Setting Healthy Boundaries with Maria LoCicero and Grief Counselor Bonnie Wheeler

Maria LoCicero discusses the unexpected loss of her mother and how she managed her grief in the aftermath, and social worker Bonnie Wheeler provides guidance on compartmentalization and establishing boundaries.

The Science of Grief, produced by WDET and Science Gallery Detroit, explores the stories, science and solutions around grief and mental health, making space for young adults to share their stories, but also lead the conversation.

After losing her mother unexpectedly, Maria LoCicero had to learn how to manage her own grief, including creating healthy boundaries and using art as a form of self-care. In this episode of Science of Grief, LoCicero discusses her loss and how she managed it and social worker Bonnie Wheeler provides guidance on compartmentalization and establishing boundaries.

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Maria LoCicero on Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Maria LoCicero was 19 years old when she lost her mother unexpectedly to a heart attack. 

A high school Spanish teacher, Maria’s mom was only 52 when she died. Maria remembers her as someone who was able to make the best out of even challenging situations, like when a student’s parents did not want their daughter in the room with her because she was a lesbian. In response, she took to dressing up as a vampire version of a famous LGBTQ+ person every Halloween. “When I think about the kind of person my mom was, who was able to forgive easily and love openly and fully, I’m reminded of that story and that sense of personality,” says Maria.

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Maria’s family, friends and community came together to support one another, which provided both comfort and challenges. “Everyone was trying to be there for each other, and for the most part it was wonderful and helpful,” says Maria. “But there were occasions when we just needed completely different things, and it was … an interesting situation to navigate.”

As a result, Maria learned how to effectively set healthy boundaries. “It was definitely a balancing act between managing other people’s feelings and managing your own,” she explains.

She knows that her grief is something she will continue to contend with for a long time. She explains it using the analogy of a button in a box. “There’s this box and there’s this button and there’s a ball in the box. And when you first lose someone, the ball is so big and the box is so small that the ball cannot go anywhere without pressing the button. And the button is pain,” she says. “And then as time goes on, the box starts getting bigger and the ball starts getting smaller, and it begins to bounce around the box. … So it still hits the button, and it’s not any less painful, but it’s just less frequent.”

To care for herself during her time of healing, Maria has turned to the guitar, something that her mom got her the month before she died. “It’s a helpful reminder and a good connection to my mom and then a fun thing to do.”

Solutions from Social Worker Bonnie Wheeler

Bonnie Wheeler is a recently retired licensed counselor for the state of Michigan and licensed social worker with more than 40 years of professional experience. She specializes in grief and loss and has worked with young people specifically for the last 15 years. She agrees with Maria’s assertion that grief is something a person has to deal with in perpetuity. “It feels at first, like, you’re going to feel that way forever. Because those waves of grief are very close together,” Wheeler says. “But as you move out from it, the waves get further and further apart, and you realize, you’re gonna feel that way every now and then. And be gentle with yourself when you do.”

She joined host Natasha T. Miller to address some coping mechanisms and ways to effectively set boundaries in the wake of grief.

How do we compartmentalize feelings related to loss and how important is that our process of grief?
I think it’s very important. And it’s very typical. … The focus immediately when someone has passed away is what happened; how did all this go down, there are very vivid memories of the events around [the] actual death. I think early on, we go a little bit numb so that we can do the things that need to be done … there’s a numbness that comes on with your emotions early on. And then when you get the time finally to breathe, and listen to yourself and not try and be taken care of other people are making the plans or looking up the insurance, whatever it is, that’s when you can begin to feel what’s lost.

Do you have any advice on how people can effectively set boundaries for themselves?
I think number one would be to pay attention to your own emotions when somebody is pushing…  even reminding oneself that it’s really OK to set a boundary, when it’s about your own self-care. Especially around grief. What I say more frequently than anything else to people is be really gentle with yourself, because you may feel like you’ve got this, but you’re fragile. And if you’re in your community and you say I’m grieving now in my own way and I need to do that, but thank you for the offer. … The other place you set boundaries is where people tell you how you should be feeling. Because in grief, you get to feel how you feel.

How creative outlets can help express grief.
Maria … used [her] creative outlets to help [her] cope, to help [her] express [herself]. And talking about your feelings and emotions is really a powerful thing, but we did not feel feelings just verbally. We feel them … lots of different ways. So using creative outlets and talking to people who know you and support you but also know grief themselves, because they’ll get it in a different way.

Seeking Help

While this podcast is meant to make space for sharing stories and solutions, it is not a substitute for professional help. If you have a mental health concern and need someone to talk to, please contact a mental health professional or your doctor.

If you are in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.

The Science of Grief podcast is a collaboration between WDET and Science Gallery Detroit, and is supported by the Children’s Foundation of Michigan, MSUFCU and Science Sandbox.

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  • Meta Stange
    Meta Stange is the Digital Content and Engagement Manager for 101.9 WDET, overseeing the station's digital editorial content. She enjoys reading, making bad jokes, and hanging out with her dog, Salmon.