Since losing Kay Wilson to cancer in June, we her friends, colleagues, and family have grieved over our loss. In doing so, we have tried to focus on the positive influence she had on our lives. Although most of you who are Psi Chi students probably never knew or met Kay Wilson, if you have been active in your Psi Chi chapter you have felt her influence. Under Kay's guidance in Psi Chi's National Office in Chattanooga, Tennessee, you were able to apply for more Psi Chi research and grant awards (increased from $5,000 to over $225,000 budgeted annually), to use the Psi Chi website more easily (first introduced in 1998 and redesigned in 2002), to better access information relevant to psychology and Psi Chi through the Eye on Psi Chi magazine (newsletter changed to magazine format in 1996), and to submit research articles for publication in the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research (journal launched in 1996).
In thinking about commemorating Kay in this issue of Eye on Psi Chi, I kept returning to the concept of grief. If you are a student in your teens or twenties and have never suffered the loss of a close friend or family member, grief is not likely to be a topic you have thought about much. As teenagers and young adults you are in the healthiest period of the lifespan. Illness, death, and dying are not prominent personal issues for most young people. Ironically, helping others cope with important issues--such as grief--is a primary reason many students choose psychology as their field of study. In fact, undergraduates usually say that the reason they chose psychology for their major is because they have a genuine interest in helping people (Morgan & Korschgen, 2001).
As undergraduates you may learn about coping with death, dying, and grief in a lifespan development, counseling, or clinical psychology course, or you may even have the opportunity to take an entire course on death and dying. Those of you who will go on to jobs that involve counseling will be trained to talk about grief with your clients in your graduate courses. But grief is an issue that will eventually touch each of your lives, if it hasn't already. As psychology students, you are (or will be) uniquely prepared to cope with this normal aspect of living.
Some of you will end up working in a setting where you will need to provide counseling to people who are experiencing grief due to the loss of a loved one. Some of you will complete master's or doctoral degrees in clinical or counseling, so you expect to help people cope with loss, but many more of you will use your undergraduate psychology degree in jobs less directly associated with psychology, working in a variety of occupations that are not primarily counseling in nature. Many of you will obtain jobs with your undergraduate degrees in occupations such as personnel, sales, management, or child care. Some of you will teach in high school, community college, or university settings and advise students. All of these occupations could result in your being in the position of needing to comfort a grieved person.
In your personal life you may have already lost a grandparent or other older relative. Some of you have already lost friends or parents, or even children. As you move through your twenties and thirties, you are more likely to know people who have suffered the loss of a pregnancy. So grief is an issue that will become more relevant to you personally as you age, and for many of you, will be relevant to your future career as well.
Through my own experiences and reading I would like to make a few suggestions for helping yourself and others cope with grief. Even though I have lost two grandparents, a 35-year-old cousin, a 20-year-old friend, and my friend and colleague Kay, the most significant grief I have experienced was due to losing twin boys 25 weeks into the pregnancy. One lived a few minutes and one lived a few hours. Two healthy children and 16 years later I can still be caught off guard when the depth of my grief from that loss occasionally resurfaces.
I point this out because I think it is important to keep in mind that grief will take a long time to process. In addition, significant dates may contribute to waxing and waning in the experience of grief. The first holidays without a loved one will be difficult. The due date for a miscarried baby will bring to mind all the hopes and dreams for the future that were lost, but this date may pass unnoticed by friends and relatives. Anniversaries of a loved one's death are likely to be difficult. I was not prepared, for example, for how many friends and relatives reacted with surprise when our loss was still painful months later. If you are close to someone who has suffered a loss, you can help by remembering and reaching out to that person at times when grief may be brought to mind more easily, and by recognizing the fact that the grieving process will not be completed during the time it takes to deal with the initial crisis.
In order to help yourself or others cope with grief, you can read about research on stages of coping with death, dying, and grief in your textbooks. But realize that each individual is not likely to follow "the formula" for coping in a precisely predictable pattern. You can read in most child development or lifespan development textbooks how people tend to think about death and dying differently depending on their age. This will give you a basis for knowing how to talk to someone you care about regardless of her or his age.
There are many books available on grief and loss, but the one I found most comforting was When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. This book was written in 1981 but can probably be considered a classic for helping people to put negative life events into perspective and to cope with grief, anger, and guilt. It is still available in most bookstores and online. Other authors whose work might be helpful are Elisabeth KÃ¼bler-Ross (1975) and Norman Cousins (1974, 1985). Parkinson (1995) has written about managers and supervisors using counseling skills in the workplace, and C. S. Lewis's 1961 book A Grief Observed is still helpful to many people coping with grief. There are also books written at different levels to help children cope with grief (Buscaglia, 2002; Deaton, 2002; Heegaard, 1992; Mundy, 1998; Rice, 1997; Smith, 1973).
In addition to reading about grief, talk to the person who is suffering. Don't avoid contact because you don't know what to say. Even if you simply say, "I don't know what to say but I've been thinking about you," you are initiating contact and letting the grieved person know you care. You could also try "I just wanted you to know you are in my thoughts" or "I just wanted you to know you are in my prayers" and let the person guide the conversation from there.
Allow the person to talk about the loss if she or he wants to do so. You don't have to avoid the subject, but take your cues from the person you are trying to comfort. It can be a burden if the person feels as if the life or death of her or his loved one are topics everyone else has dropped from their thoughts and conversations.
By all means avoid trite sayings such as "it's for the best," "it was God's will," "God won't give you more to deal with than you can handle," or "when a door closes a window opens." On the other hand, if you are grieving and someone says something to you that you find offensive, try to keep in mind that 99% of the time the underlying message is that this person cares about you, and is attempting to reach out to you and to comfort you. Try to look beyond the offensive words and accept the underlying meaning.
Finding meaning in a loved one's life and death also helps grieved people cope with their loss, and that is one thing that this issue of Eye on Psi Chi is intended to do. This issue is dedicated to the life of Kay Wilson as a means of honoring her for all the ways she enriched the lives of thousands of psychology students, her friends, her family, and her colleagues.
Buscaglia, L. (2002). The fall of Freddie the Leaf (20th anniv. ed.). New York: SLACK.
Cousins, N. (1974). The celebration of life: A dialogue on immortality and infinity. New York: Harper & Row.
Cousins, N. (Author). (1985). Anatomy of an illness: A guide to healing and regeneration (Cassette Recording No. 60000). Studio City, CA: Dove Books on Tape.
Deaton, W. (2002). Someone I love died: A child's workbook about loss and grieving (reissue ed.). Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
Heegaard, M. E. (1992). When someone very special dies: Children can learn to cope with grief. Minneapolis, MN: Woodland Press.
KÃ¼bler-Ross, E. (Ed.). (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Kushner, H. S. (1981). When bad things happen to good people. New York: Schocken Books.
Lewis, C. S. (1961). A grief observed. London: Faber and Faber.
Morgan, B. L., & Korschgen, A. J. (2001). Majoring in psych? Career options for psychology undergraduates (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Mundy, M. (1998). Sad isn't bad: A good-grief guidebook for kids dealing with loss. St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press.
Parkinson, F. (1995). Listening and helping in the workplace: A guide for managers, supervisors and colleagues who need to use counseling skills. London: Souvenir Press.
Rice, D. L. (1997). Lifetimes. Hong Kong: Dawn.
Smith. D. B. (1973). A taste of blackberries. New York: Scholastic.
Fall 2003 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 4, 6, 44), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2003, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.