The Wide World of Grief

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

Nevertheless, representatives of a Columbine task force formed at the behest of Governor Bill Owens (including Jefferson Center head Dr. Harriet Hall) believed that even more Coloradans were in need of assistance: In August 1999 they requested $3.9 million for additional mental-health funding, which they wanted to make available to an estimated 3,701 Columbine students, teachers and others at high risk; 17,952 Jefferson County residents and/or students at other schools in the moderate-risk category; and, at low risk, anyone in the state who may have been traumatized by either media coverage or an excess of empathy.

These predictions may seem extreme, but they reflect the thinking of most grief-counseling proponents contacted by Westword, who believe that even people who experience grief by association can have complicated responses that may not surface for months or even years and could well require therapy. But Governor Owens wasn't sold, and he reacted to the totals with a memorable sound bite: "The people who need their heads examined are the people who wrote this report," he was quoted as saying. "The class of people most at risk from this report are the taxpayers."

Appropriately chastened, the task force backed down, leaving the Jefferson Center to moderate its wish list. But its current plan, which is slated to take it through June 2003, remains ambitious: Clinical services vice president Jo Anne Doherty says $1.6 million has been budgeted for Columbine-related services alone. Of that amount, $500,000 or so is supposed to come from the philanthropic community, and with $300,000 already in the center's coffers, there's a strong possibility that the goal will be met.

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.

When asked if this level of funding will be sufficient, Doherty describes it as "a loaded question" before saying, "We have prioritized, and it's our hope that this amount plus benefits through victim's compensation funds, health insurance and other resources will address the highest priority needs.

"But that's assuming there won't be any other incidents in the community that re-traumatize people," she warns. "Columbine was different than Oklahoma City, where there was the bombing and then that was it for the most part. Here, there's been a number of serious traumatic events that have happened in the last year or so -- and if there are more, we don't know what our needs will be."

No doubt these events would be televised -- but could such broadcasts traumatize someone so badly that they'd need grief counseling? The Institute of Psychiatry's Wessely has a one-word answer: "Aaargh."

Alan Wolfelt bristles at such dismissals. He knows that getting in touch with one's grief works wonders from countless sessions with patients and, perhaps even more important, from his own life.

As Wolfelt tells it, he began his personal grief odyssey when he was thirteen, after the death of a friend from leukemia. "Adults often assume that children are too young to understand about these things. In a sense, then, I was a forgotten mourner. So I sought to understand my own experience" by, among other things, mowing lawns for three years at a cemetery near his home in Indiana.

He says that although he ate lunch each day while sitting on a different tombstone, "I wasn't weirdly obsessed with death. I played baseball, too." Still, he wrote his mission statement for what would become the Center for Loss at age sixteen and published his first book, Helping Children Cope With Grief, just three years later. Then, after completing coursework for a medical degree at Indiana's Ball State University and performing a residency at the Mayo Clinic, he moved to Colorado, where he'd fantasized about opening a facility dedicated to helping people with their grief -- and there turned out to be so many of them that he was able to settle onto his own personal mountain in just a couple of years.

By now, most of his dreams have come true: Not only does he have a gorgeous home, which he shares with his wife, Sue (a family physician), and three healthy children, but he's able to meet with hundreds of people all over the continent each month and preach the gospel of his personal bereavement model, which he refers to as "companioning" -- a kinder, gentler approach to counseling in which the caregiver bears witness to suffering without attempting to stuff it into any specific clinical pigeonhole. According to an article he wrote for a newsletter put out by Connecticut's Association for Death Education and Counseling, whose mushrooming membership bears witness to the growth of grief therapy as a whole, companioning is about "curiosity; it is not about expertise...learning from others; it is not about teaching them...walking alongside; it is not about leading...being present to another person's pain; it is not about taking away the pain..."

Wolfelt's also become a powerful proponent of the funeral business, writing columns in numerous industry publications, including The Director. He thinks funeral services are extremely important in helping people come to terms with death. "A lot of people tell their loved ones, 'I don't want a funeral when I die' -- but what does it say to kids if, after you die, they just get rid of you?"

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