Grief and growth: Mourning a loved one can be overwhelming -- or empowering

Clare Howard

Bradley University graduate students in counseling are learning grief and loss are muscles. Grief can be harnessed for strength and understanding, or it can run amok, draining energy, resolve and spirit.

Grieving well is a way to honor a person who has died.

These are not abstract thoughts but transformative concepts that have engaged 25 graduate students meeting Monday nights this semester in Room 100 of Bradley Hall.

Teaching ELH 620: "Introduction to Human Development Counseling" is Bradley University Associate Dean Lori Russell-Chapin.

Grief, Russell-Chapin said, is part of living richly.

One of the books on the class reading list is "Writing Your Grief Story" by Russell-Chapin, about her personal struggle with the death of her mother.

"I learned so much from my mother's death by being an active participant in it. A powerful journey," she said. "Grief transforms us. I am proud of myself and honored to have taken this journey."

Her mother, Helen Lucille McKay Russell, died in Wyoming in 2004 at age 90.

Russell-Chapin has been a grief counselor for 25 years. Yet even as a professional, she writes about dreading her mother's death and trying for two decades to prepare for it. She worried about not being able to survive the loss.

Staying busy, focused on other issues, is a false assumption about effective grieving, she said. On the other extreme, getting stuck in the process of grief, what she calls "becoming seduced by grief," is another misstep in the process.

"If grief is a skill set, it can be applied to every avenue of life," she said.

"People are afraid. They are ill-equipped to deal with loss and grief, and our culture does not encourage us to learn. But rather than a dark and scary place, grief is part of a richly lived life."

Healthy grieving, she said, involves anamnesis, a Greek word for remembering the past in the present.

"Getting stuck in grief dishonors our loved ones. They would never want that," she said.

In the past, her graduate course in human development counseling was structured around homeless youth. Another year, the focus was depression and the Illinois Valley Mental Health Association.

This year, the class developed age-appropriate curriculums tailored for children from elementary grades to adolescents in high school.

Last week, students met in the Packard Room of the Cullom-Davis Library and reviewed how their class curriculums would be downloaded on Second Life, the virtual reality Web site (www.secondlife.com). Anyone worldwide can access the material and use it in classrooms.

"Teachers are always looking for free resources. This is a resource all teachers can use," Russell-Chapin said. "Everyone grieves. It's a universal part of humankind."

Some of the facts about grief that she presented to the class:

- Grief is universal.

- It is cumulative.

- If it is not dealt with, it snowballs.

- Grief is extremely chaotic.

"Chaos is part of grief. Some people are afraid of their emotions," she said, noting that facts without emotion deny truths arrived at through the mind-body-spirit connection.

Our society values and rewards achievement, success, moving ahead. Yet grief is a reflective process not validated by those measures of success.

"We don't get reinforcement from society for reflection," she said. "But every crisis in life stems from loss. Crisis is loss. Learning to deal with loss is an essential skill for everyone to function in life."

Storytelling is a way to understand and contextualize events in a meaningful framework. Talking and writing about grief are coping tools, Russell-Chapin said.

Not everyone immediately recognizes and accepts the value of storytelling. When she sent copies of her book to her mother's brothers, they did not initially understand it, and they were not pleased. They are now more comfortable understanding the book is a way to honor their sister and deal with the loss of her.

"There is an aching need in people to offer help. Telling your grief story is a way for you to grow and help," Russell-Chapin said. "We don't grow through complacency and happiness. We grow through crisis, reflection and assessment. When we tell stories about that process, stories are a metaphor for life. Storytelling is the underlying foundation of life. To suppress storytelling is to suppress life."

Russell-Chapin believes the stories in her book will help her children prepare for and grieve through her own death.

"Storytelling is healing," she said.

"Guess what? We can't avoid grief and loss, so why not develop a grief skill set?"

Rachel Bridgewater, a graduate student in the class, earned a degree from Southern Illinois University in linguistic anthropology. She spent the decade after college helping to raise her sister's four children after her sister died in a crash.

"I can combine life lessons with school lessons. Counseling is a way I can contribute to my community," she said.

Clare Howard can be reached at choward@pjstar.com.