Grief and loss sound like experiences that would impact senior citizens more than the fresh faced Master of Social Work students who are enrolled in, “Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan.” Yet each year students in this class, which is required for the MSW Certificate in Aging, learn through the coursework that loss is a universal human experience that occurs at every age, and that grief is a normal part of the process.
“Loss is a part of life, and it does not just have to occur from a death. When we grow up and move away, we lose our home community. When we get married, we lose our single status,” says Judith McCoyd, associate professor and co-author of the course textbook, Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan: A Biospsychosocial Perspective. “There can be losses even in happy events like a birth. Growth often comes only as a result of losing a prior lifestyle.”
As their final assignment, students must interview someone about a loss they have experienced. This can lead to unexpected discoveries; from the retiree who is mourning the loss of his former occupational identity to the teenager who grieves deeply at the end of a serious romance.
Armed with the knowledge they gain in this class, these future social workers will use that information to help people process the meaning of loss in their own lives.
“Students learn that everyone has a right to grieve, and that one of the roles of a social worker is to help people by listening and allowing them to share their loss narratives,” McCoyd says.
One person who was not able to share her grief story was McCoyd’s own mother, who experienced unexpressed loss after a miscarriage. McCoyd says her research on perinatal health and loss is an offshoot of her desire to help other grieving parents. Similarly, after her best friend from high school was killed in a car accident, McCoyd realized that some categories of grievers, like friends, are not viewed as legitimate mourners. This sensitized her to the notion of disenfranchised grief, a major focus of the coursework.
In the course, students learn the foundations of classical grief theory, including Freud and Kubler-Ross, as well as more recent understandings, which include “continuing bonds,” and “meaning making.” The word “closure,” is not always the best goal for someone who has experienced a death, McCoyd tells students. Many grievers do better by maintaining a continuing bond with the lost loved one. One parent might start a cause in their child’s name, one form of meaning making. A bereaved spouse might continue to think of a loved one and even speak to him or her out loud.
The idea of continuing bonds is a new one, and it has translated well into the age of the internet where friends and family can create online memorial sites. New technology has also changed the way we grieve and the way we comfort.
“In some newer cemeteries now you can span a bar code and read about someone’s life. It has also become more common to receive condolences through a Facebook post or an email or text. As society changes, so do our outlets for sharing grief and loss,” says McCoyd.
Shovaughn Chism, who graduated from Rutgers with a master of social work degree this spring, says the class has helped him tremendously in his role as a counselor at Covenant House, where he assists homeless youth who are coping with the many losses in their lives.
“It helped me to understand that in addition to the main loss, there is a web of other connected smaller losses to address. The class was phenomenal in broadening my scope of understanding,” says Chism.
For his in-class interview, Chism spoke with a woman who had been divorced for 32 years. She recalled the loss of her marriage, the negative effect on her daughter, and the challenges of child care and a return to work at that time. However, Chism noted, the woman described herself as happy now, her daughter as doing well, and that the end of the marriage brought with it the chance for her to establish a new and better life.
“Almost every loss experience has the potential for some positive outcome,” Chism added.