As guest speaker for a graduate counseling class recently, I was formulating what the bulk of my message would be to these eager students, many of whom had experienced field training or currently held counseling positions within area middle or high schools. They all reportedly felt under qualified to address issues of grief and loss with their teenaged students.
What would be most important for these students of life to learn in the short time I was allotted? Surely the logistics of grief and its dimensions were important in the study and understanding of the process of grief. I would explain the difference between grief and mourning — grief being the innermost thoughts and feelings related to a loss; and mourning, the expression of those thoughts and feelings, or grief gone public. I would offer information on the importance of not only acknowledging the emotions that sweep the bereaved as a tide wave racks the shore but also the healthy expression of those feelings.
A worksheet with a myriad feeling words would be helpful in eliciting the process of naming what is sometimes difficult to name. Words like fear, vulnerable, confused, lonely, irritated, relieved and so many more.
We would discuss the unpredictable and disorderly manner in which we as human beings experience grief. I would introduce the concept of dimensions to replace the antiquated five stages of grief put forth so boldly by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s and how we move in and out of these dimensions as our need takes us.
A discussion on grieving as a whole person — body, mind, heart and spirit — would provide a snapshot of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual manifestations of grief to be aware of and ministered to for these students of counsel. Such symptoms as fatigue and sleep disturbances, confusion and memory loss, anger, guilt and sadness, and the painful search for meaning coupled with doubting the very purpose of life and faith.
Our discussion would turn to grief expert Alan Wolfelt’s six reconciliation needs of a mourner where we as counselors assist the mourner with acknowledging the loss, moving toward the pain, remembering the person who died, developing a new self identity, searching for meaning and receiving ongoing support.
And finally we would discuss activities that they as counselors might use as tools to assist their grieving students work through their pain — activities such as drawing, journaling, group support sessions, creating a memory book or collage, writing a letter to their loved one and so many more.
There would be several handouts with lists of what to expect as time moves on in the aftermath of the loss and how they as counselors might companion those students who mourn a loss.
But the core of my message, I think, will be to explain that grief is heart work. One cannot think their way through it without the beat of their heart.
Following our “grief 101” discussion, during the energy-charged session, I asked each of these bright students to take a moment to recall a loss that they had experienced. As expected a variety of losses were reported around the room, from a recent death of a mother to an accidental death of a best friend some 15 years past.
As we shared our stories of grief the atmosphere in the room changed from one of academia to one of intimacy and support. In their vulnerability these students shared tears and laughter, and exclamations of surprise that their memory would cause this unexpected pain to rise up with such fervor. Following participation in the activities that they might use with their own students, a new understanding dawned on this remarkable group as surely as the morning sun rises over the horizon — through the process of sharing your story of grief, the heart begins to heal.
These graduate students were now better prepared with tools to assist anyone who sought help with a loss issue, because they themselves had experienced a taste of the work to be done. And, I think, they learned to be gentle with themselves as well. With this, a new generation would come to understand that, though painful, the process of mourning a loss in healthy ways is important heart work that grows the fruit of a joy-filled, meaningful life after loss.
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