Teaching About Grief

Grief is painful. No getting around that. So how do you face it? You can’t ignore it; or you can try to ignore it, but then it comes back to you in unforeseen ways.


Teaching students about their own emotions, especially painful ones like grief, is one of the most important studies a school can provide. By facing what is difficult, painful, even fearful you learn you can do it. You are empowered. But it must be done in a way that honors the value of the emotion as well as the student’s own experience with the emotion. Each emotion has a use, although the usefulness of the emotion can be easily lost when you get caught up in it. Teaching about emotion must be done with heart and sensitivity, so the discussion is real—but not so real that a student suffering their own grief feels overwhelmed. The teacher must first study his or her own emotional nature before asking the same of students.


When you feel grief, it can be so powerful that you lose sight of the fact that it, like everything, comes and goes. It can feel like it defines who you are. If your thoughts and feelings of the person you lost can come and go, then they are not all of who you are. There is something more. What is it? Meditation provides a way to study emotion moment by moment. When you take a few breaths, and allow yourself to mindfully notice whatever arises in your mind, you find an answer.


One book that helped me deal with grief is Leaning Into Love: A Spiritual Journey Through Grief, by Elaine Mansfield. The author shows you how to face grief and learn from it. She shows you grief is part of love. You grieve because you love. It is not something to hide away. By facing it head on you learn to live and to love head on.


I feared her book would depress me. Instead, it filled me with life. Elaine’s writing is direct and honest. She goes into detail about the last years and seconds of her husband Vic’s life and the three years that followed. She gives us her life as an example and thus guides us in fashioning our own lives. She shows us the importance of friends and ritual in facing grief. She shows us her feelings so we can feel our own.


At one point, she describes the moments after Vic’s death. Ms. Mansfield says, “Even though his hands and feet are cold, warmth emanates from his heart.” I felt like crying. Maybe I was beginning to feel, not just hear her words. That warmth made the loss and the importance of living honestly so real. What a gift!


I taught the novel Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, published in 1976, in a high school English class. Although the book portrays an upper middle class life many students thought was fading away, the insight it presents into the importance of facing your feelings as honestly as you can is extremely valuable. Fear of emotion made one of the characters in the novel turn away from grief and turn away from her family. The novel thus gives students insight into how emotion shapes experience and opens the classroom to discussions of grief, guilt, depression and love. It also presents a very positive view of psychotherapy.


Grief reveals the intensity of loss. It can lead to obsessive thoughts and anxiety, but it is not just pain. It is a valuable and necessary part of healing and living. It requires time. It can be a mirror to reveal how your mind and emotion works. Grief can give the moments of your life tremendous feeling and meaning and thus studying it can give a class tremendous meaning. And this is one function a good education should fulfill. We can learn to better help each other face the pain, and joy, of living together.


*Photo of cave in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Books, Bookstores and Histories

I like bookstores, especially when I feel like browsing or am not sure exactly what I want to read. There is a sense of mystery in browsing. As I look, I discover my own heart and mind. I discover what grabs my attention. When I am really awake, I walk into a bookstore and there, on the display table, is a book that answers some question that has been nagging me or fulfills some desire for adventure.


But bookstores are disappearing. The light they represent is winking out. Some evil force is stealing their light. Some might say this is a good thing. Another form of consumerism is gone. Another reason for cutting down trees is ended. I love trees and breathing, so I certainly would like to limit tree cutting.


But the loss of bookstores can lead to several negative results. An article in the New York Times called Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves, by Teddy Wayne, recently spoke to the negative consequences of this disappearance. Not only bookstores are disappearing, but books, records, CDs are disappearing in homes. Children today no longer get to see the musical or literary history of their parents displayed on their shelves or in their collections. Teddy Wayne cites research that supports the view that children who grow up without books in their homes are likely to not do as well in school—adjusting for economic and other factors (I presume).


There are still school and public libraries, outposts of adventure and wonder. Yet, they too are going more and more digital. Without a library of displayed choices to wander through that you can hold in your hand and explore, is it more difficult to know what is available and what is possible? I hope the new ebooks are as satisfying for other people as the paper ones are for me. Online the number of choices of what to read is so vast it can make it too easy to decide to simply read what’s popular and what your friends read. This can result in feeling the universe of choices narrowed to what is in vogue now. You easily feel alienated if what’s popular does not fit with who you think you are.


When school standards emphasize STEM subjects (math and science) and diminish literature and history, or emphasize nonfiction in English classes and reduce the reading of fiction, the same narrowing of focus in time and possibility can occur. Literature is not just a good story, not just a sideline to a good education. It is vitally important. It is an entrance into the lives, viewpoints, and possibilities exhibited by other people of distant time periods and cultures that could not be accessed as well any other way. History is not just a descriptive list of what happened in other places and times. It is a narration of the human mind and heart extended over vast periods of time. It reveals the roots of the present so the range of possible actions now and in the future are expanded. It also reveals how actions in the present create future situations and how what you think is possible shapes the range of political and social power you exercise. Without a sense of history, you can feel the problems of today have always been there, so why bother to act to change anything.


I was lucky. I grew up in a home filled with books and live now surrounded by them. I also grew up with a sense that each person has some responsibility for shaping the world we live in. I hope we don’t make the mistake of depriving our children of these opportunities and depriving them of a sense of empowerment and responsibility.

Ideas, Perceptions and Feelings

We all form ideas about reality. It is a normal and necessary component of experiencing a meaningful world. However, the idea can seem to us as the reality, even though it’s not. I had two experiences recently which brought out this discrepancy. In one case, it turned an inconvenience into a difficult situation. In the other, it converted joy into loss.


In the first situation, I had arranged to use a space to hold a class. I had all the paperwork in and had used the space on and off for years. Then during the class session, another group came in half way through the class and said they had the space reserved. I was annoyed at the interruption and astonished by their claim.  I calmed down and let them use part of the space for the last twenty minutes of the class, even though my class was relatively quiet and theirs noisy. Then the next day, I checked in with the person in charge of scheduling the space and was assured the room was mine, not theirs. So, in my mind, I formed this idea that the other group was lying or taking advantage. That was my interpretation of what had happened. When I saw the leader of the group again, he even looked to me like a liar. But I was wrong about him. I later found out the person in charge of scheduling the space had double booked it.


In a totally different type of situation, I noticed recently that as I got older, I centered my life less on my work. I thought of friends and family more. I began to see my family more often and wanted to spend more time with friends. And with both, I am lucky. My family is supportive. I have close friends who care about and accept me. When I am with them, there are distinct ups and downs, but generally my moments with them are some of the finest moments in life. But I sometimes add something to the joy that changes its nature. I add this yearning to keep them close to me more of the time. Even though I have my own life and each of them has theirs, I dream of more time together. Instead of taking this dream as simply an extension of the joy and something to learn from, I sometimes take it as an indication that something is missing. Joy is then converted into clinging and loss.


Our emotions integrate the different elements of our world. They can do this for good or ill. They begin with what the author and child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls an initial “orienting response” or awakening of attention, grows to include memories, likes and dislikes, interpretations, until we get fully ripened emotions and inclinations to act.


It can be difficult to spot when distortions in our understanding occur, or understand what the distortion is. But it helps to know how emotions and perceptions are constructed. It helps to be mindful and keep in touch with the feeling underlying emotion. It helps when we notice if we are acting out of fear or a sense of threat so we can step back from the fear and more clearly consider if there is really a threat.  Or step back from an idea and evaluate if it accurately mirrors the situation. To take a breath and ask ourselves: “How am I viewing the other people in this situation? What is motivating the action I imagine?” It helps to realize that the perception I have of others is created along with the idea I hold of myself.


Life is so much fuller when I take time to absorb and cherish the reality I am presented with, whatever it is, but especially when it involves the friends and family I am close to.


*Photo from Cappadocia, Turkey.