Interview with Khris Ford
March 27, 2008
In January 2008, I interviewed
Khris, what got you into the work you are doing?
I think what got me into the work, really, is a lifetime of life losses. I lost siblings as a child, my father abandoned us and I grew up curious about the fact that I saw some people around me who were dealing with these losses in ways that clearly made them more, and other people around me who were dealing with them and they were diminished. I was pretty curious about that as my life was going on; I wondered why that was. Some people seem to be challenged and grow out of the experience and others were paralyzed. I certainly didnât verbalize that as a kid but I did grow up curious about death, grief and about loss.
Then as an adult, my husband and I had a teenage son who was killed in an automobile accident in 1989. Clearly at the moment and in those months afterwards I wasnât thinking to myself, âwow, Iâve been preparing for thisâ but now I know I had been prepared for it, over a lifetime. So I was already moving in the direction of changing careers at that time; it just turned my life around in terms of where I needed to be. I think Iâd always known it but I hadnât listened.
Absolutely. I realized there was nothing out there for our surviving daughter to support her. I knew how difficult it was for her, incredibly difficult, but as a newly grieving parent, I didnât have the energy to do what I needed to do for herâcertainly not as much as I wanted to. So out of that came a fiery passion to help families and children and people who are dealing with grief and loss issues.
Up to that point I had always been passionate about teaching. For 13 years I taught elementary school and loved it. I left that, and I âm sure I left for a host of reasons I didnât even know about at the time. The surface reason I left is I got tired of dealing with the bureaucracy of it, something I had to do to keep doing what I do well, which is work with kids.
How old were you when you consciously made a choice you may not have understood at the time, but moved you into this direction of grief and loss?
I think it began with my choices of classes even in high school, like taking psychology class instead of the classes my friends were taking. I remember in that psychology class my interest being in the area of grief and loss. It was in the early 50s when people werenât talking about grief and loss.
There still wasnât much discussion on grief and loss then.
No there wasnât. At that time, it was only my own life experiences that were shaping me. But when I was doing the training for spiritual direction in the mid-80s, which started 4 years before our son died, I knew then that was the area of spiritual direction which was going to be the most fulfilling for me. I wanted to work with people who were dealing with spiritual crisis because of a loss in their life, whether it was a divorce or separation or whatever.
Did you go to seminary?
No, it was a 4 year certification program through the Diocese of Galveston/Houston and a religious order, The Cenacle. The final year of the program our son Steven was killed in an automobile accident. When I completed the certification I knew I was supposed to continue to do spiritual direction work. I worked as a volunteer spiritual director at the retreat center for the first couple of years after he died.
What was the spiritual direction program?
Spiritual direction is the opportunity to meet with someone who is specifically trained to talk on a regular basis regarding a personâs spiritual life. A person may define their spiritual life within a formalized religious framework or simply within the personâs view of who they are in connection with a higher being or in connection with their own source of energy or strength. In spiritual direction, the person is met wherever they are, however they name that. Directors meet with individuals on a regular basis and help them notice their own spiritual movements, patterns and resistances. Directors ask questions to help the individual discover within themselves answers to their questions and discernment during times of transition.
Was this a lay ministry within your church?
Not just within my church. Spiritual Direction is a ministry among most faiths worldwide. I am a member of Spiritual Directors International, a worldwide association for spiritual directors. My particular training class was interdenominational, sponsored by the Catholic diocese in the Houston area.
How did people find out about you?
Through the retreat center where I did a lot of work. The Cenacle is well known in Houston for the directorâs training institute and for offering multi-faith spiritual direction. There was a pretty constant flow of requests. The experience at the retreat center doing direction significantly shaped me and brought to the light other passions that were already within me. It made me see clearly that counseling was where my sense of fulfillment was going to come. So I went back and got a second masters degree in counselor education.
What was your first Masters?
Interesting how all this unfolded.
Yes, Iâve had a checkered history of wonderful opportunities. Following a tragic series of teen suicides in SW Houston I found myself coordinating an innovative program for Fort Bend School District. We trained teachers and school counselors to lead support groups for at-risk students. It was a highly impactful program and one in which I learned new things each and every day working alongside some wonderful professionals in the field.
That experience led me to my next job as I was offered a chance to work for one of the psychologists who did the training for the program in FBISD. His real forteâ is group work. It was an amazing experience. I led several groups a week with him, working with him for 4 years as a full-time clinician and also coordinating the training institute for sex offender treatment providers sponsored by his agency.
While doing that, I found out there was an opening for a Program Director at the family and childrenâs grief center in Houston, Boâs Place. The organization was just in the baby stages. That position was my dream position. When I went to work for them the staff consisted of the founder, a wonderfully passionate social worker, and a part time office manager. When I left we had a full staff of clinicians, development personnel, and a volunteer coordinator and were seeing almost 300 children and their families, in addition to conducting trainings all over Harris County. It was a wonderful time in my career. I think of it as the Camelot Years. The team of professionals we had on board and the families and children made going to work sheer joy!! I moved from Program Director to Director of Program Development and Community Outreach. When we decided to begin our move toward Austin, I felt a real void upon leaving Boâs Place. Grief work had certainly captured by heart and soul!
Your story is making it clear that we donât have to figure it all out before we take the next right step in our lifeâs work.
Yes, I think part of it is about really noticing, even physically in your body, when what you are doing brings you to a sense of being alive, you know? For example, when I was in the Spiritual Direction Institute, there were a couple of opportunities to do mini-retreat work around certain topics. I was so alive when I participated in those that when I got home I couldnât sleep! I was fired up. And like anything else Iâve done in my life, and Iâve done a lot of cool things, it just feels different when itâs right. Just noting those special experiences, when it happens and what you are doing gives us great clues to our life work. Follow your sense that this is the next step. When I would catch a spark of that, I just noticed it. And so whenever opportunities like working with Bob, the psychologist, came along, something inside of me knew it was right. He is somebody with whom I always felt that spark of aliveness. Even though working with youth sex offenders is not what I had in mind, here was an opportunity to learn about group process. I learned how to build a team in the office and what to look at when you did that, and also the opportunity to build a training institute. I didnât know this was going to happen when I went to be a clinician for him. Yes, following that spark and trusting the felt sense is what itâs all about.
How did you deal with working with youth sex offenders?
First, Bob is one of these people who believed so much in on the spot debriefing and supervision. After every group he sat with me and debriefed for almost as long as we were in the group. Secondly, I quickly discovered that these were kids, underneath their offenses they were kids. I learned to see goodness in them just as I would in any other child with whom I worked. I also saw some amazing parallels in terms of how many of these kids had experienced significant early life losses. My grief work continued even in this set of circumstances.
You just donât find many settings where that kind of on the job training happens. I knew I had a treasure. I knew that about Bobâs work before I went to work for him because of our interactions with the school district. The practice hours as a therapist were almost a side benefit to all the other things that happened, even though that was the real job. It was all the other things that happened that really were incredibly invaluable, things I could have never predicted were going to happen.
When the job opportunity with Boâs Place, (the family and childrenâs grief center) became available I canât even describe the agonizing I went through in leaving Bob and his team. I knew I was learning and would continue to learn as a part of his staff. I went through an intense process of discernment as I tried to make this career decision. I sat down and wrote my resignation letter and sat with it. I put it in my drawer for a week to see if it really felt like the right thing. There were many tears before I realized what I need to do. Staying where I was because I didnât want to leave a secure nest wasnât a good reason to pass up this opportunity. Going to Boâs Place took me to places I would never have believed.
Is the childrenâs grief center in Houston still there?
Yes. Theyâve completed a huge capital campaign resulting in a 10,000 square feet free standing center. Their main mission continues to be supporting children who are dealing with death losses.
Like My Healing Place?
Yes, except that My Healing Place has a fuller vision of loss. We deal with divorce, deployment and other non-death lossesâthe full picture of loss rather than just death loss. That came because when we were at Boâs Place, we had requests to work with children who were dealing with loss following divorce and other kinds of life losses. I think itâs important we acknowledge all of those losses and the resulting grief. They can be very much the same as a death lossânot exactly the same, obviously, but there is a lot of cross over in what children and adults need in that process.
There are also differences, and we do have to know a little bit about all of these. I think you learn by listening. By listening to the population and hearing the issues in the divorce experience, you learn the contrasts to the experience of a death loss. Iâve done a lot of listening, and a lot of studying, along with a very little bit of research.
All of this initial learning was going on during the first 6 to 7 years after Stephenâs death. I began to realize this process of grieving was changing me. I wasnât the same person I had been the day before it happened; and most importantly, the changes were not all bad or painful. It was very difficult for me at that point in time to say there were some really incredible things happening in me as a result of Stephenâs death. For a very long time it felt disloyal, it didnât feel good to acknowledge that growth. It was like saying it was ok for my son to die because good things are happening for me. But Iâm at a place now where I recognize that itâs ok.
Itâs ok there are legacies of his life and death that are important to me and are positive in my lifeâpositive to our family. I want people to know that is possible. All of this change in life is not all bad. These experiences arenât the end of who we are. They can very much be the beginnings of something new, exciting, rich aspects of ourselves. It doesnât have to be a decision that means you are turning your back on your loved one or that you somehow said it was ok that it happened, or even that you are grateful for the event. It is a mysterious tension. Of course if I could have my son back Iâd give it all up in a heartbeat, but I canât. So given the unchangeable fact of his death, I welcome the incredibly, awesome things happening in my life.
In the midst of my realization that I was being changed, this incredible training opportunity came along. I donât even know how I got the flyer, to tell you the truth. Probably my God brought it to me. It was a training that was being done by 3 national professionals in the field. It was a very small training, limited to 18 persons. We were back in the hills of North Carolina with three amazing trainers, John Schneider, PhD, Jim Miller, and Donna OâToole. We could sign up for one of three tracks in which we would focus for the weeklong training; storytelling and grief, transgenerational grief, and spirituality and grief. I took the spirituality and grief track. It was a most memorable time of being with 18 people who shared a passion for grief work for an entire week. I did 2 of those training sessions, 4 years apart. Both are high points in my life in terms of spending 5 days being absolutely alive in a way that is hard to even describe. Learning about what it means to be transformed by an experience, not to merely survive, but rather to transcend the experience. That was the result of those two training experiences.
People need to know it is possible for a tragic experience to shape us in a positive way. We always hear that loss changes you, but for most people, this is bad news. I donât believe that. It is good news. The potential to be fuller, richer, deeper people is there. This is a choice all of us have. I chose early on. Three or four days after Stephen died, I decided it would not destroy me. It would not destroy our family either.
What else helped you through?
It was a spiritual link. Even Stephenâs funeral was a high experience for me. It was an out of body experience for me to be perfectly honest. It was not an experience of horror and hell that I hear parents talk about it being. For me it was an experience that was really being connected to a power that was much bigger than me. God let me know from the moment I walked in I was going to be ok. Not only was I going to be ok, I was going to rise above it. I donât talk about that much because itâs hard for people to hear that my childâs funeral can be experienced in that way. Itâs not an easy thing for a bereaved parent to hear.
As a family I believe we made the decision that concretized the funeral experience for me. We took our best friends back to the airport about 5 days after the funeral. My daughter, who was 11, and my husband and I were all crying as we put them on the plane. The three of us just sort of looked at each other and said, âweâre going to make this work. Weâre going to be ok.â We linked arms and started skipping down the airport hallway. We made a silent pact that we were going to make it through this and weâve been linked closely since that day.
Itâs a pact we made as a family. We made a choice to be more, to make this experience count for something. That was a pivotal moment. It really was the moment when I said to myself, âThis is going to be ok. Itâs going to be more than ok.â And thatâs what I try to say to families when I meet with them the first time. I say, âI know you donât believe this; I know you canât even hold that hope right now. So Iâm here to hold it for you.â I usually silently add that I know they will be more on the other side of this process.
You have really been there in many ways. You really can hold that space for people.
Yes, I can. And I do say that. In fact I have a candle in my office and I always have it lit when Iâm seeing adults. I tell them it represents the hope Iâm holding. I tell them, âI know there are times right now when you donât feel hopeful and you donât see the light at the end of the tunnel or around you. But I do see that light. I want you to know Iâm holding the hope when you canât. â
How did My Healing Place start?
We moved to Austin from Houston to retire. But it didnât happen quite like that. Instead, we adopted a son from Russia at age 11, which was another âhere we go again.â It wasnât in the plans but it was the right thing to do. We had been here only 3 months when we brought Max home with us. There wasnât any time or space to do anything except bond with him. So I put all my work on the back burner. I had people say to me, âYouâre going to move to Austin and start a center like Boâs Place.â and I said, âwrong, donât think so.â But when Max was settled into our family for the most part, I felt an incredible emptiness. There were all kinds of opportunities to volunteer. I had time to do it; I could do it financially. But it didnât fill that void for me. Then I got a couple of invitations to speak at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) for classes regarding childrenâs grief and I could feel that fire again. I could feel that energy again. And I knew I had to do it. It was compelling. I couldnât put it on the back burner any longer. I kept trying. And then about 3 years ago I started trying to join with other non-profits to make it happen, because I just didnât want to go through the process of filing for non-profit and tax-exempt status. But none of those âpartnershipsâ played out.
In joining with them, you would have been part of their program?
Yes. But my approach to grief work is unique enough that it just didnât fit.
Whatâs that? What is the unique part?
So I gave up on trying to join with somebody else. And for about 6 months I said âIâm not doing this thing. Iâm fed up.â I didnât have the energy to do it without having a âsoul mateâ with whom to work. But it wouldnât go away. It just wouldnât go away.
I was teaching at UT and had really been trying to put it away when a student who was auditing my class, a very wise young woman, asked me if we could meet. I agreed. She said she just wanted to talk about my career path. So we met. Half way through the conversation she stopped me mid-sentence and said âwhy arenât you doing this here? Why donât you start a center like that here?â
She could not have understood the significance of her question, but today I know there is a reason why we met. Her question was the catalyst I needed. Then I just started working on it from there. I knew it was what I was supposed to do. Itâs as if âthe communityâ spoke through her, affirming my passion. I had been hearing it from other students and colleagues. Somehow her voice was the voice I needed to hear.
I started talking about it differently, as if it was happening. I have a dear friend that I meet with regularly to study spiritual books. She said to me âwhy do you keep backing up from this? Itâs in your blood, itâs who you are supposed to be.â She encouraged me to begin envisioning my dream and sharing it with everyone who was interested.
Our mission is to assist children, adolescents and adults who have experienced a significant or traumatic loss. We do this in 4 ways: support groups; individual and family therapy if group isnât enough; through training and consultation with the medical, educational, and faith-based organizations in the city; and, an information and referral line that is specific to grief and loss resources in Williamson and Travis county.
Thatâs the basic set-up. So what programs are there within My Healing Place?
We have a group now for children whoâve lost a parent and adults who have lost a spouse. Weâre starting school-based groups in Austin Independent School District for teens that have lost a parent and teens that have a parent who is dying. These are 10-week sessions facilitated by our volunteers under my supervision. Because we have invitations to do groups in other schools, we will be doing another volunteer training series to recruit additional daytime volunteers. Iâm also doing training for Communities in Schools, the Baptist Childrenâs Home, and a teleconference for end-of life for the UT- San Antonio School of Allied Health. We are doing a wide variety of training and consultations.
Children are really my passion but Iâve done lots of work with adults. What we know about childrenâs grief is that when they come to a childrenâs group and know their parent is also going to their own group, they do better. I just had this discussion with a parent who doesnât like groups and doesnât feel she can make a commitment, she just wanted to bring her kids. I had to say, âIâm sorry. This is a hard line for me to take because Iâm building a program and Iâd love to be able to have your kids, but I know your kids will do better if you make a commitment to this group. Iâm not going to bend on this.â So she backed off. Iâm sorry those children wonât be a part of a group. Itâs important that children see that mom or dad are getting what they need so the children can let go of trying to take care of them.
And also if the parent doesnât go, it may feel like they have the problem and the parent doesnât.
They become the designated patient. Not only do they have the grief which seems to be seen as âsomething wrong,â but they have that extra burden of taking care of their parents who often seem fragile.
We have a couple of other initiatives dealing with a whole different area of loss. One of them is supporting a person with a family member who is deployed. It is our dream to have a night that would simply be for that group and their children. The other initiative is for women who have just come out of prison and their children. Some of them have children and some of them donât, but itâs working through the transition back into their families and into the world, helping them to process the loss and trauma of their experiences. We are working with two other non-profits on this initiative, The Red Bird Foundation and Truth Be Told. Paula DâArcy, founder of Red Bird Foundation, and I will be working closely throughout this program.
We need women who are willing to be a mentor for a newly paroled woman who has made a commitment to change. These mentors must be prepared to love unconditionally. They must love with no expectation of getting anything back. They may not be real appreciative and they may not love in return. They may make a commitment that they are going to allow you to mentor them and track them and call them back on track. But they probably arenât going to be the ones who say âYou changed my life,â and that sort of thing. That kind of loving is hard â itâs also very powerful!
We want the women to know their mentor will not abandon the relationship because of their mistakes. The volunteer will attend an empowerment retreat with the woman they are mentoring. This will be the kickoff to the next part of the program. The next phase includes the weekly counseling while continuing to have a mentor. Most likely the mentor will not be contacting the woman quite so often during this phase. You can see how important the mentors are to the success of this program.
Thatâs a lot of good support.
What is the biggest need for My Healing Place?
Getting the word out. We want to let people know we are a resource. Second thing is we will always need volunteers for the support groups. We provide excellent training. Weâre going to need adults who are willing to come in and be facilitators. The qualifications for our volunteers are: you must be willing to be a nonjudgmental listener, and, you must be open to hearing the myriad of ways people deal with losses without placing a value judgment on them. If you can make a commitment to being there regularly and do those 2 things, we need you. You donât have to have a college degree you donât have to have some background in psychology or social work or anything like that. You just have to be committed to being here. Lastly, we need funding so that we can move from working out of my home to a permanent home for My Healing Place. Ideally this would be an old house we could renovate.
Tell me what you are doing with the palliative care program at Dell Childrenâs Hospital?
Dr. Sarah Leggett, who is the medical director for the pediatric palliative care team, pulled together a group of 4 women to help her build a palliative care consultative team at this new hospital. What we have done is to assist Sarah in looking at how children and families who are dealing with life-limiting illness, can be better served both in and out of the hospital.