A wrongly accused man must reclaim his identity after spending five years on death row. A South American teenager leaves her family behind when she flees to the United States. A veteran is haunted by memories of the servicemen who didn’t survive. A mother copes with the news that her son has been diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy.
Boxes of tissues lined the tables of a Marvin Center conference room last week as a group of graduate students and mental health professionals listened to examples of loss during the Contemporary Issues in Grief and Loss summer institute at the George Washington University.
Loss, though universal, comes in all different forms, said institute director Paul Tschudi.
“The vast majority of people come to counseling because of a loss—relationships, jobs, safety, self-esteem, culture. We face losses every day, but we don’t label them that way. So our response to them, we don’t see as a normal grief reaction,” Mr. Tschudi said. “In order to have a new beginning, you have to let go of something. If you can contextualize your loss within a grief framework, it makes it less scary.”
The four-day summer institute on grief and loss, hosted by the Office of Summer and Special Programs and the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, gives current and future mental health professionals the tools needed to help their clients heal following a traumatic event or life transition.
The interdisciplinary program, held this year from July 16 to 19, brings together GW faculty members, clinicians and experts as well as those who have experienced loss to share stories and offer clinical approaches. It is sponsored by the GW Hospital Women’s Board, the Hospice Foundation of America and Washington Area Geriatric Education Foundation.
Mr. Tschudi founded the institute in 2006 as an opportunity for students in the online end-of-life care graduate program to meet face to face during a culminating event at GW Hospital. In 2010, the summer institute became a three-credit elective course for students in the clinical mental health counseling and school counseling programs at GW. The institute is also open to non-credit seeking attendees in the community, including social workers, psychologists, therapists, school counselors and case managers.
“People who have attended tell me that their lives have been transformed,” Mr. Tschudi said. “Because death and grief are either not talked about or they’re sensationalized. This institute personalizes grief as well as enhances our skills as practitioners in helping others through the grieving process.”
This year’s institute, titled “The Many Faces of Grief,” focused on the idea that different communities—African Americans, Latin Americans, the homeless, people with disabilities—experience loss in different ways, and grief often comes in unexpected places.
In 1973, Shujaa Graham was convicted of the murder of a prison guard in California, and sent to death row in 1976. Three years later, the California Supreme Court overturned the death conviction. It was not until a fourth trial that Mr. Graham and his co-defendant were found innocent.
Mr. Graham was released in 1981 and has since committed himself to fighting for the abolition of the death penalty. Mr. Graham and his partner, both residents of Takoma Park, Md., spoke at this year’s summer institute. Mr. Graham explained the grieving during his prison sentence and following his exoneration as he transitioned back into civilian life. He experienced the loss of hope, family relationships, faith in the system, but also found a renewed appreciation for what it feels like to be a victim.
Following his presentation, Mr. Graham shook every person’s hand while in tears. “I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to go and shake people’s hands,” he told them.
For Dan Minot, a second-year graduate student in the school counseling program, the experience was powerful.
“His story added a whole new dimension to what grief is,” Mr. Minot said. “You think of grief and loss as having to do with death and dying, but there are so many other losses that we don’t even begin to realize.”
Another speaker at the institute, Marie Burgess, M.A. ’02, offered a unique perspective as both a high school counselor and a parent who went through the grieving process. In July 2011, she gave birth prematurely to her first child, who was diagnosed with epilepsy, two blood disorders and needed surgery to repair his cleft lip. The life transition from a healthy woman to the parent of a child with a disability can bring feelings of stress, guilt and isolation, she explained, as she offered a new take on classic grief theory though a “disability lens.”
“When you’re living in a community with disability, daily activities can remind you how devastating your situation is. Things like going to the playground and seeing everyone’s children run around and being reminded your child can’t,” she said.
Ms. Burgess used her own experiences as well as her clinical expertise to discuss how mental health professionals can better communicate with disabled clients as well as with parents of children who have special needs or disabilities.
Mr. Tschudi believes the ongoing success of the summer institute is in its ability to bring in professionals from the local area and to create a deep sense of community among the participants. Lynn Hodorek, a second-year graduate student in the clinical mental health counseling master’s program, was inspired to register for the institute after listening to a lecture on grief by Mr. Tschudi during the spring semester.
“It’s been so fascinating because there is such a diversity of stories and speakers,” she said.
The final days of the institute ended with presentations from mental health counselor Ricardo Sanchez, who explained the loss of identity that comes with being an immigrant in a new country, and role-playing exercises led by Stephanie Handel of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing about responding to school-based crisis. Duane Bowers, a certified counselor and hypnotherapist, led the institute’s participants through steps for helping clients deal with traumatic grief.
Amber Toeller, a second-year graduate student in the school counseling program, said the lessons she learned at the institute will be indispensible for her students. Ms. Toeller is a reading interventionist at a Ward 7 school.
“I think they’re experiencing grief on a daily level, but it’s not talked about in their community,” she said. “I now have the language to open the conversation and allow them to share their story in a safe place.”
The institute succeeded in putting a face on loss, showing that grief is universal, and yet each loss we experience is unique unto itself.
"It is about letting go of that which was and preparing for that which is to come—a normal and natural part of life," Mr. Tschudi said. "Perhaps it makes us more fully human."