By: Theresa Hasting, LMHC, Clinical Supervisor
As students come and go in waves, I have seen an upsurge in students experiencing complicated grief issues. Mostly recently, I’ve worked with four students within a six month period who have experienced the loss of a parent; through long-term sickness, suicide, and unexpected accidental death. What these students have in common is they had not previously experienced their grief and instead turned to unhealthy coping skills to express their emotional responses. Each of these students had experienced this loss several years prior to their enrollment at Pacific Quest.
As we work with each student in their journey, we have many tools for the expression and healing of grief. One of the most successful interventions for this is using nature. Through the life and death cycle of plants in the garden, students can safely relate their own experience. As students explore this cycle in the safety of the garden, they are also working to care for the land and given tasks of nurturing untended garden beds. Through this nurturance they are able to find a motivation for self-nurturance, which allows the defensive walls to tumble down, exposing the vulnerabilities they have covered with maladaptive coping skills and letting out their anguish.
Once in this place of vulnerability, we further utilize our setting to process and memorialize their experience. Students have created memorial beds, worked in the compost, and used ceremony/Rites of Passage as ways to concretely mark their process. In additional to the work on the land, I have seen tremendous work happen around grief in our Sandplay trays, where students are able create their inner experiences using symbols and the sand, where words have previously failed them. Having personally witnessed these students, it is amazing to me, each time, the healing power students are able to access through their work in nature and in relation to others as they let it out and let it go.