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.