are overwhelmed in a time of crisis and language is a barrier to communication. 

“The outreach and inclusion role is to make sure we are reducing barriers for all individuals in our community who are currently experiencing a loss, whether that be through immigration challenges, illness, or a death,” Martinez says. For instance, people often don’t realize that Grief’s Journey support programs are free, open to both youth and adults, and available with Spanish-speaking facilitators. “I’m outreaching to those individuals that don’t necessarily know we’re a resource for them.” 

Martinez’s responsibilities at Grief’s Journey reflect an organizational commitment to expand its services to a broader span of the population, CEO Rebecca Turner says. 

“Grief’s Journey employs outreach coordinators charged with developing relationships and solutions for people who encounter obstacles to accessing support,” she says. “The agency addresses language and cultural barriers through paid and volunteer interpreters; provides snacks or meals at all of its programs; produces programs at a variety of locations, including partner schools and agencies; and frequently provides travel vouchers for program participants.”

Staff and volunteers are also trained to recognize potential need for other services beyond Grief’s Journey’s grief support programs (from individual or family counseling to food pantry access), and they collaborate with other providers to help guide families to the resources they need. 

“A lot of it is referrals to, and interacting with, different agencies,” Martinez explains. “A death may just be one level of what this family is going through; they may need help putting food on the table or need other services as well. 

Grief support is important because it can have far-reaching effects beyond the initial loss, Turner says. 

“Research indicates that unaddressed grief correlates to issues such as poor school performance, poor work attendance, and lingering emotional and behavioral concerns; whereas healthy coping leads to long-term successes for children, families, and communities,” she says. “We believe everyone has a right to excellent and compassionate grief support and that our community is stronger with it.”

“It’s about creating that community where we’re empathetic to these individuals and their journeys,” Martinez says.


Visit griefsjourney.org for more information.

This article appears in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.