I was always nervous as I prepared to meet with more than 100 university students, leaders of the campus fraternities and sororities.  The topic was “Helping students through grief.”  On a large campus with an active Greek system, it was not unusual for someone in the house to experience the death of a parent, sibling, or close friend over the course of the year.  Sometimes the death was one of the brothers or sisters in the house.  As a staff person at the Counseling Center, I was invited each year to help them prepare for such an event.

The group was usually loud and talkative as I walked in.  Almost no one there was all that interested in sitting for an hour on a Thursday evening listening to someone talk about death and grief.  Knowing that did not help my nerves.  To get things started, I always began the session with an exercise.

“I am going to read a series of statements.  If the statement applies to you, simply stand.  Remain standing for a few seconds, notice who else is standing with you, and then be seated when I tell you.  Let’s begin.”

I then read through about 20 such statements, each one highlighting some loss through death, breakups, or dashed dreams typical to college students.  Such as:

  • Stand up if you have experienced the death of a close friend.
  • Stand up if one of your siblings left home for good while you were still living there.
  • Stand up if someone you loved left on bad terms.
  • Stand up if you have an illness, injury, or disability that keeps you from participating in some activity you used to enjoy.
  • Stand up if you have experienced the death of someone in your immediate family.

As I read each statement, paused, let them look around, then sit down, the mood in the room changed.  By the time I was finished with the exercise, several things were obvious.

For one, everyone has stood at least once.  Most have stood several times.  Some have stood more than a dozen times.  Second, the room was quiet.  The students seemed to have a sobering kinship that wasn’t there at the beginning of the exercise.  What they thought was an irrelevant topic had gotten personal.

What began for me as a nervous presentation generally turned into a meaningful interaction with a large group.  My preconceived ideas about them fell away as they responded to the statements.  Something happens when people connect around grief.

Grief.  We all face it.  Loss is a necessary and inevitable part of the human experience, and grief is our response to loss.  If you have lived long at all, you have experienced grief.  The longer you live, the more you lose and the more grief shapes you.  That’s a fact of life.  The question for all of us is not if we grieve, but rather how we grieve.

In the midst of grief, learning to live with the light available to us is crucial, because in the midst of grief, very little light is available.  Grief can be a dark and frightening time, and the darkness and fear are intensified if we are not willing to take small, tentative steps with whatever light is available.

In the coming weeks I will be adding articles about life’s losses and the many forms of grief we experience.  Some of the topics will include:

  • You’re not crazy, you’re grieving.
  • Grieving differently:  Experiencing and expressing grief in our own way.
  • Necessary losses that come with growing up.
  • Facing the finality of your loved one’s death
  • Remembering how to grieve.  Removing obstacles to our grief.
  • Our gallery of grief: a metaphor for healing.
  • Some exercises for facing your losses.