GRIEF, AWARENESS, AND HOLISTIC EDUCATION
For educators involved in holistic engagement, the classroom is a place to bring conversations about our whole selves to bear. But this begins with the faculty members modeling such behavior. A brief story speaks to the point. In was late March 2014. I woke up at 6 a.m. and found several missed calls on my phone, enough to draw my attention. Something was wrong. When I spoke with my younger brother, he explained to me that our father, who by this point was not a young man, had passed away while sleeping in the middle of the night. We both had a good cry, reflected, and got off the phone. By this time, it was 7 a.m. Dad had been sick for years, so the news did not come as a surprise. Still, it is not the stuff that leaves someone ready to teach on a college campus, especially if one is using a didactic pedagogy. A more traditional lecture-based approach asks one to teach with the head in a way that is often removed from our experience of emotion, of the whole self. Holistic engagement, on the other hand, opens a space for a different kind of a conversation involving “the experiences of the individual's body, mind, heart, and spirit.” My heart said for me to go teach as my father had done. So I followed that instinct, and it would guide the class session.
Thus, by 11:30 a.m., 4 hours later, I walked into my Field Practicum II class for undergraduate students in internship. Those in the field practicum class are students I have taught for years now. Many are involved in field placements with elderly people in health care settings, youth in schools, and everyone in between. Yet, at one point or another, they all must cope with questions about illness and even death. And to do so effectively, we all have to make sense of our own feelings, history, and responses to death; in other words, we have to handle our own “stuff” (Garfield, 1978; Garfield & Spring, 1995). For us to be effective caregivers and providers, it is important that we have made sense of our own understandings of death (Garfield & Spring, 1995; Shepard, 1997).
So, we all circled up and I told everyone what had happened to my father and that we would have a more reflective class discussion for the next 75 minutes. We talked about how we cope with pain and loss, as well as revel in the people who have been good to us through the years. Some students talked about loved ones who had passed. Others reflected on other kinds of pain they had experienced and the ways they did or did not confront it, or the pain of loss and trauma. There were plenty of issues shared. But more than this, I was different in the classroom, more open, more interested in hearing and being in the listening process while students felt like it was a time for them to be honest and make sense of their lives without judgment, to be better people, better human beings, not just better students. Many talked about those people who had helped them along the way.
I recalled some ofthe lessons my Dad—a former lawyer, college professor, and ordained minister—brought to my teaching. “Ask students to help each other out if someone is struggling during a discussion,” Dad explained after my first day of teaching, starting me down the road toward the use of dialogue as opposed to lectures in the classroom. And so the students and I talked about lessons for coping, including spirituality, social support, and a sense of humor, all of which can be considered part of a framework for meaning creation and struggle, as Viktor Frankl (1963), a survivor of the Holocaust camps, so eloquently described. The ability to connect is one of the skills necessary to survive catastrophes such as AIDS, abuse, or similar struggles. Frankl suggested that those who forged tight bonds had a much better chance of surviving the concentration camps. Yet, Frankl's lessons are relevant for everyone surviving and coping with the inevitable losses and struggles of modern living.
Finishing the class, a few of the students discussed what we had done. Some talked about the use of spirituality as a strength in social work practice. Others spoke directly to me.
“First of all, I would like to start off by saying, I am truly sorry for your loss,” noted one student. “Secondly, I pray your father is resting in peace. Lastly, today was truly a touching moment and thank you for showing us that we as human service professionals, doesn't matter rain or shine, we have to endure the reality, digest it, and go on with our life. Thank you for coming today, I hope you will have the time to be with your entire family. Stay strong.”
The class turned out to be one of the most powerful days I have ever had as an educator. And much of it was born from bringing the whole self, a different depth and vulnerability, into the classroom and opening up the space for different forms of knowledge creation. A transformative learning environment is one in which we learn from each other (Freire, 2000).