The Harbinger Online

Coping with Grief

BY ROBBIE VEGLAHN AND CAROLINE CHISHOLM

Sophomore Phillip Clemente is slammed against the glass. He’s just been rocked by a player wearing a Rockhurst hockey jersey, and can’t help but smile.

He remembers how he and his late longtime-friend Harrison Rupp used to slam each other into the glass during big games. But as he starts to think about Rupp, waves of grief he’s been experiencing for the past year come rushing back.

For Clemente and many others who have lost someone they love, grief is never done. As people cope with loss, moments like Clemente’s can bring back both fond and heavy-hearted emotions, which grief experts say is normal.

In the past, grief has been looked as formulaic, following the “stages of grief” model that has been commonly accepted since the ’60s. But now grief experts emphasize that there is no wrong way to grieve – and that grief can be most difficult for adolescents dealing with loss.

In the past three weeks, three high schoolers in the community – one from Blue Valley North and two from Shawnee Mission Northwest – have died, sending many into their own struggle with loss. But grief can be generated by things other than death. According to grief experts, losing relationships, ending friendships or graduating high school can all cause grief. But whether it is a loss of life or not, all of these forms of grief stem from a place of love.

When people love deeply, they grieve deeply, according to Donna Schuurman, the Emeritus Executive Director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families. In a phone interview, Schuurman said that it can be particularly difficult for adolescents to deal with this grief because they are at an age where they are seeking independence, meaning they are less likely to talk to parents and adults about their grief.

As a director and counselor at the nation’s first-ever center for grieving children, Schuurman has found that teens are more inclined to confide in their peers. But Schuurman said that this can be difficult when their peers haven’t shared the same experiences.

“Many teenagers are more confiding in friends and peers than they often are with other adults as they move into more independence,” Schuurman said. “So it becomes challenging to be with peers who they feel don’t get it, and there is an isolation factor that is heightened in adolescence.”

Even for those with a strong support system, like senior Molly Terlouw, that isolation factor can be real for adolescents who have experienced loss. Two weeks ago, Terlouw found out that her life-long friend John Albers from Blue Valley North had been shot and killed by a police officer.

In the days that followed, there were times she was able to talk about her emotions and about Albers with her best friends and boyfriend. But sometimes, she just needed to be alone.

“For a couple days last week I just iced [my boyfriend] out and didn’t talk to him much. If I did, it was just one word responses,” Terlouw said. “I wanted to be left alone I guess. I didn’t want to deal with anybody. It was just really hard.”

According to Ken Doka – former President of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and co-editor of the book series “Living with Grief” – a common misconception about grief is that it occurs only after a person experiences death. In his teaching and research, Doka stresses that the loss of romantic relationships, friendships or even the thought of graduating high school can be just as difficult to process. It’s different, but Doka said in a phone interview that it can take many of the same forms of grief.

East social worker Emily MacNaughton said that in her day-to-day experience with East students, she sees all different forms of grief.

“There’s a lot of things as human beings, like navigating your everyday life, that you don’t associate with grief,” MacNaughton said. “Moving, losing a job, getting a lower grade than you expected, ending a relationship; all of those tap into the same emotions.”

Senior Katie MacAdam has felt grief, but it wasn’t from the death of a loved one. The struggles of her long distance relationship with East alumnus Alex McWard have left her feeling “empty” since September when he left for college. And while they are still dating, she feels the pain of the loss because he isn’t around her – something Doka, Schuurman and MacNaughton said is normal.

“It’s so hard for me to focus on my friends and school and things here when half of my heart is five hundred miles away,” MacAdam said.

As the days turned into months, MacAdam found it difficult to take care of herself and to keep up with everything going on in her life, often forgetting meals or homework to FaceTime or text McWard.

MacAdam found some comfort in talking to those who had been through similar situations and have experienced what it is like to be in a long distance relationship. But as her emotions became more intense, she began to withdraw from those around her rather than talk about it.

According to Doka, there are two common styles of grief –– intuitive and instrumental.

Many intuitive grievers, like MacAdam, tend to experience grief very emotionally. While they may isolate themselves because of the intensity of their feelings, they can also benefit the most from support groups or sharing their emotions with friends, according to Doka.

“I definitely isolated myself,” MacAdam said. “My friends would wonder what was going on. In a way, I was like, ‘They will never understand. No one will understand what this is like.’”

Instrumental grievers, like Clemente, are much more active in their grief, Doka said. These grievers will often “do” something to try and “fix” it; Clemente started a suicide prevention foundation in honor of his late friend Rupp.

Clemente, MacAdam, and others all grieve in different ways. Doka, Schuurman and MacNaughton all stressed that there is no right way to grieve or to process loss.

“Neither [style of grief] is preferred,” Doka said. “You just have to find what works for you.”

Doka’s theory about styles of grief, which he developed with researcher Terry Martin, is one of the contemporary theories that has replaced the “stages of grief” model that Doka says has dominated the field and pop culture since the ’60s. To Doka, the “stages” model makes grief too formulaic, and disregards the differences in individual “loss journeys.”

“We really stress individual pathways, no longer universal stages” Doka said. “It’s a nice contingent idea. It’s fun to learn it. It makes life so predictable, but there really is no evidence to support it. Do a service to your fellow students by letting them know that nobody of any substance or of any currency looks to stages anymore.”

Just like there are many different styles of grief, there are different approaches to helping those who are grieving, according to Associate Pastor of Pastoral Care at Village Presbyterian Church Len Carrell. Carrell, who has been running monthly support groups for grieving families for years, thinks it’s important to listen to each individual person’s story before deciding the best way to help.

“It’s your grief; it’s your need,” Carrell said. “No one is the expert on your grief. No one can tell you that your grief isn’t as important or isn’t as healthy or isn’t as strong as someone else’s.”

Sometimes those in grief need to be listened to. For Terlouw, it was her theater teachers, Brian Capello and Tom DeFeo, that listened to her and helped her begin to process her grief.

Sometimes those in grief need to take action. For Clemente, it was starting a foundation and raising awareness for suicide prevention that helped him find some solace in his own life.

Sometimes those in grief need to relate. For MacAdam, it was hearing from others who had been in the same situation and understood her feelings that brought some relief.

But between all these different ways of looking to help, Doka thinks the most important thing is to “reach out, but don’t grab,” or in other words don’t overstep your boundaries, but show them you are there –– advice that Clemente echoed.

“Everyone grieves differently, so it’s hard to say what can help,” Clemente said. “Some people may want to hide it. Some people can’t. So just follow their lead. If they want to cry, cry. If they want to talk to someone, listen. Do what works for them.”

Similarly, Schuurman believes it is important to simply listen and be available to those who are grieving without judgement, especially adolescents. 

“Adolescents are often too prone to jump in with advice and say, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy,’” Schuurman said. “Just include them in things, even if they might feel sad or depressed or distant, and say ‘come with us anyway, it’s OK if you don’t want to talk, because you don’t have to.’”

Doka stresses that grief is not on any timeline, and describes grief as a constant journey with loss.

“I always tell people in counseling that the first sign that you are doing better is when you can laugh about a story about the person,” Doka said. “What you want to see is that at least after a short period of time that people are able to function in the world again, and that grief is not disabling.”

It’s the moments that Clemente remembers how hard he and Rupp used to hit each other in their hockey games and bursted out laughing, instead of crying, in which Doka believes people are starting to heal.

In her years of experience counseling and educating the grieving, Schuurman has realized that grief not only stems from love, but is love in itself. In remembering the good of how people lived and loved, there will always be grief, and for Schuurman, “grief is a form of love.”

“Grief is a normal response to the loss of someone that we love,” Schuurman said. “And in my view, how could it be otherwise?”

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