What to Do When Students Grieve

Jun 21, 2017

Sooner or later, most of us will lose someone we care about. The pain this causes can be overwhelming, and we may feel that nothing will ever be normal again. Losing someone we love is a highly personal experience, and no two people cope in the same way or progress within the same time frame. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is the experience of psychological trauma, whereas mourning is the process of psychological healing, and as teachers we should be ready to help students with both.

Begin With Self-Reflection

Students experiencing a loss may move through a wide variety of reactions, including anxiety, depression, irritability, guilt and lack of energy. They may isolate themselves, shut down and feel like they are losing control of their lives. As fitness professionals, we are not psychologists or counselors; we are compassionate helpers who can offer support. If you have not experienced a great loss, this may be frightening for you, but it is essential to be present with those who grieve and mourn.

As a starting point, take a moment to reflect on your own feelings regarding death. Do this in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. You may not have thought very much about it—you may even try to avoid thinking about it; you may be afraid of death; or perhaps you are curious about it. The feelings you have may stem from your own experience or inexperience with loss, from your religious faith or from your culture, but wherever they come from, they are just a starting point. They deserve your thought and investigation. If you have negative feelings, reflect on why you feel the way you feel, and what you might do to challenge the thinking that underlies those feelings.

Many years back, while I was working as a fitness director, a colleague’s child died, and indeed it was a terrible tragedy to see a life lost so young. My expectation was that everyone would feel that pain and offer the family support; however, some members of staff went out of their way to avoid the child’s mother, and finally I got up the courage to ask one of them why. The loss was just too overwhelming for her to think about, she said, because that might have been her child. This teacher was so paralyzed by her fear that she could not be there for her friend; her first step was to examine her thoughts and move beyond that fear.

Be a Role Model and Guide for Others

As mind-body educators, we teach students to be open in mind, body and spirit, to be compassionate to themselves and others. And ideally we role-model a mindful, compassionate lifestyle by being present with whatever shows up in our own lives. When what shows up is death, our practice is to be present with that. The Dalai Lama says, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the [spiritual] path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless.”

Years ago I worked along with my husband as a death-and-dying educator at our church. As a certified instructor of Jivamukti yoga, I received part of my education and exposure to death and grief from the Focus of the Month essays on these subjects found on the Jivamukti website. Having a comfort level with the subject of death put a different lens on grief for me. That said, after losing my sister, my husband and my mother in a 3-year time period, I now have a much deeper and more personal perspective on loss and how to respond to it. Let’s look at how we can support grieving students, taking things one step at a time.

Hearing and Sharing the News

You hear the news. Let’s face it: No one wants to hear or deliver the news that someone has died—but if people don’t know, they can’t offer support. Who died, and how, influences the way you will share.

When a student dies, there is a loss to you and to your exercise community. Fellow classmates and others the student would have passed going in and out of the studio will all suffer. Help the community by sensitively sharing the news; listen to people as they share their feelings; and if feasible, do something positive to help.

When her student Peggy was dying, Deb Vincent, owner of Active Body & Health, in Severna Park, Maryland, put up Facebook posts to keep everyone informed of Peggy’s health status. When the death came, she followed students’ lead for quieter, more introspective Pilates sessions. The studio is now planning an annual Ovarian Cancer benefit in Peggy’s honor.

Kathryn Coyle, regional Pilates coordinator for Life Time Fitness, lost a beloved student, Eugenia. On Friday, Eugenia was in class working hard and joking around with everyone, but over the weekend a call came from her partner that she had sepsis and would not make it. She died. When Eugenia’s class gathered after that weekend, Coyle opted not to say anything, and to let the students work out. After class, she led them to a private room and shared the news, giving them time to ask questions, cry, share memories and learn of memorial arrangements. Some attended the funeral, and everyone contributed to a fund to help Eugenia’s children with their future.

For help with what to say and how to welcome students back after a loss, please see “When Students Grieve” in the online IDEA Library or in the May 2017 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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