Giving Thought: Grief can build community
Grief and loss are two inescapable realities of life, and yet as a culture, they are something that few of us are comfortable with addressing. It can be especially difficult to help children and young adults navigate.
The past two years have brought many losses for all of us. There have been losses of life, but also loss of old ways of being, events, community and more. These impact each person differently and how we navigate these losses shape who we become moving forward.
At Pathfinders, a nonprofit serving Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and Mesa counties with psycho-social support, they have found that supporting those experiencing loss and grief is an opportunity for growing community.
More than two decades ago, Patherfinders’ founders Kristin MacDermott and Tina Staley began their work with cancer support groups with the belief that “no one should have to walk alone through a cancer diagnosis.” While their work began with a focus on cancer, it has since evolved into providing support for anyone needing assistance related to grief, loss, chronic illness, end-of-life planning or stress.
In 2016, after realizing the gap for school-aged children, a school-based program was created after Melissa Seigle, a licensed professional counselor and certified bereavement counselor, joined Pathfinders. Her work in schools with Denver supported the development of Pathfinders Schools Based Grief and Loss Program, which now serves schools across their service area.
This program has grown exponentially since its inception and especially since the start of the pandemic.
Allison Daily, Pathfinders executive director and grief counselor, said, “COVID affected children’s ability to be children. Children saw more fear at home, they were isolated and with adults who also had older, unprocessed grief.”
The school-based grief program is referral-based. Most of the referrals come from elementary and middle schools. Pathfinders counselors meet either with individual students or in groups. In the first week of the 2021-22 school year alone, Pathfinders received 27 referrals from school counselors about students who needed support for a loss and the needs have continued to grow across the region since.
Pathfinders’ support for students is long term and built on strengthening relationships while also teaching coping and resilience skills.
“When you are in grief or stress, you breathe at a lower capacity. We help children recognize this and teach them how to breathe when scared or sad and how to move through,” Daily said. These skills support increasing their emotional intelligence and are valuable for moving through the rest of their lives.
Daily points out that middle schoolers are especially vulnerable to the impact of grief and loss because they are often overlooked and already experiencing a lot of physical and emotional changes.
“Middle schoolers are experiencing so many changes at once and the expectations put on them are changing. Our counselors work to redevelop trust by being honest and giving support for their human needs,” she said.
Aspen Middle School experienced loss of a student through death by suicide early this school year. Pathfinders has been meeting with a group of their peers and is committed to continuing to support them as the grief evolves and becomes less acute. Counselors support students in understanding that processing grief and loss is not linear and does shift over time. Acknowledging this and providing space to speak openly is one of the ways the organization and counselors support community building.
Students who are supported by the program are better equipped to support others in need because they have been shown that there are people they can depend on and can offer support. This creates a deeper sense of community for them and has a ripple effect.
Pathfinders teaches students about service and how to show care for community. Daily shared that high school students who have been supported by the program have gone on to make meals for families experiencing loss or going through cancer treatments as an ongoing effort to build community through the process of moving through grief. “One student shared recently that without Pathfinders she would not have the skills to support her boyfriend who is now going through a loss of his own,” she said.
While loss and grief are a part of life, no one has to walk alone. Whatever stage of grief you are in, Pathfinders is committed to supporting the residents of this community.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.