The Wide World of Grief

Colorado has become one of the country's hubs for teaching, and learning, how to feel bad.

At the same time, he's got to deal with frustrations of his own -- particularly those that have arisen since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, when so-called grief counselors were thrust into the limelight as never before. Since the assault, some detractors have implied that grief counselors are the equivalent of ambulance-chasing attorneys, waiting for a calamity so they can pounce on already overwhelmed victims for their own gain.

Wolfelt is still upset about being sucked into just such a critique -- a May 17, 1999, Time article headlined "The Grief Brigade: When tragedy strikes, the counselors rush in. They offer succor, but their methods are up for debate." Amid comments from numerous observers who expressed reservations about the worth of the approach, Wolfelt was quoted defending the concepts he's spent his career preaching: "Our culture is full of buck-up therapists who want to move people away from grief. But you have to feel it to heal it. You have to go through the wilderness."

Immediately thereafter, the piece's author, reporter Nadya Labi, dismissed his observations with the line, "That kind of sound bite appeals to a generation raised on Oprah, but some psychologists are skeptical." The zinger hit Wolfelt where he lives: After all, he's been on Oprah, not to mention Today, where he chatted with Katie Couric, and Larry King's old radio show. Articles like this one prompted Wolfelt to pen a de facto manifesto taking the media to task for what he called its "flawed analysis" and standing up for himself and his calling: "Yes, some people may question the need for what you and I do to help people in grief. But I suggest we stand tall and stand proud. Because it is through having places to 'story' that people have the opportunity to try to make sense of the senseless, to embrace what needs to be embraced, and to reveal that the human spirit prevails."

Dan Mosley and other grief counselors from the Red Cross are always at the ready.
Anthony Camera
Dan Mosley and other grief counselors from the Red Cross are always at the ready.
Dr. John Nicoletti offers grief counseling to many local police departments.
Anthony Camera
Dr. John Nicoletti offers grief counseling to many local police departments.

Over a year later, he still thinks various elements of the press are misrepresenting grief counseling, thereby convincing impressionable people that there's something either dubious or sinister about his chosen profession. "When they go on about it being an 'industry' -- that, to me, is tragic and sad," he concedes. "What's the alternative? Shouldn't we acknowledge the special needs of people who've experienced loss?

"I've worked so hard for so many years, and then we have a tragedy and people start to question everything I've ever done. It strikes at the root of my whole mission. But if someone goes through a trauma, that's an injury just as much as if there was a physical injury -- and no one questions that. If somebody is in a car crash, we don't say, 'Should we take them to the hospital?'"

As Wolfelt emphasizes, grief counseling is nothing new: He's been at it for more than fifteen years, and others have similarly lengthy track records of helping loved ones mourn after the deaths of children, siblings, parents, even pets (see sidebar, page 28). But the term entered the public vocabulary with a vengeance after the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the scope of which (168 slain, many more injured) shook not just family members and emergency personnel, but the rest of the nation to its core.

The timing of the explosion coincided with the rise of all-news cable television channels desperately in need of compelling programming. Experts on grief filled their needs perfectly, providing dramatic testimony about the ordeals confronting the living that could be juxtaposed with explicit imagery of the dead. Never mind that a lot of what was (and continues to be) identified as grief counseling really wasn't; most therapists label their work with affected parties in the minutes or hours after a serious misfortune either "trauma counseling" or, in the case of emergency workers and the like, "debriefing." It sounded good, and in the end, that's all that mattered.

The coverage of the Columbine killings further codified the grief angle in most reporters' minds, especially locally. Now there's hardly a report about a distressing incident that doesn't include something about counselors. For example, a June 17 Denver Post account about the Hi Meadow and Bobcat fires underlined the availability of counselors in its subhead and throughout the article that followed, and an August 17 Rocky Mountain News story about the drowning death of Denver firefighter Bob Crump made a point of noting that his peers would have assistance to deal with their feelings. Likewise, the Post's Bill Briggs, the author of a late-August series about the high rate of suicide in the West, capped a sidebar about a thirteen-year old who'd killed himself by noting that the boy's family had undergone grief counseling and was finding it easier to "smile" again.

Taken cumulatively, these messages and many others imply that grievers have little hope of moving forward unless they seek professional assistance, even though much of the evidence supporting such theories is anecdotal; it's largely based on comments from mourners who describe counseling in positive terms. Yet they also demonstrate that editors have grown to understand that describing the grief attendant to tragic events is a way of keeping a story going when it might otherwise drop out of sight. Again, Columbine proves the rule, with headlines being generated by any semi-prominent figure who's admitted to feeling post-traumatic stress. Last October, when rumors surfaced that he was about to be given his walking papers, Channel 4 anchor Bill Stuart came forward to announce that he was in treatment for clinical depression fueled in part by Columbine (the sympathy this concession spawned probably saved his job), and the August resignation of the Reverend Donald Marxhausen, a Lutheran minister who said stress connected to Columbine influenced his decision, was covered here and in numerous locations across the country.

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