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Death and Grief in the Classroom: Dangerous Discussions. Kay Fowler Feb. 28, 2007. Frail bit of good luck. "We fail to value life as a frail bit of good luck in a world based on chance." (Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body 128). Bereavement.

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frail bit of good luck
Frail bit of good luck
  • "We fail to value life as a frail bit of good luck in a world based on chance."
  • (Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body 128)
  • “The state of being bereaved or deprived of something … the objective situation of individuals who have experienced a loss of some person or thing that they valued.” (Corless 2001; qtd. Corr 209).
  • “The reaction to loss.”
  • Can be experienced in numerous ways

“The processes of coping with loss and grief, and thus the attempt to manage those experiences or learn to live with them by incorporating them into ongoing living.” (Siggins)

grief manifestations
Grief Manifestations
  • Physical sensations
  • Feelings (a wide range from sadness to anger to yearning to numbness, etc.); Thoughts or Cognitions (e.g. disbelief, preoccupation…);
  • Behaviors (again a wide range);
  • Social Difficulties;
  • Spiritual searching.
in the classroom
In the classroom
  • Grief/trauma makes students/teacher feel “out of control” “out of the norm”
  • Class can be a relatively safe space to try to find some sense of renewed control or “normalcy”
  • Teacher not an “expert” here -- but a participant in the grief -- but is still an experienced facilitator
how to start
How to Start
  • Students want opportunity to process but also don’t want to be overwhelmed -- want some return to familiar’
  • Start with statement of openness to discuss situation
  • Set a time limit for the discussion - 30 min. or 45 min.
be concrete and complete
Be concrete and complete
  • Give as clear, full, and concrete a description of the information as you know
  • Make clear what you don’t know or what isn’t known at this time
  • Describe what you can about efforts underway to get more information
  • Indicate that one discussion is not going to be a quick fix; grief/trauma does not have a timeline or a solution; one learns to live around -- not “get over” it.
ground rules
Ground rules
  • Be open and respectful
  • Share your own reactions to the degree that you feel comfortable
  • Let students know it’s okay to pass
  • Listen carefully and reflect back what has been said

Validate feelings -- ask how feelings can be channeled positively

Resist using cliches, quick reassurances, or religious or patriotic wisdom (whatever your own beliefs)

When students offer these affirm their perspective but gently reflect that others will perceive things differently or hold different beliefs and values

start with writing
Start with writing
  • Have students write for 5 minutes or so about their reactions/questions
  • Start class discussion with question -- how did you learn about ?
  • Invite students to share their reactions/questions
observe carefully
Observe carefully
  • Watch class for exhaustion with topic or for heightened anxiety
  • Watch individuals for acute grief or risk signals of suicidal or violent responses
  • Draw these students aside at break or end of class
hate language
Hate language
  • If hate langauge or revenge talk emerges toward a particular group help students to take apart where the anger is coming from, where it “belongs” and where it is being inappropriately generalized, and how to use anger positively rather than destructively
closing discussion
Closing Discussion
  • When time is “up” or when subject seems to be becoming overwhelming bring discussion to closure by
  • Offering resources for help where you know them, Counseling Center, agencies, websites, etc.
  • Suggest research, readings, and/or action steps to be taken. Draw suggestions from students.
closing discussion16
Closing discussion
  • Suggest ways to tie subject into class subject where possible
  • Promise (if appropriate) further discussion in a later class -- not necessarily the next class and tied to steps to learn more/research more before that discussion
  • Ask students to write thoughts again for five minutes
  • If long class take a short break before turning to the class work for the day
  • If short class try to do some of the class work for the day even if only 5 or 10 minutes before class ends to restore sense that life and learning are continuing and are valuable
self care
  • If possible talk with someone you trust about the class in advance
  • Definitely talk with someone you trust after the class -- debrief, get a hug, cry your own tears
  • Write your own reaction/thoughts on the event -- and on the class discussion
  • Do something healing -- take a walk, paint a picture, work in your garden, etc.
6 r s of grieving
6 R’s of Grieving
  • Recognize the loss (acknowledge and understand the death)
  • React to the separation (e. g. feel the pain, express, identify and mourn secondary losses)
  • Recollect and re-experience the deceased and the relationship (review and remember realistically, revive and re-experience feelings) (Rando)
6 r s continued
6 R’s continued

4. Relinquish the old attachments to the deceased and the old assumptive world

  • Readjust to move adaptively into the new world without forgetting the old (develop a new relationship with the deceased, adopt new ways of being in the world)
  • Reinvest.


factors affecting grief
Factors affecting grief
  • A. Psychological Factors:
      • 1. characteristics and meaning of the lost relationship (e.g. lost roles and functions, unfinished business, etc.)
      • 2. your personal characteristics (e.g. coping behaviors, accumulation of or simultaneous other stresses, etc.)
      • 3. specific circumstances of the death (location, type, “timeliness,” sense of preventability; etc.)
      • 4. Corr adds: developmental situation of the bereaved person (child, adolescent, adult or elderly person)

(Rando; Corr)

social factors
Social Factors
  • B. Social Factors
      • 1. Social support system
      • 2. sociocultural, ethnic, religious/philosophical backgrounds/values
      • 3. educational, economic, and occupational status
      • 4. funerary rituals
      • 5. social recognition of the loss, the relationship, the grief

(Rando 1988)

physical factors
Physical Factors
  • C. Physical Factors
  • 1. Drugs and sedatives
      • 2. Nutrition
      • 3. Rest and sleep
      • 4. Physical health
      • 5. Exercise
      • (Rando)
complicated grief

Complicated Grief

“There is a pain -- so utter --”

bone by bone
Bone by Bone…
  • “There is a pain -- so utter --
  • It swallows substances up--
  • Then covers the Abyss with trance
  • So Memory can step
  • Around--across-upon it--
  • As one within a swoon
  • Goes safely--where an open eye--
  • Would drop him -- Bone by Bone”
  • Emily Dickinson
complicated grief reactions
Complicated Grief Reactions
  • Chronic: prolonged; no real sense of progress toward readjusting to life without the lost
  • Delayed: Grief is inhibited, suppressed, or postponed -- can surface later in an excessive reaction
Or …
  • Exaggerated: Excessive and disabling. May lead to phobia, physical or psychiatric symptons; or aberrant or maladaptive behavior
  • Masked: Individuals experience symptoms or behaviors (including complete absence of grief) that cause them difficulty but that they do not recognize as related to the loss.
disenfranchised grief
Disenfranchised Grief
  • Grief is exacerbated when it is “disenfranchised.”
  • Ken Doka notes 3 primary ways grief can be disenfranchised: “either the relationship or the loss or the griever is not recognized.” (Doka 1989b)
complicating factors
Complicating factors
  • Relationship not recognized
  • Invisibility
  • Hypervisibility
  • Exacerbated trauma
  • Rejection/Denial
community bereavement
Community Bereavement
  • Both a positive (as losses are shared and mourned together) and an extra dimension to personal loss -- as the community itself is diminished by multiple losses and strained under “chronic grief”…
Chronic Mourning:Multiple, ongoing losses and traumas experienced by an individual or a community with the expectation of more to come:
such as
Such as
  • hate crimes against a particular group, war zones, environmentally damaged areas, public health disasters, familial health patterns, locales where violent crime is frequent
complicating grief
Complicating Grief
  • “The very nature of disenfranchised grief creates additional problems for grief, while removing or minimizing sources of support” (Doka)
exacerbated grief
Exacerbated Grief
  • “Studies document that a deficit in social support has been associated with poor outcomes in bereavement as measured by the person’s health in the first year after the loss of a loved one, and that an absence of social support is directly related to continued high distress two years after the death of a significant other. … (Shernoff)
  • “… continued social, political, and cultural activity appears to foster resilience and help the community fend off feelings of despair and helplessness.” (Dworkin & Kaufer)
what can we do
What Can We Do?
  • Learn & Listen Aggressively
  • Validate, Accept, & Honor
  • Hug
  • Participate in the rituals and in the political activism