"The Crying Class" Delves into Many Forms of Loss

Aug. 19, 2009

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Students call it "the crying class," and the instructor regularly brings a box of Kleenex®.

Loss and Mourning is the name of the course at Baylor University, and students tackle more than the standard issue of helping people cope with death and dying, said Helen Harris, senior lecturer in social work.

Their eventual clients might be soldiers who lost limbs while serving in Iraq, victims of sex trafficking or retirees who are depressed in their so-called golden years.

"Loss can be as dramatic as the lost innocence and trust of the abused child and as common but life-changing as a move across the country," said Harris, who began offering the course in fall 2007.

Students study the work of dozens of authors and researchers, but they also get insights from watching such films as The Horse Whisperer and The Bucket List. It gets personal, too, as they confide in each other about their own sorrows.

But the class goes beyond thinking and feeling.

Students blend theory with reality as they undertake creative projects about their own losses to present to classmates. Finally, they develop a curriculum or intervention model for the people they hope to serve, whether survivors of mass tragedies, victims of spouse abuse or foster parents feeling loss alongside joy when their foster children are adopted.

Poetry, art, memory boxes and PowerPoint presentations are among the methods students have chosen for their creative projects, Harris said.

One student in a previous loss course, upset by a nurse who told her that grandmother had "expired," opted to use a milk carton for a display, including a photo of her grandmother, the definition of the word "expire" and her reaction to the term.

"Milk expires; people don't," she wrote. "My grandmother will always be in date."

The class was "most definitely my favorite at Baylor," said Sara Karnes of Muskegon, Mich. She interned in 2008 at Providence Hospice in Waco and plans to work with victims of sex trafficking.

"You related to other people's losses, whether it was a pet dying or a breakup with a boyfriend," she said. "It was a safe environment to cry."

Former student Kyna Baskin, a therapist in the child and adolescent unit of Providence DePaul Center in Waco, said many of the young people there have divorced parents and or parents who are dead or dying. The center is the psychiatric and abuse treatment division of Providence Health Center.

"The people that I work with may need more direction, more one-on-one," Baskin said. "If they're already suffering from depression and then going through grief, that magnifies it. I learned in that class that grief is so much more than someone dying."

Harris stresses sensitivity to people who are often overlooked when it comes to loss, such as retirees struggling with their new identity.

"One of the highest rates of suicide in the United States is among older white men, and there's the assumption that has to do with loss of value and role," she said.

People who come to the United States from other countries also are often on the fringes.

"There's a loss related to language and culture and identity, even family structure," she said. "Migrants may come from homes that have been very patriarchal, but now the child might be in a parental role, interpreting for the social services."

Cultural differences also affect how people grieve after a death, she said.

"We have the pictures in our own minds about casseroles, visitation for two days and funeral services on the third day," Harris said. "But whatever we know about our Western development and stages of loss, we've got to sit down with people from other countries and cultures and say, 'Teach me.'"

The impact of the course, which will be offered in the spring, is spreading.

Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Worth recently invited Harris to conduct a three-hour workshop for employees who aid children from Rwanda, the Congo and Ethiopia. The children face loss of country, language, traditions and in many cases, a parent or sibling.

"I thought, 'We really need her (Harris) to come out and train my staff,'" said Faith Lamb, one of Harris' former students and associate director of the diocese's unaccompanied refugee minor program. "We had about 30 people in the training, and the staff thought it was very relevant."

Harris thinks the class, an elective, has even greater potential.

"This would make a lot of sense for those going into medicine, the ministry and education," she said.

Air Force 1st Lt. Daphne Paul, a Baylor graduate who does social work in the military, said the curriculum she developed in Harris' class was inspired by veterans who were amputees or who lost body parts when makeshift bombs exploded.

"It's not just the loss of their limb and ability to use it, but the entire way they used to function, everything from not being able to hold their baby anymore to day-to-day work," said Paul, stationed at Grand Fork Air Force Base in Grand Fork, N.D.

"At first, I thought, 'Of course they're going to be sad.' But I more I looked into it, I thought, 'There's so much more.'"

Paul said what she learned in the class has been invaluable in her work.

"I started the class with trepidation," she said. "But it was phenomenal."

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