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The Benefits of Gratitude

Ever found yourself recoiling from an off-handed comment to “Count your blessings,” or “Cultivate an attitude of gratitude?” If so, you are not alone. With the advent of the Thanksgiving holiday there will likely be a surge of advertisements and well-meaning people encouraging us to focus on what we are grateful for in our lives. This can be difficult to do on an average day filled with hassles and disappointments, never mind in the midst of grief. When someone you love dies, and everything feels wrong, it can seem nearly impossible to focus on what’s right in your world.

So, how do those who are grieving make sense of the disconnect between loss and gratitude? Is there any benefit to mustering the energy to be grateful while struggling with grief? While there is a long-standing tradition in the realms of literature, philosophy, and religion of painting gratitude as a virtue to be cultivated, gratitude as a subject of scientific inquiry is relatively new.

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Creative Ways to Connect

“How are you?” It’s a simple question that can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, never mind when in the grips of loss or other tragedy. Whether you hear it in the checkout line or from a dear friend, distilling your current experience into a simple answer can feel overwhelming and impossible. Knowing what else to say or ask can help us avoid the trap of asking those three habitual words that can spark anxiety and anger in those who are grieving. This isn’t to say that those who are grieving don’t want share about their experience or continue to connect with others. What it means is that crafting alternative ways to ask someone how they are doing can help ease the challenge inherent in answering that question.

So what to ask instead? It depends of course on your relationship with someone, but even with strangers, it can be helpful to inquire with something that departs from the norm. Rather than ask the person working at your local coffee shop, “How are you?” try out, “Anything out of the ordinary happen so far this morning?” or “What’s the most unusual drink you’ve made so far?” While families come to The Dougy Center knowing that it’s a place where people will make the time and space for them to truly answer the “How are you?” question, we know that having to answer it in passing, before they sit down for their actual group, can still feel distressing and confusing. That’s one of the reasons we train staff and volunteers to eschew “How are you?” when they greet children and families and say instead, “Nice to see you,” or notice something about what they are wearing, “Your boots are sparkly pink today!”

When you’re seeking to connect in a more profound way, there are a number of ways to invite people into conversations with more specific and possibly easier to tackle questions. Any question should of course be posed in a context of acceptance, and a willingness to be present with whatever is true for them, without fixing, dismissing, or minimizing their experience. Nothing shuts someone down quicker than hearing, “Oh, don’t feel that way,” “You need to focus on the positive,” or “Do you really think you should be going out and having fun at a time like this?” Instead, communicate that you are open and curious about the full spectrum of their grief. At The Dougy Center, we are working on a new Tip Sheet entitled, “25 ways to ask a grieving person “How are you, really?” without asking “How are you, really?” which will be available soon on our website. In the meantime, here are a few sneak-preview options for connecting on a deeper level with someone who is grieving.

  • Who or what did you want or need to avoid today?
  • What is most on your mind?
  • What do you wish your old self could tell you right now? What do you think your future self would tell you?

What’s been your experience either with asking or answering, “How are you?” while grieving? Visit our Facebook to share what else to ask (or not ask!).


At the Heart of our Program

As groups at The Dougy Center come to a close for the summer, we’d like to extend an enormous “Thank you!” to all of the volunteers who helped create safe places for children, teens, young adults, and their family members who are grieving a death. Since October, 2013, we’ve trained and placed 60 additional volunteer facilitators in our peer support groups. These new volunteers brought our total number of facilitators to 190! With the generous gifts of their time and energy, we are able to serve over 450 children and their 300 adult family members.

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The Legacy of Questions

In a recent group for children ages 6-12 who have had a parent die, we asked, “What questions do you have about how the person died?”

The answers ranged from philosophic wonderings about the nature of death—(“Why did this have to happen to me and not someone else?”)—to confusion about concrete details – (“I know my dad had cancer, but what exactly killed him? Was it the treatment or something wrong with his liver?”)  While sadness, anger, and anxiety are the emotions most commonly associated with grief, confusion and disbelief can be equally present for grievers of all ages. The questions that arise, moments and years after a death, vary greatly and often change over time. Some children want to know about the character and characteristics of the person who died. They have questions about dad’s favorite Thanksgiving food, mom’s friends growing up, their brother’s behavior as a baby, or sister’s dream vacation.

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