It’s Grief To Me – Death, Divorce, Incarceration, Deployment and Foster Care

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Every year, educators in the public education system spend roughly 180 days and approximately around 1,000 hours with our children.  For many children, the time spent with their classroom teacher accumulates to more time then the time they spend with their own parents.  For many grieving children and teens in our communities today, their schools and their teachers remain the one constant in their lives.

Who are our grieving students in our schools today?  They are our students impacted by experiences of not only death, but situations like divorce, parental deployment, parental incarceration and foster care placement.  Many students impacted by grief and loss are not only unaware of their own grief, they find themselves struggling academically.

Grieving children have more academic barriers than their peers who are not experiencing grief.

Like the students themselves who may be unaware of their own grieving, many teachers are left in the dark about who their grieving students are.  Many may not know grief and loss experiences can connect to other life experiences such as parental divorce, incarceration of a loved one, parental deployment and foster care placement. Unfortunately, due to shame and stigma that can surround the specific grief situation of a child or teen, they may not tell their teachers out of fear or embarrassment.  Even when the teacher does know the situation, they might not quite know what to do to support their student.

In my research, I continue to find a scarcity of information on how to serve grieving youth impacted by grief and loss outside of death.  In my opinion, death is only one aspect of a much larger issue.  I realized this 13 years after my own graduation from high school when I found myself walking the halls of someone else’s high school thinking of that period of my own life that was so fraught with darkness.  This time however my role was different.  I was different.

As a mental health practitioner one of my roles was to prepare curriculum for an after school grief group within the high school mental health program where I worked.  When one student was referred to the grief group because of her father’s military deployment, I remember initially not understanding what deployment had to do with grief and loss. That quickly changed as facilitating the after school grief group provided a whole new awareness of how different grief and loss can look for a teen.

After finishing up my role as co-facilitator of the high school grief group and as my years working in the mental health program began to accumulate, I began to realize many of the youth I was surrounded by daily were grieving. Not only were they grieving, they were hungry for acknowledgement of their loss.  They wanted validation of their pain.

In my search for information,  I came to the realization that all key players need to be on the same page when it comes to the many emotions youth experience in connection to grief and loss.  Who are these pivotal players?  Not only are they the parents and caretakers of the grieving children and teens, but also educators and other key adults in the lives of youth.

I’ve come across a series of videos on Military Kids Connect, a great resource geared toward military children, teens, parents, and educators.  Although these videos are geared towards parents and caregivers of youth grieving the loss of a loved one, in my opinion, these videos also express very clearly the grief reactions of children and teens due to the effects of divorce, incarceration, and foster care placement.

In the videos Dr. Mogil, a licensed clinical psychologist and Director of Training and Intervention Development at The Nathanson Family Resilience Center, highlights grief reactions in both children and tween/teens.  Also, the Dougy Center, another great resource nationally known for their work with children and grieving families offers coping strategies for children and teens.

What initially began as one grief group experience has now turned into a lifetime mission for me.  My work is a result of my students, who allowed me into their space.  It is through their gifts I’ve learned to be curious, to ask questions instead of pass judgments.  It is through their actions and from their words I’ve learned to set the bar high, to never take “no” or “I don’t know” for an answer, and to never give up on them.

Journey through the Grief of Homelessness

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Subprime loans, adjustable rate mortgages, unregulated equity lines of credit, mentally ill, physically and verbally abused, veterans, runaway children, drug addicts, and prostitutes are all part of the collectively vulnerable voices journeying through the grief of homelessness.

Homelessness is not prejudiced it crosses socio-economic, religious, educational, mental capacity, gender, veteran status, sexual preference and racial barriers; this destitution occurs in urban, rural and suburbia. Unfortunately, homelessness is an equalizer that causes one to lose hope and pride in the American dream as it becomes more elusive to the average Joe citizen.

Statistically speaking the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans reported that last year 12% of the adult population is veterans and of that total 20% are homeless with co-occurring disabilities and severe mental illnesses. Moreover, the state of our current economic situation and housing condition within the United States has created a social epidemic and high-risk population demographic.

The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC) of Fort Worth, Texas, was established to serve the homeless population in Tarrant and Parker Counties. This agency annually conducts a point in time count of homeless individuals. On January 23, 2014, over 2400 people including children were homeless. Moreover, a systemized national survey revealed that over 84,000 were experiencing chronic homelessness. It was 30 degrees. Homelessness is a national crisis.

The Services for Ending Long-Term Homelessness Act (H.R. 1293) was introduced to the House of Representatives on March 4, 2015, by Democratic Alcee Hastings from Florida and currently has 21 cosponsors.  As of March 6, 2015, the health subcommittee received a referral for committee consideration from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. As of this date, H.R. 1293 has not moved any further through the legislative process.

This Act (H. R. 1293) was proposed to amend the Public Health Service Act of 1944 by establishing sponsorship for supportive services in permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals and families, and for other purposes.  Moreover, organizations that receive funding must treat individuals and families that are identified as chronically homeless and provide mental health and substance abuse treatment; treatment for co-occurring disorders; education on self-sufficiency and other services aimed at eradicating chronic homelessness.

The need for H.R. 1293 to become adopted is of an urgent nature to assist in eliminating homelessness. It is vital that you write, call or visit your local political representatives to ensure that they are aware of this Act and take action to address the issue of transitioning from homelessness to mainstream society it became a never-ending cycle.

This specific legislation could complement the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which was the preliminary phase to eradicating homelessness in America. Although this was an attempt to address the issue it was meant for short-term use only; however, few programs did not address the issue of transitioning from homelessness to mainstream society it became a never-ending cycle. Therefore, by enacting H.R. 1293, this amendment would address the gaps in services that exist within McKinney Act. Allowing for funding for advocacy groups, national programs, nonprofit and for-profit organizations to work collectively with heightened public awareness will eventually produce solutions to this global dilemma.

Supporting a National Priority to Eliminate Homelessness stated that the persisting numbers of homeless people in America are an indictment of our collective failure to make the essential ingredients of civilized society accessible to all citizens. Having the public’s best interest in mind and limited resources elected official must focus on the vital needs affecting their communities. The voice and influence in support of H.R. 1293 must come from the public against this grievous offense of homelessness.

Call, email and write your local, state, and federal elected officials and ask why H.R. 1293 has not moved any further through the legislative process. Let them know that we this amendment passed immediately!

Best Practices for Grief: Foster Care

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Often, helping professionals in the lives of foster care youth struggle to understand the magnitude of losing a child or teen in the foster care system has experienced.  Abuse and neglect, loss of innocence, trauma, separation from parents, loss of security, and multiple placements are all factors affecting the wellness of children placed in the foster care system.

These heavy experiences not only impact children and teens in our foster care population short term, but they are also far reaching.  The long term impacts of these experiences of foster care youth are evidenced by the staggering statistics of foster care alumni such as homelessness, prison, unemployment, mental health concerns, and lack of education.

In order to effectively serve this underserved population, it’s time for us to acknowledge how much we really don’t know about foster care youth in the United States today.  It’s time to create more conversation about the needs of children and teens in foster care placement and the realities of their experiences.  It’s time we meet them where they’re at in their grief.

Foster care alumni abandoned by the educational system often become the inmates at youth detention centers and adult prisons across the country. They are the experts on what needs to change in order to create more equitable outcomes and opportunities for vulnerable populations. These orphaned inmates are the ones who could drive the creation of new methodologies, curriculum and policies to decrease risks while increasing protective factors. – Foster Care Alum Veola Green

Below is the first video in our series highlighting best practices for teachers and other key players impacting the lives of grieving foster care youth today.  In this video, I interview Evangelina Reina, LCSW, Assistant Regional Administrator for DCFS – Los Angeles and Adjunct Assistant Professor for The University of Southern California.

Reina offers her insight into best practices when working with children and teens in foster care placement as well as her expertise on what sets foster care youth apart from youth impacted by the other experiences of death, divorce, parental incarceration, and parental deployment.

Best Practices For Grief: Parental Incarceration

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2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent.

Often key players in the lives of youth have difficulty knowing how to best support children and teens impacted parental incarceration.  Due to the stigma and shame incarceration brings, the incarceration of a parent is often kept a secret.  This creates and perpetuates even more feelings of alienation and shame youth touched by incarceration may already be feeling.  From their peers, to their teachers, to the many adults impacting their lives, these youth often struggle to find someone they can trust. They often resort to isolation.

Below is the fourth video in this video series highlighting best practices for educators, teachers, and other vital players in the lives of grieving youth today.  For this interview I sat down with Zoe Willmott, Project Manager for Community Works Project WHAT!  WHAT! stands for We’re Here and Talking.  In this best practice video, Willmott draws on knowledge she’s gained from her experience working with teens impacted by parental incarceration and from her own experience of being a child with an incarcerated parent.

Willmott tells us that a child or teen impacted by parental incarceration may experience a range of feelings related to their parent, their parent’s incarceration, and the relationship the young person has with his/her parent.  So as adults working with this population of youth, honoring all feelings a young person impacted by parental incarceration may have is vital to their coping and healing.

Willmott reminds us about the importance of authenticity and being honest when working with children and teens impacted by parental incarceration.  Oftentimes these youth are told their parent has left for vacation or the military for example, instead of jail or prison.  With this in mind, it is imperative that youth impacted by parental incarceration learn to see adults as trustworthy.

One of the key takeaways from my interview with Willmott is the importance of remembering the resilience of children and teens impacted by parental incarceration.  They have so much to offer the world around them.  Most of the time these youth aren’t looking for pity or for someone to feel sorry for them.  Children and teens impacted by parental incarceration are looking for someone to listen to them.

Do you know of helpful resources for working with children and teens impacted by parental incarceration?  Do you know of an organization working with this population of youth that you think isn’t getting enough attention? Please leave a comment below or email me at amlee@sisgigroup.org.

Don’t Be Afraid to Tackle the Mental Health Issues Associated with Grief

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Story’s Angel of Grief

Not long ago I was given a book on grief, one of those self-published books that anyone can write and sell on Amazon.  The basic premise being promoted by the author is that grief can “be defeated” if one just has enough faith whatever spiritual religious tradition they embrace.  If one is struggling with grief, the author says, they need to have “increased faith,” and “quit stewing.”  “Too much latitude is encouraged especially in terms of time for grief”, according to the writer.  “One cannot rest in peace if his or her loved ones are stewing in excessive grief.” In other words, the author is saying that if someone is grieving the death of a loved one, he or she simply needs to “get over it.”  That really made me feel angry.

I am a Presbyterian minister, a board certified professional chaplain, and a person with specific expertise in counseling and particularly grief and bereavement.  This particular book’s author, on the other hand, was written by a person who is not educated or credentialed as either a religious leader or a counselor/psychologist.  Yet, the author tells grieving people to choose a faith (or consult a medium – seriously, that’s what is written) in order to “participate” in their grief in a way that “will be shallow and brief.”

I’m also a bereaved parent and even though it has been ten years since the death of our daughter, I still grieve for her.  Grief is a journey and an event that affects our lives forever.  It does not mean we cannot continue to participate in life and find joy, but the reality is that after a loved one’s death we look at life through a different lens.

Recently I read an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry about a study done by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that revealed that there is a link between sudden grief and the onset of mental health disorders like mania, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

The article did not surprise me at all.  Our daughter’s death was sudden and traumatic.  At the time where I was working in a large teaching hospital where every day I was called to the emergency department  to provide care to families whose own loved ones died after car accidents and other traumas.  I found myself feeling overwhelmed.

While my faith in God didn’t waver – I knew God didn’t cause the accident; it was caused by the careless decision of an adult who chose to speed and accelerate through a red light – I sure was angry with God.  I knew that was normal too.  However, it still created a significant amount of spiritual distress along with the emotional distress of grief.

Fortunately, I mentioned this one day in passing when I was with a good friend.  She stopped the conversation and asked me to tell her more.  She gently suggested that while my feelings were normal, I was also showing signs of depression beyond the grief as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  “You’re doing so much to take care of everyone else; you need to take care of yourself.”

Because of her willingness to listen and look for the signs, she was able to see what I couldn’t see for myself.  My grief, which I thought I was managing (“and you are doing so very well,” she said) was something I didn’t need to work so hard to cope with it on my own.  We agreed on a plan: I would go and talk with my family physician, who was just as supportive, and we too agreed on a plan – counseling, a short course of medication, and becoming a participant in a grief support group for a time rather than being a leader of one.

There are times when grief’s accompanying depression, anxiety, emotional and spiritual distress becomes too difficult for the bereaved person to bear.  That’s when the right resources need to be activated.  Families, friends, and co-workers need a basic knowledge of grief in order to normalize the bereaved person’s experience and provide them support.  We also need to understand when a bereaved person needs additional mental health support when the trauma becomes difficult to manage.

That plan didn’t “cure” my grief or take away the sadness that I still carry with me (as the author of the book I read says must happen).  There are times when it comes back with a vengeance.  During most of those grief-bursts I find I can manage with the resources I have in place that work for me:  meditation, exercise, activating my support system – however there have been a couple of times when I’ve gone back to my doctor for help in identifying appropriate short-term interventions.

Of course, there are other examples of mental health issues that we can face in our daily lives.  Stress has been shown through studies to be on the rise due to a number of factors.  Living with a chronic or life-threatening disease, caring for a sick or elderly family member, post-traumatic stress, or dealing with the magnitude of responsibilities one has to make ends meet can all cause emotional and spiritual distress.  Sometimes these lead to mental health issues that need further attention.

I was fortunate that I had a friend, who while not a professional health provider, knew enough about basic mental health ten years ago to recognize that  I was struggling.  She didn’t try to talk me out of my grief, placate me with platitudes, or take the easy way out my ignoring my comments altogether.  Instead, she listened and took the step of faith and friendship to tell me I needed to check in with a professional about what I was feeling.

Knowing the indicators of a potential mental health challenge is something that all of us, professionals and non-professionals alike, need to be aware of.  In fact, it is something that I would urge we set aside time to learn more about.

Educational opportunities are becoming more and more available within our communities and online.  Many are being designed for those who don’t work in professional care fields, but who want to become more informed about mental health issues, what signs need to be looked for, and how to respond.  Check your community organizations, not just mental health centers, but also community colleges who are offering short-term, free, or low-cost programs.

Professionals who encounter mental health situations on a regular basis and those who work with the general public, including educators, health care providers, and religious leaders, need to make learning more a priority of their continuing education.  There are an increased number of programs now available.

Because of what I have learned from my own experience, I have been able to help others by now teaching health professionals what they need to look for in order to care for not only their clients’ bodies and minds, but also their spirits.  Those who are experiencing grief, serious illness, post-traumatic stress, or facing the end of their lives need the understanding, support, and resources necessary not only to cope, but to find meaning and comfort.

Let us not be afraid to talk about, learn more, and recognize mental health issues – not just in those we love, but also in ourselves.  Read.  Take a course.  Be part of the discussion.  Make a difference.

The Standards of Self-Care (Part 1 of 3)

When we talk about the ethical responsibility we have to take care of ourselves as helping professionals, we don’t necessarily think about a specific set of guidelines to follow.  In this article, we will take a look at the Ethical Principles of Self-Care as well as the Standards of Humane Practice of Self-Care.

Self-CareThe Green Cross Academy of Traumatology has created the standards of self-care guidelines for their members to follow. The purpose of the guidelines are twofold: 1) do no harm to yourself while helping or treating others and 2) “attend to your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services…”  to those who are looking to you for support. It also states that self-care is so important for preventing a practitioner from harming clients, that it is unethical to not attend to self-care practices.

The three principles of self-care in practice are stated as:

1)   Respect for the dignity and worth of self: A violation lowers your integrity and trust.

2)   Responsibility of self-care:  Ultimately it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and no situation or person can justify neglecting it.

3)   Self-care and duty to perform:  There must be a recognition that the duty to perform as a helper cannot be fulfilled if there is not, at the same time, a duty to self-care.

The four standards for self-care are stated as:

1)   Universal Right to Wellness:  Every helper, regardless of her or his role or employer, has the right to wellness associated with self-care.

2)   Physical Rest and Nourishment:  Every helper deserves restful sleep and physical separation from work that sustains them in their work role.

3)   Emotional Rest and Nourishment: Every helper deserves emotional and spiritual renewal both in and outside the work context.

4)   Sustenance Modulation:  Every helper must utilize self-restraint with regard to what and how much they consume (eg: food, drink, drugs, stimulation) since it can compromise their competence as a helper.

Often when I give a workshop on Compassion Fatigue, I speak about the importance of helping professionals to attend to their own healing as well. This speaks to the ethical principles – we need to respect ourselves, develop our self-worth and be responsible for our own self-care. In order to be a helper, we have an ethical duty for self-care. We thrive as professionals when we come from a place of self-worth, confidence and dignity for ourselves… and yes, this means doing the tough emotional healing that we ask of our clients!

This doesn’t mean only getting help from someone when we are in a crisis, it means really taking an inventory of our own past hurts. What does our grief history look like ? Have we healed from significant losses both from death and the end of relationships?  Do we have a trauma history? Over 70% of the population has had one or more significant traumas, so have we healed from ours?

The thing about helping professionals is that many have entered the field because of a personal struggle that was overcome with the support of another helper, so naturally we wanted to do the same for others. Do we have any of our own physical or mental health struggles, and are we seeking support for them?

We will always have experiences that cause unpleasant emotions, that’s just life.  Having said that, as helpers we need to know how to deal with these in a healthy way so that we can integrate the experiences and move on, instead of being stuck in them and potentially being triggered by them when clients share similar struggles.

I recently received an email from a helper who provides support for pet loss.  She is not a counselor and wanted to know how to separate her grief from the grief of the people she is helping. In my opinion, this is a two-step response: 1) Helpers needs to heal from their own grief and 2) Helpers need to learn how to practice conscious empathy, so we don’t unconsciously catch our client’s grief.

Alright, enough of my rant on the importance of our own healing.  The standards of Self-Care are pretty basic and most helpers know these, although, the last standard “Sustenance Modulation” can be somewhat controversial for people. Sustenance modulation states that helpers are to utilize self-restraint with regard to how much they consume (food, drink, drugs, stimulation).  I don’t mean it’s controversial because it’s not true, I mean it in the sense that this is the standard that can sometimes bring up a little bit of defensiveness in people.

I would love to know your thoughts on the Principles of Self-Care and the Standards of Self-Care as they relate to your role as a Social Worker.  Please leave a comment letting me know what you think!

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