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Helping Your Students Deal with Grief and Mourning

In the broken world we live in, death is an inescapable part of life. Sooner or later, our students will encounter death as well and as youth leaders, it’s our job to help them deal with their grief and mourning. But how do we do that?

The five stages of grief

There’s a well-known ‘model’ for the process of grief, known as the five stages of grief or as the Kübler-Ross model (after Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who published about it in 1969). These five stages are as follows:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The model was originally made for terminally ill patients who were facing their own death, but later extended to include any kind of loss or grief. Kübler-Ross stressed that these stages aren’t necessarily done chronological and that stages may be skipped, although most people experience at least two of these stages in her opinion.

Other opinions on grief

There’s been a lot of criticism on the five stages of grief, even though they’re widely known around the world. Here are some important critical remarks, based on other research:

  • The word ‘stages’ suggests a linear process, that the phases are started and then closed off, only to move on to the next stage. Research shows however that people swing in and out of phases and stages and return to ‘old’ ones.
  • Acceptance is a big issue in the five stages of grief, but later research shows that most people accept the loss of a loved one from the start. This stage seems to be more relevant for people facing their own death than for people dealing with the death of a loved one.
  • A lot of people who grieve, experience a deep yearning for their loved one, a phase that is not included in the model, while anger and depression are far less common.

It seems that while the model may be helpful to recognize certain symptoms, it would be wrong to strictly adhere to. A good book on this subject is The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, which offers a solid critique on the five stages model and shows new and better ways of dealing with grief and loss. There’s also a connected website which offers helpful links to recent research in this area.

Expressing grief

The popular opinion is that expressing your grief is important, for instance by talking about it, crying or somehow working through it. Research shows that may actually not be the best approach. Our bodies and minds have a way of protecting us and sometimes repressing our grief is actually healthier than expressing it. If your student is showing little signs of grief, don’t force him or her into grieving.

Also, there’s no timetable on how long someone should grieve. Again, research shows that for most people the acute phase of grief lasts about six months to a year, but for a minority it takes longer.

How to help students grieve

How can you help your students deal with grief and mourning after the loss of a loved one? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be there: just be available for your student and make sure they know that. A lot of people struggle with what to say, but most of the time you don’t have to say anything at all. Just a simple ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ or ‘I’m praying for you’ is enough. For some, physical contact may help (a hug, holding hands, arm around shoulders) so they feel someone is there they can literally lean on.
  • Avoid clichés: don’t fall into the pitfall of sharing well-intended, but useless clichés like ‘at least he didn’t suffer’ or ‘time will heal the pain’. There’s really nothing you can say that will make the grief go away and these clichés often only make people angry.
  • Give room to grieve: as Christians, we tend to focus on the fact that a loved one is in heaven (when we know he or she was a Christian). But that doesn’t mean those left behind shouldn’t grieve. Even when someone was old, it’s still a loss. Give room to grieve and don’t close this off by saying that ‘we should be glad he/she is in heaven’.
  • Don’t force grief: everyone grieves differently. Children are known to be resilient for instance, they may want to play a game right after a funeral. Don’t force anyone to grief in an ‘appropriate manner’, let them find their own way. Also, don’t make them feel guilty about laughing or having fun after their loss, make sure they know it’s okay for them to be happy.
  • Be patient: for some people, the worst may be over in a few weeks or months. But for others, it may take years to get over the death of a loved one, especially if it was someone who was really close or if the death itself was traumatic. So stay patient, keep listening and be available for your student.
  • Observe: just keep an eye on your student and watch for any signs that he or she may not be dealing well with the loss. Things to look out for are for instance weight loss, signs of depression, anxiety, use of drugs or alcohol, complete denial, etc.