I had been a mental health counselor for many years when my younger son died by suicide at age 16 in 2018. Before that happened, I had often steered clear of grief work. I stayed in the “safer” zones of anxiety and self-esteem. Throughout my tenure working with students in grades four to nine, I taught a wide variety of social-emotional skill-building classes—even substance abuse and suicide prevention—but I skimmed the surface. Loss and grief were…too heavy, depressing, unwieldy.
When I look back now, I see myself as afraid. I tiptoed around the counseling landmines of death and trauma. I felt honored and privileged to explore others’ pain, but did so with clinical detachment and a dedication to problem-solving (“Let’s fix this!”). Naiveté led the way. I thought, despite the overwhelming statistics about traumatic loss, that my family would be immune to tragedy.
I didn’t educate myself more fully until I was faced with my own grief head-on and it was shocking, profound, debilitating. When I was deep in my sorrow—I’ll always carry a portion of it with me—I became a student again.
I returned to the enormous notebook from the GGSC’s Summer Institute for Educators , reapplying the lessons about resilience, gratitude, and mindfulness to myself. I amped up my meditation practice with Headspace. I absorbed video classes for professionals on depression, post-traumatic growth, and trauma and the body. I went to therapy, sought out therapeutic massage, and found grief yoga; I read books and websites about loss, grief, and hope. I used my jewelry workshop, collage, and paints to create art and reframe my guilt and hurt. I stared at trees, rode my bike, climbed mountains, and watched the sunsets from the comfort of my patio, surrounded by my well-tended gardens. The list goes on.
All these practices taught me a lot about grief. I learned that if I wanted a post-traumatic growth story of my own, I needed to shift the question from “Why?” to “What?”: What now ? What next ? What for ? I could not bring my son back, but I could work to develop a mental health screening form to be incorporated with all the other back-to-school paperwork families needed to complete for the following school year. I could make my experience accessible to students, offering small group social-emotional sessions where I answered their questions about my son’s death and the loss honestly, openly, and in developmentally appropriately ways in those initial months. I continued to teach and counsel with this new lens, sharing strategies for carrying grief and trauma with students and staff.
Despite all that knowledge and effort, I still felt exhausted and self-critical. The daily work of helping current students and their families navigate crises was overwhelming, while trying to come to grips with the times I’d missed opportunities for deeper work with former students and missed the signs of my son’s struggles. I decided to step away from school counseling and gave my notice to the school in January 2020.