The following article was first published in The Forum, the journal of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Kim Mooney, the Coordinator of Community Education and Bereavement at Hospice of Boulder County, has graciously allowed it to be reprinted here.
The Skill of Grief Education
Kim Mooney, CDE
The Skill of Grief Education
Kim Mooney, CDE
In ten years of doing grief work in my community, I have seen a variety of “teaching styles”. I have been in workshops where we laughed and cried all weekend listening to each other’s stories of raw pain and revelation. I have read books, academic and of personal experience, and watched videos on illness, dying, death, trauma, transition, grief and mystery, and witnessed performance troupes move through space writing lines of loss and dancing out teardrops. I have watched teachers drone flat, careless words about death at fields of shell-shocked students (who often respond by going to sleep). I have marveled at the courage and wisdom of grievers sharing with each other when I facilitate grief groups. I have watched physicians create magical amounts of safety while delivering terminal diagnoses. I have seen high drama Hollywood presentations and presentations that inadvertently demonstrated what “dead” looks like. I have cried in death-story movies and, as a hospice worker, feel that I have a moral obligation to model open expressions of emotion by blowing my nose without muffling it. I call this “hospice applause”.
Most of these techniques have specific functions, and merit of some kind. However, I have come to see that the skills involved in doing good grief education can be distilled into several categories: transmitting good information in respectful doses; joining with the group appropriately so as to disappear the fictitious line of teacher and taught; creating conversations that validate personal experience and give people context for their responses; introducing a variety of avenues (besides the mind) for processing loss; and including self-care as a necessary component.
I had the pleasure last year of being in a workshop on Complicated Mourning taught by Rob Zucker and he did all those things. By the end of the day, I was neither tired nor overwhelmed which, given the material we worked with, is a high testament to his skill.
Rob is highly proficient in loss work of all kinds so it was no surprise to me that his information was accurate and comprehensive. He designed handouts easy to read and written in such a way that they would be useful to review months later. He also presented information in concise ways that allowed him to cover a lot of ground in one day.
But he also provided context for the material in two important ways. First, a common error in grief work is giving people information that is theoretically sound but that is inappropriate to the time or situation they are in. Rob taught grief three-dimensionally, helping the seminar participants understand how what they were reading on the flat page needed to be handled gently in practice, and why. Secondly, while it was obvious that he spoke from years of profound experience, he was candid and modest about not knowing everything, about how muddied things can get when we are dealing with people in complicated mourning, reminding us to stay always in “beginners mind”.
We all know that the most effective teaching comes in the personal stories of loss we hear and Rob’s use of case studies and anecdote grounded his theoretical material out artfully. The stories were not just recited, but were open to exploration with the group, for questions and comments. They were not just stories about clients; they were also accounts of his own learnings, of his own steps to understanding. He didn’t provide conclusions to the stories but appropriately folded in the spiritual nature of the work by saying several times that we could wonder together about how things happen and what to do about them.
He began the day by reading a poem that moved the room into a heart space and had us reflect on it as awareness of our own self-care. I appreciated that he started with it rather than waiting until the end of the day to add the perfunctory P.S. about self-care when you are doing this delicate and rugged work. We also re-entered the seminar after lunch with another poem, which served once again to bring us into relationship with our hearts and a deeper context for the afternoon’s work. The theme of self-care was woven throughout the day in other ways too, including stories by participants and Rob’s opening directions about how to take care of ourselves during the seminar.
Throughout the day, we had experiential breaks in the form of exercises in which we were invited to explore aspects of ourselves and in a musical interlude when Rob introduced us to his klezmer cornet and shared the influences that created his music. His personal sharing and the time for us to share in small groups created an environment in which we could acknowledge that we all were part of the same experience of life and death.
Through experiential work and discussions about the use of writing, art and nature in grief work, Rob put the need and ability to engage various senses into our toolboxes. He expanded that in our discussion about the use of creative rituals to facilitate movement in grief. He continued to stress that loss was process and that none of what we learn, experience or help others with should be considered as less than mystery in which we have a small helping hand. I find this critical in helping to dismantle the cultural imperative that there be unaffected experts with all the answers to orchestrate the responses of suffering clients.
Another aspect of Rob’s teaching that I appreciated was his heartful inclusion of the work of colleagues. He brought into the room the collective wisdom of the likes of Worden, Silverman, Niemeyer, Bertman, and Doka and others in ways that not only gave us practical tools drawn out of each theoretical framework, but created a sense for the group of the matrix of knowledge that is available to all professionals. He brought ADEC’s sense of family into the larger community in a way that made me proud and inspired and actually a little teary. (No, I did not reward him with hospice applause).
As I said in the beginning of this article, I left this seminar as I have left Rob’s other seminars: uplifted, inspired and nourished. I also left with teaching techniques that I have incorporated into my own work. The more that opportunities present themselves to do death and grief education with different population groups, the more critical it will be that we are able to be effective broad-based educators. Thank you Rob, and all of my ADEC colleagues, for the resources that ADEC offers us to cultivate our personal and professional skills in this field.