The Wide World of Grief

The Wide World of Grief;
Colorado has become one of the country's
hubs for teaching, and learning,
how to feel bad.

Michael Roberts

Denver Westword,
September 21, 2000, Thursday

The Center for Loss and Life Transition sits on a picturesque ridge on

the outskirts of Fort Collins. The dirt road leading to it would be

tough to negotiate for anyone not driving a tank; there are no less

than four sharp switchbacks, and potholes large enough to lose a

microwave oven in. But those fortunate enough to make it to the top

are rewarded for their efforts by a spectacular view of Horsetooth

Reservoir and the city beyond, observable from a series of structures

that quietly echo the natural beauty of the surroundings.

The founder of this development, Alan Wolfelt, lives on the ridge,

too, residing in a palatial home near a pair of charming, hexagonal

gazebos, one of which is fronted by a small, painted figurine of

Little Bo Peep crying over her lost sheep. These accoutrements are

linked by a wooden walkway lined with what initially appear to be

lecterns; in actuality, they're "information stations" containing

glass-covered pages that impart facts about the flora, fauna, climate

and geology of the site. But all paths eventually lead to the center

itself, a multilevel, hexagon-shaped monument to the nurturing of the

human spirit.

Welcome to the complex that grief built.

According to Wolfelt, a brisk, remarkably intense man of 46 with a

taut, compact frame, a penetrating gaze and the sweeping hairstyle of

a TV newscaster, the building was originally the swinging bachelor pad

of an English playboy slumming in the States. But the reconfiguring

and redesigning overseen by Wolfelt, who bought the property in the

mid-'80s, eradicated every last bit of hedonism from its walls,

transforming the edifice into a mini-campus that practically oozes

benevolence. "People feel better just being here," Wolfelt says, and

after a trip to the "eagle's nest," a glass-enclosed room capping the

center, few would argue with him.

On this day, Wolfelt is hosting a conference called "Music, Meditation

and Memories," a retreat for bereavement caregivers described in the

center's catalogue of educational seminars as providing "natural

medicine for soul-starvation" via "healing memory rituals" and regular

"periods of solitude and reflection." The course is available only to

people who've completed preliminary programs that are offered at the

center roughly once a month for a week at a time; learners receive

continuing-education units through Colorado State University's

Department of Educational Outreach for attending the classes, with

five sessions earning them a certificate in "death and grief studies."

Thirteen professionals from across the U.S. are taking advantage of

this opportunity to join Wolfelt for happenings such as the next

morning's scheduled sunrise observance, which will ritually greet the

coming dawn. Wolfelt says, "My philosophy is, when words are

inadequate, have ceremony." Tuition for the seminar is $695, but

breakfasts, lunches and materials are thrown in.

Students are also taking part in lectures and discussions on the

center's second floor, where each participant has his own desk

distinguished by a name tag, a jar of M&Ms and, conveniently, a

personal box of tissues. Their chairs face a fireplace over which is

mounted an illustration titled "Wolfelt's Grief Gardening Model." It

depicts a route through agony that takes sufferers past dangerous

areas -- one is marked "weed patch," another "nature of death" -- with

stops that encourage them to "acknowledge reality" and "develop new

self-identity." Elsewhere in the room, a poster delineates "My Grief

Rights," which include:

I have the right to have my own unique feelings about the death...

I have the right to need other people to help me with my grief...

I have the right to try to figure out why the person I love died...

This graphic and others on similar themes are found in a series of

placards that Wolfelt has produced to get the attention of mourners

who may be reluctant to acknowledge their struggles; they can be found

in funeral homes from sea to shining sea. In addition, Wolfelt has

written more than twenty books published by his own company, Companion

Press, including The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on Healing,

Healing the Bereaved Child and How I Feel: A Coloring Book for

Grieving Children, as well as a staggering number of pamphlets on

seemingly every conceivable aspect of anguish, ranging from Helping

Yourself Live When You Are Seriously Ill to Helping Yourself Live When

You Are Dying. And as befits someone who's a nationally acknowledged

expert in his field, he travels all over North America (he has a

branch office in Toronto) giving grief seminars. He's on tour as

frequently as a rock star with a new album: Next week Pennsylvania,

Kentucky the week after, then Maryland, Rhode Island -- and the road

goes on.

To his credit, Wolfelt doesn't pretend that his organization is a

nonprofit: He's entrepreneurial enough to have ordered up a nice

variety of Center for Loss clothing; logo-imprinted T-shirts go for

$20 apiece, and sweatshirts and polo shirts are available for $30. Yet

he gives not the slightest indication that he's anything other than

completely sincere in his desire to assist folks whose sadness, he

believes, is capable of absolutely obliterating their lives. Sitting

in the center's office, which contains a calendar showing his schedule

for the next year-plus, a vast collection of toys highlighted by a

bike-riding E.T., and a frowning-clown painting by the late comedian

Red Skelton, he says, "We impact thousands each year, and I couldn't

be prouder."

At the same time, he's got to deal with frustrations of his own --

particularly those that have arisen since the 1999 shootings at

Columbine High School, when so-called grief counselors were thrust

into the limelight as never before. Since the assault, some detractors

have implied that grief counselors are the equivalent of

ambulance-chasing attorneys, waiting for a calamity so they can pounce

on already overwhelmed victims for their own gain.

Wolfelt is still upset about being sucked into just such a critique --

a May 17, 1999, Time article headlined "The Grief Brigade: When

tragedy strikes, the counselors rush in. They offer succor, but their

methods are up for debate." Amid comments from numerous observers who

expressed reservations about the worth of the approach, Wolfelt was

quoted defending the concepts he's spent his career preaching: "Our

culture is full of buck-up therapists who want to move people away

from grief. But you have to feel it to heal it.  You have to go

through the wilderness."

Immediately thereafter, the piece's author, reporter Nadya Labi,

dismissed his observations with the line, "That kind of sound bite

appeals to a generation raised on Oprah, but some psychologists are

skeptical." The zinger hit Wolfelt where he lives: After all, he's

been on Oprah, not to mention Today, where he chatted with Katie

Couric, and Larry King's old radio show. Articles like this one

prompted Wolfelt to pen a de facto manifesto taking the media to task

for what he called its "flawed analysis" and standing up for himself

and his calling: "Yes, some people may question the need for what you

and I do to help people in grief. But I suggest we stand tall and

stand proud. Because it is through having places to 'story' that

people have the opportunity to try to make sense of the senseless, to

embrace what needs to be embraced, and to reveal that the human spirit


Over a year later, he still thinks various elements of the press are

misrepresenting grief counseling, thereby convincing impressionable

people that there's something either dubious or sinister about his

chosen profession. "When they go on about it being an 'industry' --

that, to me, is tragic and sad," he concedes. "What's the alternative?

Shouldn't we acknowledge the special needs of people who've

experienced loss?

"I've worked so hard for so many years, and then we have a tragedy and

people start to question everything I've ever done. It strikes at the

root of my whole mission. But if someone goes through a trauma, that's

an injury just as much as if there was a physical injury -- and no one

questions that.  If somebody is in a car crash, we don't say, 'Should

we take them to the hospital?'"As Wolfelt emphasizes, grief counseling

is nothing new: He's been at it for more than fifteen years, and

others have similarly lengthy track records of helping loved ones

mourn after the deaths of children, siblings, parents, even pets (see

sidebar, page 28). But the term entered the public vocabulary with a

vengeance after the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P.  Murrah

Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the scope of which (168 slain, many

more injured) shook not just family members and emergency personnel,

but the rest of the nation to its core.The timing of the explosion

coincided with the rise of all-news cable television channels

desperately in need of compelling programming. Experts on grief filled

their needs perfectly, providing dramatic testimony about the ordeals

confronting the living that could be juxtaposed with explicit imagery

of the dead. Never mind that a lot of what was (and continues to be)

identified as grief counseling really wasn't; most therapists label

their work with affected parties in the minutes or hours after a

serious misfortune either "trauma counseling" or, in the case of

emergency workers and the like, "debriefing." It sounded good, and in

the end, that's all that mattered.

The coverage of the Columbine killings further codified the grief

angle in most reporters' minds, especially locally. Now there's hardly

a report about a distressing incident that doesn't include something

about counselors. For example, a June 17 Denver Post account about the

Hi Meadow and Bobcat fires underlined the availability of counselors

in its subhead and throughout the article that followed, and an August

17 Rocky Mountain News story about the drowning death of Denver

firefighter Bob Crump made a point of noting that his peers would have

assistance to deal with their feelings. Likewise, the Post's Bill

Briggs, the author of a late-August series about the high rate of

suicide in the West, capped a sidebar about a thirteen-year old who'd

killed himself by noting that the boy's family had undergone grief

counseling and was finding it easier to "smile" again.

Taken cumulatively, these messages and many others imply that grievers

have little hope of moving forward unless they seek professional

assistance, even though much of the evidence supporting such theories

is anecdotal; it's largely based on comments from mourners who

describe counseling in positive terms. Yet they also demonstrate that

editors have grown to understand that describing the grief attendant

to tragic events is a way of keeping a story going when it might

otherwise drop out of sight. Again, Columbine proves the rule, with

headlines being generated by any semi-prominent figure who's admitted

to feeling post-traumatic stress. Last October, when rumors surfaced

that he was about to be given his walking papers, Channel 4 anchor

Bill Stuart came forward to announce that he was in treatment for

clinical depression fueled in part by Columbine (the sympathy this

concession spawned probably saved his job), and the August resignation

of the Reverend Donald Marxhausen, a Lutheran minister who said stress

connected to Columbine influenced his decision, was covered here and

in numerous locations across the country.

In reporting stories like these, the local media has received copious

assistance from grief-counseling boosters at institutional

levels. It's hardly a coincidence that the U.S. Department of

Education chose to stage "Picking Up the Pieces: Responding to School

Crises," a three-day conference on school safety that begins on

Thursday, September 21, in Denver. Nor should it startle anyone that

one of the key sessions on Friday, September 22 -- "Responding to the

Psychological Aftermath of a Crisis: Columbine Shootings" -- deals

with grief. Expect the press to notice.

Publicity like this cuts both ways. The leader of the panel noted

above will be Betsy Thompson, the coordinator of Jefferson County Safe

and Drug Free Schools, and the Jefferson County School District is

listed as a "partnering sponsor" of the conference as a whole. Yet Jo

Anne Doherty, vice president for clinical services with the Jefferson

Center for Mental Health, and one of the primary liaisons between the

mental-health community and Jefferson County Public Schools, says that

the post-Columbine grief-milking has had many negative

consequences. "Some of the stories carried in the media have

exacerbated people's grief -- stories that have graphic detail played

again and again, stories that have a component of blame in them," she

says. "Just the continued coverage of the Columbine shootings is a

continual reminder.  It's hard to get back to a renewed sense of

normalcy when they open the paper in the morning and see yet another


Donna Reutzel of the Grief Clinic in Lakewood, a private practice that

specializes in treating those seeking to deal with heartache,

reiterates these observations using even more fiery language. "The

media is willing to knock grief counseling, but they don't knock the

biggest culprits of all -- themselves. They did and still do profit

from this kind of thing. In the beginning of Columbine, we needed to

be informed, and there was a lot of consideration for the victims. But

when it goes on and on, it doesn't allow them to have rest periods

from their grief, because it's in their face all the time. And it

causes extra pain for everyday people who didn't get such

notoriety. I've had many clients tell me, 'Those people are getting so

much attention, but what about the loved one I lost? What about my


These days, there is no shortage of counselors willing to listen to

such inquiries. Reutzel, whose background is as a psychiatric nurse,

became involved in the domain of grief early last decade via the Grief

Institute, a Denver volunteer group and counselor training center that

was founded in the mid-'70s, a period when far fewer services of this

type existed. When the Grief Institute folded four years ago, it did

so because, Reutzel says, "it had fulfilled its mission." And true

enough, assistance for grievers is now offered by countless hospitals,

hospices, churches, even mortuaries. Some of these are overseen by

qualified professional therapists, others by those whose expertise

comes from bitter experience.

"Many of them are simply people who've had losses such as their infant

child dying -- so they'll start a newborn group," Reutzel points

out. "Suicide groups, homicide name it, they're out

there." These organizations bring with them an infinite variety of

philosophies, precepts and quirks, but a vast majority of them preach

that grievers must share what they're going through with others in

order to get a grip on their feelings.  Likewise, such people need to

be reassured that their reactions are normal and to learn how to

handle those times when thoughts of a death or traumatic episode

resurface, as they inevitably will.

For Reutzel, this last truism proved to be one of the biggest

stumbling blocks she's overcome personally: In her book Original Loss,

she writes that her inability to process the death of her husband in a

car accident haunted her for 25 years. The tome was completed in 1996;

she's working on a followup.News reports about traumatic events -- big

and small -- often make it seem as if there's a local Grief

Headquarters, where therapists prompted by screaming alarms race off

at a moment's notice, shoulders ready for leaning -- and although

that's not literally the case, it's figuratively closer to reality

than many might expect."We have an entire team of people qualified and

trained to provide immediate, on-the-spot counseling in the case of a

traumatic event," says Dan Mosley, the chair of the "disaster

committee" for the Mile High chapter of the Red Cross. "There's always

someone on call and ready to respond."

Here's how it works: The Denver branch of the Red Cross has a core

cluster of trauma authorities on call; right now there are nineteen of

them, up from just five when Mosley got started, and he predicts the

total will keep growing. Like Mosley, a licensed psychologist, each is

a professional in the therapy realm who's undergone special Red Cross

training sessions to further prepare him for the specific trials he's

apt to undergo. (Training takes place at least twice a year, supplying

a pool of people to call in case things get downright biblical. Mosley

says the current list contains well over a hundred contacts.)

The counselors, all volunteers, are placed in an on-call rotation, and

if there's what Mosley calls "a triggering event" -- an incident in

which "there's been death or serious injury or people displaced" --

the point person will be paged by a representative of agencies at the

scene (police or fire departments, most likely). The pro in charge

will then direct a counselor or counselors to the scene or go there

himself, ready to offer an open ear to anyone who might conceivably

benefit from one. That's often followed the next day by debriefings,

in which mental-health presentations are made before entire groups.

On most occasions, the occurrences that precipitate a call to the Red

Cross take place on a relatively small scale: a single house burns

down, someone dies in an automobile accident. But in his time, Mosley

has also made debriefing appearances before residents forced out by a

fire at an apartment complex, a community upset by the shooting of a

child, and those caught in the Buffalo Creek blaze and subsequent

flooding, among other occasions. And when he was acting as the

coordinator of the Red Cross reaction to Columbine, he temporarily

found himself on the other side of the therapist: His squad was

debriefed by representatives of the Mayflower Critical Incident Stress

Management Team, a volunteer group that offers its services to

emergency responders and hospital personnel. "We really needed it," he


(When the Denver Mayflower team was founded in 1985, it was the first

in Colorado -- there are now ten -- and just the third in the entire

United States. According to founder Patricia Tritt, who's the program

coordinator in Denver and the state as a whole, the primary difference

between Mayflower's approach and that of the Red Cross involves the

makeup of the counselors. Approximately one-third of the volunteers

are mental-health professionals, while the other two-thirds are

specially trained individuals culled from the ranks of the very

departments whose members the team counsels. "In order to have

credibility with certain work groups or populations, you need to have

peers as part of the team," she says.  "Sometimes it's difficult to go

into a fire agency or hospital as just a mental-health person. But

when you're with their peers, you can.")

For Mosley, making sure that debriefers and counselors know their

stuff is key: "After the Oklahoma City bombing, you had all these

well-intentioned people showing up wanting to help counsel people --

but unfortunately, some of them didn't have the training they should

have had to be doing it." To that end, he not only encourages his

fellows in the Colorado Psychological Association to volunteer with

the Red Cross, but he takes every opportunity to make sure he and his

current staffers are on top of their game -- hence his role as the

chair of the Disaster Mental Health Services Committee for a September

6 drill at Denver International Airport. The exercise called for

emergency crews to test their readiness in the case of a massive crash

at DIA, and in recognition that the Red Cross is designated by

Congress as the primary agency to provide family support in the event

of an aviation tragedy, a therapy team was on hand to mock-debrief

mock victims of mock trauma. "It's good that we get a chance to

practice our preparedness, too," he says.

Not that Mosley is rusty: As a participant in Disaster Services Human

Resources (DSHR), the Red Cross's national system for disaster

response, he traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Georges struck

the island in 1998 and pulled similar duty last fall in North Carolina

in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. "I commit myself to a block of time

every year," he notes, "because when there's something of that scope,

the needs are tremendous."

The Red Cross isn't the only group with a squad of counselors ready to

jet off to far-flung locales at a moment's notice. In the event of a

major outbreak of on-campus violence (of which Columbine is, for the

moment, at least, the most extreme American example), the Bethesda,

Maryland-based National Association of School Psychologists is

prepared to respond via the National Emergency Assistance Team, or


Dr. Theodore Feinberg, the assistant executive director of the

association, says that the Oklahoma City bombing established the need

for NEAT. "There were so many children involved in that terrible

tragedy," he says, "and two school psychologists from Oklahoma called

our office in Bethesda asking for help. Then, after sending one of our

members out to do what he could, we developed a group of individuals

who had prior experience with major crises in the country to be

available for communities in these kinds of situations." Feinberg was

a natural choice, having volunteered for the Red Cross during flooding

in the Midwest back in 1993, and his cohorts sported similar

backgrounds: Two had counseled victims of hurricanes in Florida, and a

third was a veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where

he'd had to deal with multiple shootings, suicides and no shortage of

other unpleasantness.

A couple of years later, the rash of school shootings began in earnest

-- so many of them that they began to be referred to by their

settings: West Paducah, Kentucky (a fourteen-year-old student killed

three classmates and wounded five); Jonesboro, Arkansas (two boys,

ages thirteen and eleven, killed four students and a teacher, leaving

ten wounded); Springfield, Oregon (a seventeen-year-old killed his

parents and two students, and wounded more than twenty innocent

bystanders). NEAT representatives -- at present, there are seven of

them -- raced to all these scenes as well as numerous others where the

carnage wasn't quite so voluminous: Flint, Michigan, where a

seven-year old murdered a six -year-old student in February, and

Lakeworth, Florida, which made news in May because a thirteen-year-old

took the life of a teacher who'd chastised him for tossing a water

balloon earlier that day. And Feinberg himself traveled to Littleton

after the April 1999 assault on Columbine, when the media's fervor

reached a new high.

An example? The first thing Feinberg was asked to do upon arriving in

town was hold a press conference. "There must have been journalists

from thirty different broadcast and print organizations there," he

recalls. "And they had been there for quite a while."

Whether the coverage fed the citizenry's distress Feinberg can't say,

but when he oversaw a community meeting the second day after his

arrival, "we were very surprised by the turnout. We expected a

reasonable number of people; sometimes we've had as few as 25 people,

50 people, and the most we'd had was in Jonesboro, where we had

600. But in Columbine, we had 3,000.  It was a very moving

experience." He particularly remembers a conversation with a husband

and wife whose son had been present in the school when the gunfire

started but who had to that point refused to open up about his

feelings -- "and as he was telling me about it, suddenly the father

broke into uncontrollable tears."

Of course, Feinberg realized he would only be in the Littleton area

for a short time and would be unable to counsel the family

himself. But he was confident that there were others who could provide

what they needed. "I told him that there was an extensive network of

resources available to him right there in his area. Extensive."

That's not the case in some other parts of the U.S., especially rural

ones, and many other countries are similarly

grief-counselor-challenged -- which is why NEAT is in the preliminary

stages of developing a crew prepared to cross borders. One NEAT

participant has already gone global, flying to Turkey in 1999 to help

survivors of a devastating earthquake, and the organization recently

presented a workshop to the International School Psychology

Association that may well inspire "an international response mechanism

for when there's a situation where trained folks familiar with the

culture of schools are needed," Feinberg says. "We've met with people

all over the world, and all of them have been quite interested in the

work we're doing. So we're hopeful that our work in this country

continues and expands, and that maybe the world in general will become

a safer place for children."But what about grievers who don't want

counseling?If there's anything that divides grief pros, it's this

question. The politically correct line is to argue that while

potential patients must be informed about the availability of

counseling, they should never feel that they're being forced to do

anything for which they aren't psychologically ready. But in reality,

this probably happens every day. Many banks require employees who've

been robbed to undergo debriefings, and a policeman who's been wounded

or who's wounded another is all but guaranteed to have a debriefing in

his future whether he wants one or not.

That's certainly the case in Littleton: Dan Stocking,

public-information officer for the Littleton Police Department, says

the chief of police there has the power to order his charges to be

debriefed. A 28-year veteran of law enforcement, Stocking adds that he

can't remember any objections, in large part, he believes, because

mental-health examinations are now such an integral part of an

officer's life; they must undergo psychological testing before being

hired, and they are often persuaded to seek help when they're having

difficulties at home. As a result, Stocking notes, a badge-wearer

who's been on hand for something traumatic understands in advance that

talking with a debriefer will be on the menu.

Among metro-area units, the therapist conducting such sessions will

almost certainly be from Nicoletti Flater Associates, a collection of

twelve police psychologists overseen by Dr. John Nicoletti and his

wife, Lottie Flater.  The group has contracts with police or sheriff's

departments in most area municipalities -- Denver, Arvada, Aurora,

Wheat Ridge, Englewood, Edgewater, Thornton, Adams County, Jefferson

County, Arapahoe County and more -- and Nicoletti confirms that most

of them require officers involved in shootings and the like to be

debriefed. But in his view, the obligatory nature of the service tends

to ease worries rather than provoke them.

"It takes away some of the stigma," Nicoletti says. "There's the

potential for both external and internal stigma -- external being

someone who asks, 'Hey, why did you have to do that?' and internal

being the person asking that of himself. But if it's something

everyone has to do, the person doesn't have to feel something's wrong

because they have to talk. And also, if it goes to court, some

attorney can't really say, 'Isn't it true you had to talk to

somebody?' because that's required. It just makes it a little cleaner

if it's mandated, if it's just something you have to do."

Most often the debriefing consists of a single session, with an option

for more depending upon the opinions of the clinician and the

patient. To Nicoletti, such conversations are especially important

when it comes to trauma, which he describes as "an abnormal event"

that may be followed by grief but certainly isn't synonymous with

it. "Trauma is a type of stress, but whereas some stress you can get

out by exercising or going to a movie or whatever, trauma doesn't get

resolved that way. Trauma has to be purged, and there are basically

only two ways you can purge it. One is to write about it, and that can

be effective as long as the person isn't putting filters on and

sanitizing what he's writing about. And the other one is to talk about


"This doesn't have to be done with a professional," Nicoletti goes

on. "Some people can process trauma by talking to friends or

mates. They just have to make sure that person won't be judgmental;

they won't say something like, 'Why would you do that?' or 'That was a

stupid thing to do.' But the important thing is that they get it out

-- because if they don't, there can be real problems."

For Dr. Feinberg of the NEAT team, the incident that best illustrates

this point was the first one to which his people responded: the

abductions and murders of three young girls (one in 1996, two in 1997)

in Spotsylvania, Virginia, by an assailant who remains unknown. After

the disappearance of the last two girls, Feinberg says, "we

immediately called the community and asked if we could be of

assistance, and they declined -- which is certainly their

right. Sometimes the press has indicated to its readership that people

like us are just crisis junkies waiting for these kinds of occurrences

to descend on communities, but we don't believe in that. We only go in

at the invitation of a major player in the community -- a mayor, a

chief of police -- and if they say, 'No, thank you,' we respect

that. Even if we don't agree with their decision-making, they

ultimately decide."

Three months later, Feinberg's instincts were proven accurate, he

feels, when a Spotsylvania representative phoned NEAT "to tell us that

they were emotionally paralyzed, and they needed us to come down and

help them sort out the unresolved issues." Shortly thereafter, NEAT,

in cooperation with the National Organization for Victim Assistance

(NOVA) staged a "group crisis intervention" for locals at which the

police chief, whose own daughters had been playmates of the girls

who'd been killed, "broke down into uncontrollable sobbing," Feinberg

recalls. "She'd been working feverishly, seventeen or eighteen hours a

day, to find the perpetrators of this terrible crime and had been

unsuccessful, which made her feel terribly guilty. But no one in the

community thought she wasn't doing her job, and she might not have

gotten their affirmation if she hadn't shared what she was

feeling."Such tales only confirm to proselytizing grief therapists

what they've contended all along -- that while not pressuring people

to get counseling may sound nice, backing off isn't necessarily in

their best interest.The Center for Loss's Wolfelt thinks most people

live in a state of denial about mortality ("One of my European friends

says, 'The first thing you should know about North Americans is that

they think death is optional'"), and when they're confronted with it,

their conditioning, which teaches them to embrace the ideal of rugged

individualism, causes them to bury their genuine responses for fear of

looking weak. Yet he says those not burdened by this theory often have

problems as well, particularly if they don't have any firsthand

experience with mourning. He claims that a considerable portion of the

populace lives in "the world's first death-free generation" because

many don't experience a close personal loss until they're in their

forties or fifties -- and when these shocks finally come, they're

unprepared to deal with them.

"That's why I do outreach," he says. "I don't buy into the philosophy

that we sit back and wait. I believe in the role of advocacy in

bereavement counseling."

In other words, anyone certain he doesn't need grief counseling

probably needs it very, very badly. But this opinion isn't universally

held. No scientific consensus has been reached regarding the value of

grief counseling, debriefing or its various affiliates, but

controversial data is surfacing that suggests it may do more good for

outsiders wanting to help than it does for the mourners themselves.

Little of this info is coming from the United States, where relatively

few studies expressing reservations about grief counseling and

debriefing have stirred waves; only a modest splash was made by a 1998

report by New York psychologist George Bonanno showing that grievers

who continually share their distress with others tend to have more

difficulty coping than do less demonstrative types -- a blow to the

if-it's-kept-inside-it-will-fester supposition. But researchers and

thinkers in other countries have taken up the slack, foremost among

them Simon Wessely, a professor at London's Institute of Psychiatry

who's just published a survey of eight separate studies about

debriefing that reaches some damning conclusions.

"There is no evidence that single session individual debriefing

reduced psychological distress nor prevented the onset of post

traumatic stress disorder," Wessely wrote. "There was also no evidence

that debriefing reduced general psychological morbidity, depression or

anxiety. All the modern studies fail to show any advantage to


Even more disquieting were a pair of in-depth trials -- one looking at

patients at a Cardiff burn unit, the other focusing on victims of

traffic accidents in Oxford. In the former, Wessely reports,

post-traumatic stress disorder rates were higher for those who were

debriefed than for those who weren't; in the latter, no statistically

significant differences between the well-being of the counseled versus

the uncounseled were documented, with one exception: Visibly upset

victims who were debriefed were worse off than analogous subjects who

didn't receive this treatment.

Via e-mail, Wessely acknowledges that researchers haven't pinned down

the precise reasons for these results, but he's got no shortage of

hypotheses.  He speculates that debriefing, which is supposed to warn

individuals about the emotional responses they could experience, may

actually increase the occurrence of the symptoms by creating

expectations, thereby implying to impressionable sorts that they need

professional help when support from their network of family and

friends might actually be more beneficial. Even if these conjectures

prove to be inaccurate, however, he feels the scientific clues are

strong enough to warrant an immediate end to compulsory debriefing,

which may inoculate organizations against potential litigation but

also has "the capacity to do harm as well as good."

How likely is this to happen? Not very, as Wessely understands full

well. He knows that most therapists believe strongly in the worth of

grief counseling and debriefing, guessing that many of them are drawn

to these arenas because of what he terms "the glamour of

disasters. They are exciting, and can be a lot more interesting than

the often tedious routine of mental-health work."  Money, he believes,

isn't nearly as much of a motivator: "I think pecuniary motives are

less relevant.

Tana Dineen couldn't disagree more. A licensed psychologist living in

Canada, she stopped seeing patients in 1993 after more than twenty

years because "I view it to be unethical to practice when so many

bogus ideas are being sold to people." Since then, she's remade

herself as arguably the planet's preeminent psychotherapy critic via

her book Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing

to People, first published in 1996, and regular columns in the Ottawa

Citizen. "I think that as a society, we've just bought into this idea

that we need experts to fix anything," she says, "and grief is

something that we've come to view as needing to be fixed. So we pour

money into fixing it, even though these technologies don't have a

basis to them.

"I saw progressively more people calling me or coming to the office

who had the idea that they needed help, and they'd gotten the idea by

listening to a TV show the night before where some therapist was on

talking about how if you don't handle your grieving properly, you'll

never get on with your life.  That presents the idea that there are

therapists who know the right way to do it, when we don't know the

right way. But instead of admitting that, we make people helpless to

help each other, and turn something that's often entirely natural into

a medical-sounding problem."

That, Dineen adds, expands the market for professional grief

counselors. Yet she doesn't reserve her bile for people who make a

living doing grief work; she also chastises charitable organizations

that support and promote it, charging that they do so in part because

it's become such a reliable magnet for donations. She's especially

critical of the Canadian Red Cross, which got out of the

blood-collection business, previously one of its primary functions,

following confirmation in 1997 that hemophiliacs had contracted HIV

and hepatitis C from transfusions. In a column the following year,

Dineen suggested that the organization was hyping its grief-counseling

component in order to prevent its cash flow from ebbing.

"They were nearing bankruptcy," she says, "so they shifted their focus

to grief counseling, which was very popular at the moment, and gave

people the idea that they were doing something to help. So instead of

sending something practical to disaster scenes, like blood and

blankets and the things the Red Cross is known for, their priorities

are now being shifted into these phony 'helping' services, which is

absurd -- an incredible waste of money and resources.

"What we have now," she continues, "is a large industry that basically

thrives by getting more and more customers -- and the way you get more

customers is to expand the concept of who is grieving. And you can

expand it seemingly endlessly. We've reached the point where you just

have to have heard of somebody dying. You don't even have to have

known them anymore."In Dineen's view, the mental-health response in

the aftermath of Columbine ably illustrates her point.The outpouring

of donations to a plethora of charitable sources after the shooting

was staggering: The pile ultimately exceeded $9 million, topping the

hauls raked in following any other tragedy, according to an April 19

Rocky Mountain News article. The Healing Fund, operated by the United

Way, took in about half that total -- $4.6 million -- and when

divvying it up, the organization gave the largest check, over

$775,000, to the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, which used it and

other monetary sources to broaden the scope of its services to an

unprecedented degree.

Before long, the center was issuing national press releases at a

steady clip that hadn't slowed a full year after the original attack:

An April 26 missive was headlined "Mental Health Professionals in

Jefferson County Concerned About Release of Columbine Videotapes,"

while a May 4 salvo announced "Jefferson County Organizations

Concerned About Reporting of Suicides in the Media." Meanwhile, grants

funded operations such as S.H.O.U.T.S. (Students Helping Others Unite

Together Socially), a teen center that precious few teens ever visited

(it's since closed its doors), plus the hiring of a batch of

additional counselors to treat 4,800 locals between May and December

1999 alone.

Nevertheless, representatives of a Columbine task force formed at the

behest of Governor Bill Owens (including Jefferson Center head

Dr. Harriet Hall) believed that even more Coloradans were in need of

assistance: In August 1999 they requested $3.9 million for additional

mental-health funding, which they wanted to make available to an

estimated 3,701 Columbine students, teachers and others at high risk;

17,952 Jefferson County residents and/or students at other schools in

the moderate-risk category; and, at low risk, anyone in the state who

may have been traumatized by either media coverage or an excess of


These predictions may seem extreme, but they reflect the thinking of

most grief-counseling proponents contacted by Westword, who believe

that even people who experience grief by association can have

complicated responses that may not surface for months or even years

and could well require therapy. But Governor Owens wasn't sold, and he

reacted to the totals with a memorable sound bite: "The people who

need their heads examined are the people who wrote this report," he

was quoted as saying. "The class of people most at risk from this

report are the taxpayers."

Appropriately chastened, the task force backed down, leaving the

Jefferson Center to moderate its wish list. But its current plan,

which is slated to take it through June 2003, remains ambitious:

Clinical services vice president Jo Anne Doherty says $1.6 million has

been budgeted for Columbine-related services alone. Of that amount,

$500,000 or so is supposed to come from the philanthropic community,

and with $300,000 already in the center's coffers, there's a strong

possibility that the goal will be met.

When asked if this level of funding will be sufficient, Doherty

describes it as "a loaded question" before saying, "We have

prioritized, and it's our hope that this amount plus benefits through

victim's compensation funds, health insurance and other resources will

address the highest priority needs.

"But that's assuming there won't be any other incidents in the

community that re-traumatize people," she warns. "Columbine was

different than Oklahoma City, where there was the bombing and then

that was it for the most part. Here, there's been a number of serious

traumatic events that have happened in the last year or so -- and if

there are more, we don't know what our needs will be."

No doubt these events would be televised -- but could such broadcasts

traumatize someone so badly that they'd need grief counseling? The

Institute of Psychiatry's Wessely has a one-word answer: "Aaargh."Alan

Wolfelt bristles at such dismissals. He knows that getting in touch

with one's grief works wonders from countless sessions with patients

and, perhaps even more important, from his own life.As Wolfelt tells

it, he began his personal grief odyssey when he was thirteen, after

the death of a friend from leukemia. "Adults often assume that

children are too young to understand about these things. In a sense,

then, I was a forgotten mourner. So I sought to understand my own

experience" by, among other things, mowing lawns for three years at a

cemetery near his home in Indiana.

He says that although he ate lunch each day while sitting on a

different tombstone, "I wasn't weirdly obsessed with death. I played

baseball, too."  Still, he wrote his mission statement for what would

become the Center for Loss at age sixteen and published his first

book, Helping Children Cope With Grief, just three years later. Then,

after completing coursework for a medical degree at Indiana's Ball

State University and performing a residency at the Mayo Clinic, he

moved to Colorado, where he'd fantasized about opening a facility

dedicated to helping people with their grief -- and there turned out

to be so many of them that he was able to settle onto his own personal

mountain in just a couple of years.

By now, most of his dreams have come true: Not only does he have a

gorgeous home, which he shares with his wife, Sue (a family

physician), and three healthy children, but he's able to meet with

hundreds of people all over the continent each month and preach the

gospel of his personal bereavement model, which he refers to as

"companioning" -- a kinder, gentler approach to counseling in which

the caregiver bears witness to suffering without attempting to stuff

it into any specific clinical pigeonhole. According to an article he

wrote for a newsletter put out by Connecticut's Association for Death

Education and Counseling, whose mushrooming membership bears witness

to the growth of grief therapy as a whole, companioning is about

"curiosity; it is not about expertise...learning from others; it is

not about teaching them...walking alongside; it is not about

leading...being present to another person's pain; it is not about

taking away the pain..."

Wolfelt's also become a powerful proponent of the funeral business,

writing columns in numerous industry publications, including The

Director. He thinks funeral services are extremely important in

helping people come to terms with death. "A lot of people tell their

loved ones, 'I don't want a funeral when I die' -- but what does it

say to kids if, after you die, they just get rid of you?"

A cynic would say that's the kind of thinking that warms a

casket-maker's heart, but Wolfelt doesn't care -- or if he does, he's

not going to let that stop him. Indeed, the relentless promotion of

the grief-counseling concept that he and his ideological cousins have

maintained seems to be wearing down the opposition. For instance,

Time, the very magazine that bruised Wolfelt last year, put in its

September 4 issue a joint review of three books aimed at helping

children grieve (including Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in

Times of Loss, Grief, and Change, by Colorado author Barbara Coloroso)

that was generally positive and only the slightest bit snippy.

Detractors remain, but Wolfelt is confident that his ideas will

eventually win the day; he sees his pro-counseling philosophy

branching out from Colorado, and the Center for Loss in particular,

like vines in his grief-gardening model. And when they take root,

everyone will finally realize that mental health can be achieved only

by confronting sadness, not fleeing from it. "People say to me, 'Isn't

what you do depressing?'" he admits. "But it's really more about

opening up your heart and supporting people who can then go on to hope

for the future.

"What I've learned," he says, "is that grief gives you an appreciation

for the joy of life."


Copyright 2000 New Times Inc.
@ Dr.Tana Dineen