The Wide World of Grief

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

An example? The first thing Feinberg was asked to do upon arriving in town was hold a press conference. "There must have been journalists from thirty different broadcast and print organizations there," he recalls. "And they had been there for quite a while."

Whether the coverage fed the citizenry's distress Feinberg can't say, but when he oversaw a community meeting the second day after his arrival, "we were very surprised by the turnout. We expected a reasonable number of people; sometimes we've had as few as 25 people, 50 people, and the most we'd had was in Jonesboro, where we had 600. But in Columbine, we had 3,000. It was a very moving experience." He particularly remembers a conversation with a husband and wife whose son had been present in the school when the gunfire started but who had to that point refused to open up about his feelings -- "and as he was telling me about it, suddenly the father broke into uncontrollable tears."

Of course, Feinberg realized he would only be in the Littleton area for a short time and would be unable to counsel the family himself. But he was confident that there were others who could provide what they needed. "I told him that there was an extensive network of resources available to him right there in his area. Extensive."

Alan Wolfelt would like to teach the world to smile in perfect harmony.
Anthony Camera
Alan Wolfelt would like to teach the world to smile in perfect harmony.

That's not the case in some other parts of the U.S., especially rural ones, and many other countries are similarly grief-counselor-challenged -- which is why NEAT is in the preliminary stages of developing a crew prepared to cross borders. One NEAT participant has already gone global, flying to Turkey in 1999 to help survivors of a devastating earthquake, and the organization recently presented a workshop to the International School Psychology Association that may well inspire "an international response mechanism for when there's a situation where trained folks familiar with the culture of schools are needed," Feinberg says. "We've met with people all over the world, and all of them have been quite interested in the work we're doing. So we're hopeful that our work in this country continues and expands, and that maybe the world in general will become a safer place for children."

But what about grievers who don't want counseling?

If there's anything that divides grief pros, it's this question. The politically correct line is to argue that while potential patients must be informed about the availability of counseling, they should never feel that they're being forced to do anything for which they aren't psychologically ready. But in reality, this probably happens every day. Many banks require employees who've been robbed to undergo debriefings, and a policeman who's been wounded or who's wounded another is all but guaranteed to have a debriefing in his future whether he wants one or not.

That's certainly the case in Littleton: Dan Stocking, public-information officer for the Littleton Police Department, says the chief of police there has the power to order his charges to be debriefed. A 28-year veteran of law enforcement, Stocking adds that he can't remember any objections, in large part, he believes, because mental-health examinations are now such an integral part of an officer's life; they must undergo psychological testing before being hired, and they are often persuaded to seek help when they're having difficulties at home. As a result, Stocking notes, a badge-wearer who's been on hand for something traumatic understands in advance that talking with a debriefer will be on the menu.

Among metro-area units, the therapist conducting such sessions will almost certainly be from Nicoletti Flater Associates, a collection of twelve police psychologists overseen by Dr. John Nicoletti and his wife, Lottie Flater. The group has contracts with police or sheriff's departments in most area municipalities -- Denver, Arvada, Aurora, Wheat Ridge, Englewood, Edgewater, Thornton, Adams County, Jefferson County, Arapahoe County and more -- and Nicoletti confirms that most of them require officers involved in shootings and the like to be debriefed. But in his view, the obligatory nature of the service tends to ease worries rather than provoke them.

"It takes away some of the stigma," Nicoletti says. "There's the potential for both external and internal stigma -- external being someone who asks, 'Hey, why did you have to do that?' and internal being the person asking that of himself. But if it's something everyone has to do, the person doesn't have to feel something's wrong because they have to talk. And also, if it goes to court, some attorney can't really say, 'Isn't it true you had to talk to somebody?' because that's required. It just makes it a little cleaner if it's mandated, if it's just something you have to do."

Most often the debriefing consists of a single session, with an option for more depending upon the opinions of the clinician and the patient. To Nicoletti, such conversations are especially important when it comes to trauma, which he describes as "an abnormal event" that may be followed by grief but certainly isn't synonymous with it. "Trauma is a type of stress, but whereas some stress you can get out by exercising or going to a movie or whatever, trauma doesn't get resolved that way. Trauma has to be purged, and there are basically only two ways you can purge it. One is to write about it, and that can be effective as long as the person isn't putting filters on and sanitizing what he's writing about. And the other one is to talk about it.

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