How do we best help our students cope with grief and loss?
Our question today is how we can help our students and families cope with grief and loss in our communities?
Welcome to Beyond the StEPS
What do we do when there is a death, a grim prognosis or a loss of any kind, where kids are a close-knit community of students, players, teachers, families and parents… How do we handle this?
We have two amazing guests who will help us answer these challenging questions.
Ashley Gooden-Stewart* is the founder and CEO of The Baby Stewart Foundation and Pocketful of Hope Grief Coaching & Support. Ashley is a Certified Grief Coach and Grief Educator, Pregnancy & Infant Loss Advocate, Community Health Worker, Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, Mental Health First Aider, and Authoress. As a philanthropist, Ashley works hard daily to serve her local community.
Holly Kaufman* founded The Grief Recovery Method® in 2015 after a long and painful divorce. She became certified to help other people who are grieving and offer much-needed support and hope.she is a U.S. Army Veteran and at one time,she was suffering from PTSD so severe that she was unable to work and was on SSDI.
Ashley can you start out by briefly telling us kind of what your experience was that led you to do this work and why is it so important that we address this for our student athletes?
Ashley: After experiencing the traumatic loss of my three and a half month old son, CJ Stewart, in August 2015, I felt a strong desire to serve my community and the world. This led me to move back to my hometown in Lamarque, Texas to assist families in need, particularly bereaved parents. As time passed, our mission expanded to helping the elderly homeless population before the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic hit, many people were able to identify and name the emotions they were feeling, such as grief, loss of job, self, and identity. This inspired me to delve deeper into grief work.
Holly, what led you to pursue this type of work?
Holly: In 2015, I discovered the Grief Recovery Method, which is a program and organization that I am certified by. Initially, I thought I was signing up for a class, but I ended up in a training program. While going through the program, I realized that I was struggling with severe PTSD, which had led me to quit my job, go on disability, and try 17 different medications without success. The educational program helped me address the trauma, loss, and grief that I had been experiencing since childhood, and I used other healing modalities to support my recovery. This journey was the catalyst for my healing and had a significant positive impact on my family and children. Because of my personal experience with grief and loss, and the lack of awareness around these issues, I want to be a beacon of hope and give people the tools they need to move forward and be emotionally healthy.
Most people think of grief as only being related to death but grief can result from the loss of anything right? Can you talk a little bit about the misconception that people only grieve when someone passes away?
Holly: Grief is often associated with death, but it's important to recognize that it can also stem from other types of loss. Moving, the end of a relationship, chronic illness, bodily changes, and empty nest syndrome are all examples of situations that can cause grief and associated feelings, but may not be recognized as such.
Is it common for people to undervalue or dismiss the impact of non-death related grief? I've noticed that sometimes others may think that a person's grief, such as from moving, is not as significant or essential, telling them they will make new friends, for example. As someone who may not be experiencing this type of grief, how can one recognize and show empathy towards it?
Holly: People react to loss differently, and some may not show visible signs of grief while others may be stuck in their emotions for a long time. Empathy is crucial in understanding why someone is going through a particular grieving process, even if it's difficult to understand. Being a caring and supportive person, giving them space to feel and not judging or rushing them, can be helpful for their emotional wellbeing. Surrounding oneself with supportive people is also essential.
As many of our viewers and listeners are coaches or educators who work with young students or athletes under 18, what do you believe are the most frequent causes of grief that youth encounter? Given their age, it's likely that the sources of grief are not primarily related to death but to other types of loss.
Ashley: The most common sources of grief for youth are divorce of their parents, loss of a pet, relocation, transferring to a new school, getting cut from their sport teams or activities, and sibling loss. However, grief in children is often overlooked as more attention is given to the parents' needs and emotions.
We have heard counselors and coaches often talk about the stages of grief and I have also heard of professionals that don’t subscribe to the stages theory. Do you think people go through stages of grief? Do you think those stages are different based on the nature of the loss?
Holly: The stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are valid emotions that can be experienced in any order and not necessarily in stages. These stages have not been scientifically proven and were originally described in a book about terminally ill patients. People should not feel like they are not progressing through grief correctly because there is no timeline for healing and everyone's experience is unique. It is important for people to understand this distinction.
This is a tough one, what do you say to someone who has suffered a loss. We seem to default to “my prayers are with you” or my condolences but are there other more helpful or supportive things we can say to students and families?
Ashley: It is appropriate to offer condolences and expressions of sympathy to those who are grieving, such as "my condolences" and "my thoughts and prayers." However, since grief and loss are still taboo and uncomfortable topics in society, it's important to be present and listen to the bereaved, allow them to express themselves, and offer to help in any way possible. It's also important to follow through on any plans to assist the person, offer resources for support, and understand that the grieving process is unique for each individual. Anger is a normal and necessary response in the journey of grief, and it's important to be receptive to the person reaching out and to show up for them.
It's crucial to remember that when someone is going through a difficult time, their family also needs support and comfort. They often bear the burden of trying to support the affected person and fill in the gaps in their life, which can cause frustration and sadness. Supporting the family is a valid and crucial aspect of providing care during trying times.
Melissa: Having experienced the loss of my father at the age of 14, while being a competitive dancer, it's crucial to recognize that people require different types of support. I remember some individuals judging me for returning to dance class, as if they were rushing me to move on. However, dance was my solace, and I needed to be there. Another point to note is that people tend to be present and offer support in the first few months after the loss. But by the fifth or sixth month, the support dwindles, and there's hardly anyone around. It's essential to have consistent support that lasts beyond the invisible timeline we create in our minds, thinking that things should be better now. The reality is, it takes time to heal, and having ongoing support is crucial.
Holly: Often, people don't know how to express condolences, so they say nothing. However, it's important to ask the person how they're feeling, depending on the situation. If it's about someone who passed away, it's okay to ask about the loved one as it keeps their memory alive. People appreciate when you say things like "I can only imagine how you feel," but it's not helpful to say "I know exactly how you feel" because everyone's experience is different, and their relationship with the person who passed away is unique.
Ashley: It's important to remember that everyone's grief is unique, and factors such as religious and cultural beliefs, upbringing, and personal experiences can all play a role. There is no set timeline for grieving, so it's important to be receptive to someone who may be grieving at any time. However, it's important to have boundaries when sharing personal experiences and to consider the appropriateness of any examples used when talking to children.
What are some tips for breaking the news of a loss, illness, or potentially traumatic change to a community? How can we make it easier for them?
Holly: I agree that any type of grief is difficult and giving space for the expression of emotions without trying to fix or intellectualize the situation can be a tremendous help. People who are grieving want to be heard and have their feelings expressed, not necessarily fixed. It is important to be there for them and provide support, but we cannot fix their grief.
Ashley: If you need to inform a team about the passing or injury of a member, ensure that there is a social worker or counselor available to speak with them, and also encourage them to seek support from the counselor.
If I'm a Dance Studio owner, I'm a coach of a youth sports team, how do I know who to reach out to, to help me with this? Who am I looking for in my community to help me with something like this?
Ashley: A certified grief coach, a grief recovery Institute, or organization. Someone that specializes in helping children with grief and loss.
Specifically for children though? We want to look for somebody specifically trained in working with children and is every grief coach certified? Or is that different, is that something you really have to look for?
Ashley: It depends on their specialty, quite honestly. We have some that just specialize in pet loss. You know, helping people unpack those specific emotions.
Holly: Each state has its own regulations and requirements for working with individuals who are grieving. For example, I am not a licensed therapist, so I can only work with adults. The type of specialist someone seeks will depend on their needs, and it's important to find someone who specializes in grief to address it directly. While therapy and counseling are valuable, some people may not address their grief head-on, so seeking a specialist in grief is important. It's also important to work with parents, coaches, and teachers to help them support individuals who are grieving.
Melissa: I kind of talked about this a little bit earlier in my situation where I just really wanted to get back to dance, I really wanted to be back in the studio but it feels like there is danger in just going on with “ business as usual” but the creative and/or athletic space may be their only happy place. How do you best make space for students in your classes/on your team to grieve while still allowing them to enjoy the sport/activity that they love? grieving process or the process of healing, how do we balance that?
Ashley: During the initial loss, the team player may still be in shock and may not have processed what has happened. Society encourages people to move forward and not to cry or be strong, but sports and dance can be a safe place for many, and not dealing with emotions can be harmful. As a coach, it's important to provide support for the team and encourage players to take their time and give themselves grace. Family members may dismiss signs of struggle such as difficulty concentrating, anger, anxiety, and regression, but it's important to pay attention to these signs.
When conducting a group, is it necessary to directly inform a child of a certain age about the situation? Is there a specific age limit to consider? Should you communicate with the child's parent instead, assuming the parent is able to receive the information? Who should you address this information to?
Ashley: To be honest, if the child is not a teenager, I would contact the parent or guardian to assess how the child is doing at home and if they are capable of resuming their routine. If the child is a teenager, I would have a one-on-one conversation to understand their mental state.
It's important to recognize that children, especially those who aren't teenagers and lack emotional vocabulary, may feel ashamed to express their need for time out. Instead of isolating the child, it can be helpful to take a time out for the whole class and make it more of a group thing, such as playing a game or doing meditation or deep stretch. This approach has been impactful in situations like bad injuries or loss of ability to dance.
Holly: I appreciate you bringing up this point. Many people don't realize that grief is a form of emotional injury, much like a physical injury for a dancer who may have to take a break from dancing. While the length of the break may not be the same, they still need time and space to adjust and process their emotions. It's important to understand that each person is unique and may be ready to jump back in at their own pace, and giving them the necessary time to deal with their emotions is just as important as allowing time for physical healing.
What are the potential negative consequences of pushing through and not dealing with grief?
Holly: Ignoring grief and not processing it can have negative physical and mental effects, such as causing physical illness, affecting concentration, causing fatigue, forgetfulness, brain fog, and anxiety. It is like carrying a heavy backpack with all the losses that have not been dealt with. While it may not always be dangerous to push through, it is dangerous to keep going without healing or addressing the grief. It is important to give individuals the opportunity and ability to process their grief, which can help alleviate these negative effects.
Melissa: I believe the same is true for educators, including teachers and coaches. It's common for us to feel like we have to be there for our students or team, even if it means neglecting our own well-being. However, this can be dangerous. It's important to remember the saying "you have to fill your cup before you can fill others' cups." As someone who has been a dance educator for almost 30 years, I know that showing up is crucial, but it's also important to take care of yourself. If you're going through something or know someone who is, encourage them to take a step back if they can.
What are some common practices that Educators or coaches may have done in the past that were not helpful in supporting the grief process? What are some practices related to grief that are commonly used but may not be effective?
Ashley: One common practice that may not have been helpful in supporting the grief process is dismissing a student's feelings when they express their emotions, which can be triggered by anything. Some teachers may say things like "suck it up" or "stop making excuses," which can be harmful to the student's well-being. Another issue is that educators and coaches may not have been equipped with the necessary tools to handle grief and loss. Some may have only received optional or minimal training on the subject, which can lead to inadequate support for grieving students or athletes.
What are the available resources or options to ensure that coaches and educators are equipped to handle grief, or is it preferable to simply establish a connection with someone in the community that one can refer students to if needed?
Ashley: I believe the coaches, either assistant coach or someone in the community can come out and help with these particular issues, and may be able to offer basic knowledge on how to help someone and offer guidance.
Holly: In many professions, such as education and instruction, certification in first aid is required. Similarly, individuals can either become certified in supporting grief or take training to educate themselves on how to support others. This education does not have to be expensive, but it is crucial to have the knowledge and skills to support others. In addition, having connections in the community can also provide support on all levels.
How do you find the balance of allowing students to not attend class because they're having a difficult time, but also making sure they're training enough to be able to dance and perform safely ?
Holly: I believe it will vary based on the individual, such as the child's age. It may be appropriate to talk directly to the child or to their parents, or both, and ask about their emotional state and readiness to continue. Providing the option to take a break or participate at a lower level could be helpful, although it ultimately depends on the specific organization and activity, such as a sport or dance, as it may not be appropriate to remove someone from a competition.
Bri: In one instance, I had a student who was going through physical trauma and was consistently missing practices and rehearsals for months. As a result, it became unsafe for both the student and the team to continue with the competition due to the lifts and other elements in the performance. After discussing it with the student's mother, I ultimately made the decision to pull her from the competition. While it was a difficult decision, it was in the best interest of everyone involved.
Melissa: How do you break that news if it is a point where you're like this is not safe for anyone on the team?
Bri: I approached the situation with complete honesty and transparency towards both the parent and the child. I expressed my care and empathy towards their struggles, but also communicated the issue at hand - it was becoming unsafe for the student to continue practicing and performing. Ultimately, for the well-being of the team and the program, I had to make the difficult decision to pull the student from participation.
Ashley: Yes, it was the best decision for everyone involved, including the team. You could always tell them that they are welcome to try again next year but right now, their priority should be to focus on getting healthy and taking care of themselves.
What is one action that you want our listeners to take between now and next week to make progress in this area?
Holly: I would suggest that if someone has a person in their life who may be experiencing grief, even if they are not aware of it, they should talk to them and provide a listening ear. They should allow them to express their feelings without trying to fix or judge the situation, and offer a comforting hug if they want it. This won't solve the issue of grief, but it will provide a safe environment for them to verbalize their emotions.
Ashley: As a homework assignment, I encourage coaches, teachers, and mentors to check in on their students for the next seven days. Have an open door policy and be receptive to anything they want to talk about related to grief, loss, or any other struggles they may be facing. Don't assume that someone is okay because they may be suppressing their emotions. It could be any issue such as struggling with homework, transitioning to a senior, or being scouted. Checking in with people is essential.
Do you do consults and things with groups or individuals? How can I get in touch with you?
Holly: Majority of what I do is one-on-one online but I do groups in person, and then I also work with programs of coaches, teachers, things like that to help children with loss.
Ashley: I work with online communities, one-on-one online I help throughout the Galveston and Harris County area in person.
Please feel free to reach out to either one of our guests if you or a loved one are experiencing grief.
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*Ashley Gooden-Stewart is the founder and CEO of The Baby Stewart Foundation and Pocketful of Hope Grief Coaching & Support. Ashley is a Certified Grief Coach and Grief Educator, Pregnancy & Infant Loss Advocate, Community Health Worker, Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician, Mental Health First Aider, and Authoress. As a philanthropist, Ashley works hard daily to serve her local community. Ashley is from La Marque, TX, a Lamar University graduate, the proud mother of three children and a devoted wife. After the traumatic loss of her firstborn son CJ Stewart in 2015, Ashley founded The Baby Stewart Foundation to commemorate CJ. For 7 years, Ashley and her team has provided baby necessities, hygiene care, clothing, school supplies, car seat safety, and bereavement support to families in the Galveston County area and parts of Harris County. Ashley has been at the forefront of Pregnancy and Infant Loss and dedicated to helping people on their grief journey. Through strong faith, Ashley has turned tragedy into triumph and strives to provide the bereaved with the necessary tools to heal.
*Holly founded The Grief Recovery Method® in 2015 after a long and painful divorce. She became certified to help other people who are grieving and offer much-needed support and hope.she is a U.S. Army Veteran and at one time,she was suffering from PTSD so severe that she was unable to work and was on SSDI. She didn't realize at the time she was grieving from past trauma & abuse. Within that timeframe, she also suffered the loss of her dad.
The Grief Recovery Method® was her catalyst to my healing journey. She went from hopeless and suicidal to happy, healthy, and thriving. She is passionate about helping people find freedom from the heaviness of grief and become as emotionally healthy as possible.