Sheryle Baker has built her life around finding healing by helping others.
The executive director of the Life Center of the Suncoast grew up in the shadow of her older brother Ira's illness. Baker was only 16 when her brother died, and she emerged with questions.
Her perspective shifted after meeting psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an expert in the field of death and dying and creator of the Five Stages of Grief. Ross served as a mentor for Baker, helping her find a way to transform her grief into a meaningful career.
For the past 30 years, Baker, 65, has dedicated herself to the Life Center, a place she describes as "a safe haven for people to process the loss of someone they love."
She estimates that 65,000 people — many dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one through suicide, accident or crime — have traveled in and out of the doors of the original location and the quaint 1926 Seminole Heights bungalow the center currently calls home.
Baker recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Aimée Alexander about her personal journey through grief and how that experience catapulted her into a lifelong career that gave her the opportunity to give back to the world.
How did you become involved in the field of grief counseling?
When my brother died of Gaucher's disease, it was a real wakeup call for me. What was I doing with my life? Going forward as a teenager, it really opened up some deeper questions. And that curiosity for me shaped an interest, so I doubt I would have gone into the field if it weren't for that experience. My brother's death also became a catalyst for questioning what happens when a person dies. Where does that life force go? These are some of the very questions people come through our door with. How do we relate to a person who is here and then not here anymore?
Does the Life Center diagnose people?
No, that's not our thing. We offer grief counseling services to people of all ages, and when they walk in our door, we already know we can't fix anything. Rather, we examine the human condition. We walk with people from the starting point in the shock and the rage of what's happening, the why of it all. Why is this happening to me? Why my loved one?
How did you meet Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross?
My mother, Syvienne, in dealing with her own grief, wanted to help families that were dealing with terminally ill children. She became the first volunteer of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross at the University of Chicago in the pediatric leukemia/cancer ward. I was 17, maybe 18, the first time I went to one of Ross' workshops. I had a part-time job at a children's hospital, working with children who had chronic diseases, and it was just a time in my life where I felt as if I had something to give back. In some ways, I think by osmosis, she kind of took me under her wing. She invited me to some of her first life-and-death transition workshops all over the country. I traveled with Kubler-Ross for about six years, whenever I could find time to get away. I later went on to graduate school and got a master's degree in mental health counseling. Ross signed off on my master's thesis.
What was she like?
Really, I saw her as an artist; there was no one quite like her. She had a timing and a minimum of words to make people feel safe. She loved coffee, chocolate and cigarettes ... those were the days. She was an amazing psychiatrist who came out of World War II as a teenager. She walked through the concentration camps, she saw baby shoes and items left in train cars. I think that began her quest for what was the human condition and how to regroup and come back to life after death.
How do you think Kubler-Ross changed the conversation about death and dying?
She brought death out of the closet and was responsible for sensitizing professionals to the whole realm. She took it from "let's not talk about it" to "this could happen to your loved one, so how would you want them to be treated?"
What has been your proudest accomplishment?
Watching the center grow from the roots and become a thriving place. I didn't have children by choice, so by the time I was 35, I was able to mother the center in a way. It certainly took care of that nourishing quality in terms of the family of wonderful grief counselors who are here every day. And somehow the miracle of us having what we need through grants and foundations and very generous private donors keeps us here.
Can you share a transformation you experienced as a result of your work with clients?
I have learned so much in the ways of listening to people and being with people that it's transformed various ways in which I appreciate my life. I really listen differently. As for the transformations, they are daily, weekly. After four or five sessions and unable to get out of bed and function, people go from mostly despair to finding something that has meaning to go forward. And usually the transformation happens when they can help someone else. I saw it in my own mom, and I experienced it myself. I see it in my colleagues.
What might people be surprised to learn about you?
Music brings out the landscape of my soul. I taught myself to play guitar at the age of 16, and I still play every once in a while. I see music as a way of expressing love, life and death, and it brings people peace sometimes. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles are a few of my favorites.
What was the message you believe you received as a result of having lost your brother?
Part of the message, after I did some work with Ross and she helped me process my grief, was "I better make something out of this. I better do something that's going to give my life value. I better do something damn good going forward in my life at 16, seeing that devastation in a family."
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.