The Wide World of Grief

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

In reporting stories like these, the local media has received copious assistance from grief-counseling boosters at institutional levels. It's hardly a coincidence that the U.S. Department of Education chose to stage "Picking Up the Pieces: Responding to School Crises," a three-day conference on school safety that begins on Thursday, September 21, in Denver. Nor should it startle anyone that one of the key sessions on Friday, September 22 -- "Responding to the Psychological Aftermath of a Crisis: Columbine Shootings" -- deals with grief. Expect the press to notice.

Publicity like this cuts both ways. The leader of the panel noted above will be Betsy Thompson, the coordinator of Jefferson County Safe and Drug Free Schools, and the Jefferson County School District is listed as a "partnering sponsor" of the conference as a whole. Yet Jo Anne Doherty, vice president for clinical services with the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, and one of the primary liaisons between the mental-health community and Jefferson County Public Schools, says that the post-Columbine grief-milking has had many negative consequences. "Some of the stories carried in the media have exacerbated people's grief -- stories that have graphic detail played again and again, stories that have a component of blame in them," she says. "Just the continued coverage of the Columbine shootings is a continual reminder. It's hard to get back to a renewed sense of normalcy when they open the paper in the morning and see yet another story."

Donna Reutzel of the Grief Clinic in Lakewood, a private practice that specializes in treating those seeking to deal with heartache, reiterates these observations using even more fiery language. "The media is willing to knock grief counseling, but they don't knock the biggest culprits of all -- themselves. They did and still do profit from this kind of thing. In the beginning of Columbine, we needed to be informed, and there was a lot of consideration for the victims. But when it goes on and on, it doesn't allow them to have rest periods from their grief, because it's in their face all the time. And it causes extra pain for everyday people who didn't get such notoriety. I've had many clients tell me, 'Those people are getting so much attention, but what about the loved one I lost? What about my pain?'"

Carolyn Butler, co-founder of CSU's Argus Center, counsels people whose pets have died.
Anthony Camera
Carolyn Butler, co-founder of CSU's Argus Center, counsels people whose pets have died.

These days, there is no shortage of counselors willing to listen to such inquiries. Reutzel, whose background is as a psychiatric nurse, became involved in the domain of grief early last decade via the Grief Institute, a Denver volunteer group and counselor training center that was founded in the mid-'70s, a period when far fewer services of this type existed. When the Grief Institute folded four years ago, it did so because, Reutzel says, "it had fulfilled its mission." And true enough, assistance for grievers is now offered by countless hospitals, hospices, churches, even mortuaries. Some of these are overseen by qualified professional therapists, others by those whose expertise comes from bitter experience.

"Many of them are simply people who've had losses such as their infant child dying -- so they'll start a newborn group," Reutzel points out. "Suicide groups, homicide name it, they're out there." These organizations bring with them an infinite variety of philosophies, precepts and quirks, but a vast majority of them preach that grievers must share what they're going through with others in order to get a grip on their feelings. Likewise, such people need to be reassured that their reactions are normal and to learn how to handle those times when thoughts of a death or traumatic episode resurface, as they inevitably will.

For Reutzel, this last truism proved to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks she's overcome personally: In her book Original Loss, she writes that her inability to process the death of her husband in a car accident haunted her for 25 years. The tome was completed in 1996; she's working on a followup.

News reports about traumatic events -- big and small -- often make it seem as if there's a local Grief Headquarters, where therapists prompted by screaming alarms race off at a moment's notice, shoulders ready for leaning -- and although that's not literally the case, it's figuratively closer to reality than many might expect.

"We have an entire team of people qualified and trained to provide immediate, on-the-spot counseling in the case of a traumatic event," says Dan Mosley, the chair of the "disaster committee" for the Mile High chapter of the Red Cross. "There's always someone on call and ready to respond."

Here's how it works: The Denver branch of the Red Cross has a core cluster of trauma authorities on call; right now there are nineteen of them, up from just five when Mosley got started, and he predicts the total will keep growing. Like Mosley, a licensed psychologist, each is a professional in the therapy realm who's undergone special Red Cross training sessions to further prepare him for the specific trials he's apt to undergo. (Training takes place at least twice a year, supplying a pool of people to call in case things get downright biblical. Mosley says the current list contains well over a hundred contacts.)

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