The Best of a Bad Situation
Founding members Liana Soong and Gina Kaulukukui, along with their volunteer staff, offer grief counseling at Life’s Bridges Hawaii, and its on-call Bridge’s Emergency Support Team, aka BEST, offers assistance 24/7.
Death is a natural part of life and experiencing grief is nothing to be ashamed of. Losing a loved one tugs on emotions that can be expressed in a variety of ways, such as fits of anger or sobs of despair.
“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” says Gina Kaulukukui.
Understanding this process and making sure people have the proper tools they need to cope with such complex feelings is what she and other volunteers do at local grief counseling service Life’s Bridges Hawaii (LBH). “Grief is about building the bridge between the life that you had with your loved one before they died and the life you’re creating for yourself after they’ve died, but bringing them along for the ride,” says Kaulukukui.
And loss doesn’t affect just family members and close friends. Its net can be cast far and wide, affecting co-workers, rescue personnel or fellow community members. The recent murder-suicide at Halelani Village is an example of just how many people can be affected by tragedy and how necessary LBH’s services are.
“It pulled at everybody in the community’s heart strings,” says Kaulukukui. “And there’s so much tragedy going on in our world and in our country anyway, I think that there’s already this sense of black cloud. Not always, because we live in a beautiful place, but we still feel it and it resonates with us. And when something happens that hits close to home, it’s frightening.”
She helps manage LBH’s on-call Bridge’s Emergency Support Team (BEST) — a group of about six volunteers available around the clock for anyone and everyone needing emotional assistance, including family, friends, police officers on scene and people who witness a tragic event like the one in Puhi.
Liana Soong, who became the organization’s executive director about a year ago, understands firsthand how important these services are, which is why she’s chosen to volunteer her time participating in activities including grant-writing. After her 30th birthday, Soong, who was born and raised in Hilo, lost her mother, Lydia Cox. To help cope with her loss, she attended one of Kaulukukui’s counseling groups, which then were held through Kauai Hospice.
“Everything she said was what I needed to hear,” she recalls. “It was as if my mom was talking through her. It was the right place I was supposed to be.”
LBH, founded in 2005, still offers this kind of support. One of LBH’s primary services, however, is BEST, a group that originated in the 1990s as the “Beeper Team” through Kauai Hospice. It was created as a response to meeting the emergency needs of visitors. When the group formed, it received about seven calls a year. When LBH began in 2005, with Kaulukukui and Soong as founding members and former co-workers at Kauai Hospice, the team received more than 500 calls (not always death-related) during the first three years. “Our job is to be their support system,” says Kaulukukui.
After ensuring the immediate needs of the family are met emotionally, and sometimes even physically, like providing food or water, BEST volunteers help them wrap their mind around what’s happening and even provide logistical information. It’s a service that continues to be especially helpful to visitors.
“This is difficult enough when you’re here and you have a community of support. It becomes much more difficult when you’re a million miles away from home,” says Kaulukukui, a Kapaa High School graduate.
Other entities, including Kauai Visitors Bureau, also pitch in by conducting services such as changing flights, securing rooms and waiving luggage fees.
“We are appreciative of the work Gina and the Life’s Bridges team does at some of the most difficult moments in life,” says Sue Kanoho, executive director of KVB. “I’m in awe of the never-ending dedication of the Life’s Bridges team to the families that are grief-stricken.”
Because the volunteers are called out on emergencies, sometimes even as they are happening, they often form relationships with family members long after the tragedy because of the intimacy of the moment. “The people that are there have a very special place in your heart because of this life-changing event,” says Kaulukukui, who wears a bracelet recently sent to her by a mother who sadly lost her adult son while he was vacationing on Kauai.
It’s not an easy job to take on, however, and Kaulukukui, who lost both her brother Butch Bridges Shibao and her father, Reginald Bridges, to suicide, knows volunteers have their own emotions. “I think it’s OK to cry,” she says. “I don’t expect my volunteers or myself to be stoic and professional. I expect us to be human — compassionate, caring and to have feeling.”
She says it also helps to be grateful every day for things like family. She is proud of her 11 grandkids, six of whom live with her. “Our house is very rich and full,” says Kaulukukui, who got her start in the field with Help, Understanding and Group Support (HUGS) for seriously ill children and their families on Oahu. “Doing this work reminds me every single day that my glass is full.”
LBH sponsored its annual fundraiser, “Bikers, Bridges & BBQ” in August. To find out more about upcoming events and how to help, visit lifesbridgeshawaii.org. For more immediate needs, call 651-6637.