Longform

The Wide World of Grief

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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.

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?'"

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts