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StoriesJennifer Wiles ’86

Expanding the language of grief

Dance therapist Jennifer Wiles ’86 works to expand access to grief therapy

Camp Erin Boston staffers with Jennifer Wiles
Camp Erin Boston 2021staff and interns from Lesley's Dance/Movement Therapy program. Front row from left to right: Iyit (IB) Benusia, Olivia Naya, Heather Powers, Katrina Guitar. Back row left to right: Patricka James, Khary Green, Devon Boucher Renfro, Genevieve Fuller, Katie McGrail, Jennifer Wiles, Stephanie Chancey, Audrey LaVallee

Dance/movement therapist Jennifer Wiles ’86 has made bereavement therapy the center of her practice, and as director of the HEARTplaysm program, she is bringing grief counseling to those who haven’t always had access to it, from youth with disabilities to Spanish speakers.

HEARTplay is part of Beth Israel Lahey Health At Home – a component of the Beth Israel Lahey Health health care system focused on palliative care, home care and hospice. The program offers support services at no cost for children, teens, and young adults of all abilities who are coping with the illness or death of an important person in their lives. Licensed mental health counselors and expressive therapists use movement, music, art, play, and discussion to help patients explore and express feelings associated with grief and loss.

“Grief is a lifelong experience,” explains Jennifer, who earned her master's degree from Lesley in Dance/Movement Therapy in 1986, and teaches here now. “Many people used to feel like you need to ‘get over’ a death, you need to ‘move on.’”

Research has shown that isn’t an effective way to process grief.

“It’s a lifelong experience that we adapt to. It changes as we change and grow. And we’ve found that people who get that support when they're younger do much better academically; they do much better socially; they do much better with their emotional and mental health. And they really learn how to transform this experience of grief and loss into a compassionate approach to life and to others.”

Coming back to the HEART

In her career as a dance/movement therapist, Jennifer has worked with a range of populations, but she has always focused on grief and the ways that expressive therapies can help people cope with bereavement. In her work as director of the HEARTplay program, she found a role that allows her to use her expertise to the fullest.  

“It just fit everything. I could bring movement therapy into it. I could bring the expressive arts into it. I could fit mental health counseling into it. It’s just a beautiful connection.”

Expanding access to therapeutic counseling for underserved populations was always a goal for Jennifer, and thinking creatively about how to make HEARTplay inclusive for young people with differing abilities was at the heart of the program.

The Lesley connection

Norma Canner, the founder of Lesley’s Dance/Movement Therapy program, was an important influence for Jennifer. At the core of Canner's approach, Jennifer says, was an open-mindedness and willingness to give unknown situations a try.

“She said that early in her career, people would come to her and ask things like ‘could you work with blind children and dance? Could you work with developmentally disabled kids and dance?’ And she would always say, ‘I don't know, but I can try,'” says Jennifer. “As expressive therapists and as mental health counselors, we need to have that openness and that willingness to meet clients where they are.”

Several years ago, Jennifer learned from program participants that there was a need for grief support for Spanish speakers. She responded by teaming up with the Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care to create a bereavement counseling program in Spanish that became known as Corazón a Corazón, which means heart to heart. The name was coined by then-Lesley intern Chantal Bañuelos, one of many students from the university involved with HEARTplay. Jennifer also listened to community members who told her that it was important that the facilitators of the group were native Spanish speakers.

“I was fortunate enough to have had Lesley interns Alejandra Salazar and Sabrina Mijares, who are native Spanish speakers and who are now clinicians trained in grief work,” she says. “So I had this ready-made staff from some fabulous Lesley people.”

She also started a partnership closer to home with our Threshold Program, which serves students with different learning needs. After several deaths that impacted the community, Threshold’s director reached out.

“She said, ‘I'm a social worker, but I don't know about grief.’ We started the HEARTplay group for these students and alumni and it was a beautiful collaboration.”

As an adjunct faculty member at Lesley, Jennifer has worked with over 40 Lesley students as interns, volunteers and co-workers through the HEARTplay program. Lesley student volunteers and alumni clinicians have also played an important role at Camp Erin Boston, an overnight camp for children and teens who have experienced a loss.

Jennifer Wiles
Jennifer Wiles

She is also working on a project with the Autism Alliance of Metro West to help local funeral homes support families with members on the autism spectrum.

“What we have found over the years in this program is that death and illness happen to all of us, and we strongly believe that all people who go through these hard things deserve support.”

Learn more about Expressive Therapies at Lesley

Nearly 50 years ago, we channeled our strengths in therapy, education, and the arts and founded the field of Expressive Therapies. Today, we are the only university in the world that teaches all 5 specializations, with Clinical Mental Health Counseling master's degree programs in Art TherapyMusic TherapyDance/Movement TherapyDrama Therapy, and Expressive Arts Therapy.

Explore all of our undergraduate and graduate programs in Expressive Therapies. Join our alumni who work in rewarding careers as art therapists, music therapists, clinical supervisors, substance abuse counselors, and in other helping professions.