Thrive on Campus//

What These School Counselors Can Teach Us About Comforting Others (and Ourselves) Through Grief

It’s all about balance and boundaries.

Courtesy of Photographee.eu / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

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We all know loss. It doesn’t matter our occupation or career, relationship status, spiritual orientation, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or other ways that help identify us. We all know what it’s like to lose someone or something, and we all know the grief that ensues. 

Counselors — be they school counselors, clinical mental health counselors, addiction counselors — have been trained to help us make sense of these hard experiences, and help us either learn or rediscover skills that assist in our moving our lives in a healthy and balanced direction. These are all indicators of our shared human experience. And it can be really hard to effectively support others when we aren’t appropriately taking care of ourselves. What’s uniquely impactful is how much all of us can empathize with this. 

My motivation for this research project was driven by my curiosity about and past experiences as a school counselor. I’m particularly sensitive to people’s experiences with loss and grief, and how counselors — in all settings — serve people who are grieving their losses. School counselors are frequently called on to respond to school crises. When someone from the school community dies — no matter the cause of death — the loss naturally affects that community. In this case, these losses were the deaths of three awesome high school students, which can be particularly painful for their families, friends, classmates, and school community. Given these school counselors’ unique experience of having to respond to three deaths of graduating seniors in one year, it created a unique opportunity to learn how they personally and professionally made sense of the experience, how they responded to the needs of their community, and what they learned in the process.  

Narrative inquiry is a research tradition that suggests we make meaning in our lives through stories. These stories become part of our larger life narratives. That is, most of our experiences don’t happen in a vacuum. For example, one specific story in my life is about becoming a father. My fatherhood, which has a particular meaning for me, is part of my larger life narrative as a husband, professor, Black man, community member, etc. When we have victories, challenges, losses, and inspirations, we communicate them via stories that ultimately become a part of who we are. These critical incidents are embedded in our hearts and minds. When we share them with others, they are typically communicated in stories.  

My job was to listen to how these school counselors communicated this experience, and they did by telling me in a series of individual and collective stories. I interviewed them all individually, and then we participated in a focus group interview where they were able to hear each other recall events of that school year. My research team and I then pieced together their individual and collective stories to communicate what we learned in a comprehensive narrative that represented the totality of their experiences. It was an honor to learn in this way.

There were several things about the school counselors’ responses that helped me develop a deeper respect and admiration for them and their work. This was a team of school counselors — all of whom have graduate-level training in providing specialized services that help meet the academic, socioemotional, and career development needs of students — who leveraged their counseling skills to meet the needs of students who were experiencing what I’ve heard described as compound grief, or grief that comes as a result of sequential losses. Two of the three students who died that year passed away within six weeks of each other. The third student who died had a terminal illness of which many students, faculty, and staff were aware. These counselors’ ability to provide acute and ongoing counseling support to their school community through crisis counseling, individual and group counseling, was not just effective, but extraordinary.  

The second reason I admire and respect them is because they demonstrated this uncanny ability to process their own grief in the midst of those deaths. All counselors work to demonstrate empathy with clients who have experienced loss. In many cases, though, there is some emotional distance between counselors and their clients’ losses.  That distance creates a healthy balance of both empathy and objectivity from the counselors’ perspective. This scenario was very different. All of the counselors knew and interacted with the students they lost. There was a very personal dimension to this experience for them that may not be as typical for counselors working in other settings.  The team’s ability to serve while being deeply affected themselves was and is exceptional. 

The third reason the team has my admiration and respect is because they were willing to share their experiences. The transparency they demonstrated with me was remarkable. Sometimes our greatest and most meaningful learning experiences come on the heels of extreme pain and loss. These school counselors not only demonstrated their courage by sharing with me, but their collective story is now accessible — via the publication of the research study — to an international audience, all to help school counselors help themselves and serve their communities.   

One of the primary concerns for counselors about balancing their own mental health needs to serve others is about judgement. Counselors in all settings (e.g., schools, clinical settings, hospitals, etc.) should be very proactive about their self-care in order to optimize their work with clients. Self-care is actually an ethical mandate by the American Counseling Association, meaning we attach adequate self-care with being able to provide the highest standards of care to our students, consumers, and clients when coupled with culturally responsive and evidenced-based practices. When counselors are not able to take care of themselves, they risk having impaired judgement, unprofessional boundaries, and creating other scenarios that put themselves and their clients at risk for harm. This is why it is so important for all counselors to have effective supervision, a broader network with whom they can consult, and ongoing and relevant continuing education. 

I was most surprised about the depth of the counselors’ relationships with each other. Working in schools can be a very unique experience. Every school community has its own norms, culture, and values. In some districts, their culture really facilitates deep relationships and trust between colleagues. In other districts, it can be very different; relationships might be very shallow. The school counselors who participated in this study cared for each other beyond their jobs. Their rapport and genuineness were tangible, and I absolutely believe it contributed to their ability to initially cope with the students’ deaths and support the school community in the longer term adjustment to their losses. 

I would remind us that we all experience loss and, as a result, grief. How we immediately cope and ultimately adjust to our losses is a highly individual experience and must be approached with care, humility, and sensitivity. Our grieving processes are informed by the cultures of our families and communities. They are informed by our faith (when applicable), and certainly our personalities. 

I’d also remind us that grief is rarely linear, meaning its likely we won’t move from one stage to the next, like many of us have heard or read in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. There’s plenty of research that tells us that we can move back and forth between feeling like we’ve adjusted healthily to a loss to feeling absolutely paralyzed because of it. We usually need time, and we can usually benefit from talking with someone about it. 

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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