Phelica Glass, a grief counselor and social worker, talks during an interview in her downtown Topeka office about caring for mental health and her experience with grief. (Sam Bailey/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Three days after Phelica Glass turned 25, her 15-year-old brother died of a heart attack in his sleep.
The loss of DeMarqus — “he was my life, literally,” Glass said — was only one tragedy she suffered that year.
DeMarqus died in October 2001, one month after 9/11. Three months after his death, Glass’ mother had a stroke that resulted in her having to relearn details like how to spell her daughter’s name. The following May, Glass gave birth to twins at 24 weeks with both weighing less than two pounds, circumstances that classify them as micro-preemies.
“All of the challenges that came with them being micro-preemies involved a lot of loss, like not holding them until they were months old, not seeing them until they were 72 hours old,” Glass said. “So I think a lot of my own experiences definitely contribute to the work that I do in grief.”
Now, Glass uses her experience with grief as a grief counselor and social worker in Topeka, helping others live through their grief as someone who can understand what they are going through.
“Journeying with people along their life of grief and helping them find that thing that allows them to wake up every day and remember that their journey with their loved one isn’t over, it’s just a rebirthing process,” Glass said. “And I get to journey in a different way with them. That’s pretty amazing.”
YWCA Northeast Kansas is bringing attention to mental health and people like Glass who help people through grief during the last week of its Racial Justice Challenge, a monthlong series of online resources focusing on different topics affecting minority groups. The first three weeks of the challenge focused on housing, people with disabilities and representation in music. Kansas Reflector is a community partner in the challenge.
Romae Isom, YWCA racial justice program and training coordinator, said all of the topics covered by the challenge have mental health intertwined in them. When an individual is struggling with something like a lack of housing, they experience increased stress, and areas of their mental health can suffer.
“Phelica is a go-getter, and one of the things that Phelica talks about is when one’s affected all is affected, and she’s spoken about that as far as the community aspect,” Isom said. “So if we see something, say something, or if we can link up to help one another, then we should link up to help one another, because one’s problem will eventually become everyone’s problem.”
Glass said people often live with uncomfortable feelings by themselves, but when the strain turns into a “pain in our side,” it’s time to seek help, whether that’s through a professional or a friend. She compared needing mental health help to physical pain, saying if someone experienced physical pain for 72 hours, they would go see a doctor.
“We have stigmatized mental health services to such a degree that people are afraid to use it because if they use it, they’re seen as being quote-unquote crazy,” Glass said. “When in reality, if a person has cancer, or a person has high blood sugar, or any other physical medical issue, there’s no stigma attached to it, or minimal stigmas.”
Camille Lafleur, couple and family therapist and associate professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, grew up in Topeka and became interested in therapy after teaching preschool and helping parents with their children.
“I always say we’ve never been here before,” Lafleur said. “So everything we’re doing is the things that we’re learning new to do, and expecting us to do those things perfect, even though we’ve never done them or maybe don’t know what is expected sometimes, I think really weighs on our mental health and our well-being kind of personally.”
Lafleur became friends with Glass through a group Lafleur created of Black private practitioners in the area. She described Glass as knowledgeable, caring and compassionate.
Glass is the type of person who will give what she can and who, even without being told, will see a need and help, Lafleur said.
Glass said experiencing true love changed the way she loves other people and when someone truly loves themselves, it isn’t difficult to love others exactly as they are.
“I have seven kids that I absolutely love, (who) motivate me to make the world a better place every day,” Glass said. “So all seven of my children are my motivation to be, and to do and to shine. …. I want to be a living legacy for them.”
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