Grief Groups in School

Have you ever started a project...gotten completely overwhelmed and then decided you should just take a time out from the project?? You're not really giving up...just putting it on the back burner while you regroup??  Well that's how this post started!! Last year (yes...I took a yearlong timeout) I wrote Starting a Grief Group...but then I never wrote about how to actually have a grief group. Honestly I had so much I wanted to share about grief that it was overwhelming!! But I've got a whole day free...and a large let's do this!!

If you're like me then you've forgotten a lot since let's start with a quick refresher on grief.  Good Therapy provides a very brief overview of some of the different models of grief and some of the terminology associated with grief (example: disenfranchised grief, complicated grief, etc). Psycom provides a more detailed explanation of the five stages of grief according to the Kubler-Ross Model (probably the most common grief model referred to in counseling). Therapy Changes provides a detailed explanation of Worden's Four Tasks of Grieving (one of my favorite models). Wolfelt's Six Needs of Mourning are similar to Worden's Four Tasks of Grieving (making it another favorite of mine).

I also found an interesting article over Solution Focused Grief Counseling for Prolonged Grief. As a school counselor I use a lot of solution focused strategies, but I wouldn't normally use it for grief counseling. It's an interesting read with some good strategies for dealing with prolonged grief. Another common counseling method used in schools is CBT. The Australian Psychology Society has a short overview of CBT and grief counseling available here. If you're looking for a more in-depth look at CBT and grief counseling, then I suggest reading Malkinson's article here. Another really good read is an article by Wetherell discussing Complicated Grief Therapy as a New Treatment Approach. Now if your looking for an overview of grief counseling in schools, then I suggest reading the article written by Marino, Thornton, and Lange available here.

I know I just listed off a ton of articles, but you don't have to read them all. If you don't use solution focused strategies, then don't bother reading that article. If you don't use CBT strategies, then don't read those articles.  If you only have 10 minutes then I suggest reading Good Therapy, and my post on The Power of Reflection and Silence.

Now that we've reviewed grief, let's talk about some of my favorite resources/activities for grief counseling:

The resources above have wonderful activities for both individual and group counseling. Most of the activities I used in my grief group came from the first two resources. After all of my researching and reading, here's how I set up my grief group:

Session 1 
I normally want the first session of group to be fun so that the students want to come's all about first impressions!! I like to do some type of name game AND some type of get to know you activity. Depending on the students I might do 4 corners, cross the line, discussion beach ball, this or that, tennis ball name game, questions jenga, get to know you bingo, etc. There are so many options out there...find something that works for you or try something new for the fun of it!! It's always fun to try new things!!

Session 2
We started the second session with creating our group rules. I like to create a poster with the rules posted up in my room so they are visible any time we need to review them. I would suggest adding "pass" to the list of rules. I always allow students to pass if they don't feel comfortable answering a question. Normally students don't pass but it lets them know this is a safe place and I'll never push them to do something they don't want to do. After we created all of our group rules, we moved on to our activity for the day. I asked the students to pick 3 Apples to Apples cards that describe them. They each went around the circle and explained their cards to the other students. This activity helps us practice our group rules and it helps the students get in the habit of doing rounds. Rounds is when one person shares something and then everyone in the circle is provided an opportunity to respond to them. Then the next person in the group will share and the rounds continues. At the end of session 2, you should be able to determine how well the students are bonding. If they need to bond some more then I suggest doing a few more team building activities before moving on to session 3. By the end of session 2 my students literally said "When are we going to share why each of us is tell each other who died in our families??" So I knew we were ready to move forward with session 3...but don't feel pressured to move forward if your group isn't ready.

Session 3
We started session 3 with reviewing the group rules (I do this with every group session). Before we move on to today's activity, I like to take a moment to talk to the students about how grief shouldn't be compared and how every situation is different...but we can relate to each other through our grief. I then educate the students on how to reflect and support one another appropriately. I posted some reflecting sentence stems on the table to help guide them in our discussions. We then moved on to our activity "All About My Loved One" (p. 13-15).  The students filled out their paper and then we did group rounds. I always ask who would like to share first and normally someone volunteers.  By this point the students have gotten to know each other, trust each other a little bit, and are actually excited to share with each it shouldn't be hard to find a volunteer to talk. Each student goes around and shares 2-3 things about their loved one. I limit it to 2-3 things because some students will want to talk a lot and others will find it difficult to say more than 2 things about their loved one. Remember you don't know where they're at in the grief cycle...and you also don't know what their relationship was like with the person they lost.

Session 4
Memory Bracelets....such a great activity!! All of the students (but one) liked this activity. Two students had lost their loved one years ago...but they still had a lot to add to their bracelet. The only student who didn't like the activity didn't have any positive memories with the person. I was unaware of this but it brought on some good discussion in our rounds. Rounds involved each person talking about their this point in the group they're starting to get pretty good at rounds!
grief counseling

Session 5
This session is all about educating the students on the grief cycle. I provide each of them with a picture of the grief cycle and then I draw it on the board for them. I show them that it can be a complete mess. It goes up, then down, then around, then back down, then in a loop....just like a roller coaster (hints the group name-Roller Coasters). I then give each student a pipe cleaner and ask them to show me their personal cycle of grief. Before we start sharing, I remind the students about the reflection sentence stems on the table. I then ask for a volunteer to share their grief cycle and we move into rounds. I really enjoy simple activities that lead to powerful discussions, this is definitely one of them.

Session 6
The following week we reviewed the grief cycle...yes I like to do a short review each time. I then evenly distributed a set of grief emotional behavior cards (p. 23, 31-35) among the students. I told them to look at their cards and put a tally mark next to every feeling/behavior they've experienced. After a few minutes I tell them to pass their stack of cards to the right. They put a tally on their new set of cards and repeat the process until they've seen all of the cards. Then I ask the students to look through their stack of cards and determine which one has the most tally marks. We do our rounds again as each student shares the most common feeling/behavior from their stack. They talk about the feeling/behavior themselves and we have a little discussion. This activity helps the students see that they're not alone in their grief and that someone else understands how they feel. Note: at the end of the session collect all of the cards, you're going to need these for session 9.

Session 7
This session is all about My Bag of Feelings (p. 24, 31-35). I provided the students with feelings/behaviors associated with grief (the same cards as the last activity just reprinted for each student). I instructed them to take out any feelings/behaviors they haven't experienced and throw them in the trash. Then I said something like "Now look at your stack of cards. Even though we experience all of these feelings, we don't always show them or share them with others. Some feelings/behaviors we keep to ourselves and hide them from others...this normal. For this activity I want you to place the feelings you hide on the inside of your bag and the feelings you share on the outside of your bag." The students should have enough time to finish their bags but they probably won't have time to discuss the activity (save the discussion for the next session).

Session 8
We finished the My Bag of Feelings activity and I asked the students to share something about the outside of their bag first. After everyone has shared something about the outside of their bag, we moved on to the inside of their bag. I said "If your bag is stuffed inside then that means you've got a lot going on in your life which can be stressful and overwhelming. The more we have stuffed inside the harder life is. We need to find a way to express ourselves or dump out your bag a little bit. Is there a feeling on the inside you can share with the group today?" After our rounds, we talk about self-care and the importance of taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. The students do a self-care worksheet. At the end of the session, I gave each group member a hand written card from me. My supervisor recommended I write each student telling them how glad I was that they were in group, what they contributed to group (strengths), and what I hoped to see more of in the future (ways to improve). The entire note was positive...nothing negative!! The result....the cards worked wonders!! I had a student who hadn't spoken at all in group and it was starting to become an issue with the other group members. After the cards...they started talking!! Honestly the first time they talked I just sat in shock!! Another student started listening to others more and connecting with them on a more personal level instead of just wanting to tell their story all the time. And another student started diving into their grief more...and started opening up about things they'd been holding onto for years. Those cards were the best idea ever!!

Session 9
Remember those emotional/behavior cards I told you to hold onto in session 6?? Pull them back're going to need them. Before this session you're going to need to do some prep work. I went through the cards and picked out the cards with the most tally marks on them (count how many cards you have).  Now this is when you need to get creative....I made a big puzzle that was shaped like a heart (one puzzle piece for each card). On each puzzle piece I wrote one of the feelings/behaviors from the cards (my puzzle had 5 pieces).'re ready for group! When the students came in I gave each of them a piece of the puzzle. I asked them to write on their puzzle piece some advice for someone struggling with that feeling/behavior. I told them they could write tips, personal examples of success, self-care ideas, quotes, songs/lyrics to relate too, etc. Sometimes it's easier to think of advice for someone else than it is to think of advice for ourselves. The students did their rounds sharing their advice/tips. After the discussion, it's time to put the puzzle together.  Once they figured out it's a heart, we taped it together. I tell the students "Although our hearts have been broken by the losses we have experienced, together as a group we can heal." We keep the heart hanging up in the room as a reminder that we are all healing together. At the end of session 9, you should probably mention that the group is going to be coming to a close soon. You should always prepare students in advance if the group is going to be ending, it helps them transition.

Session 10
I call this session the question basket (p. 48, 59-60) (additional questions available here). I cut up a bunch of questions about grief and put them in a basket. The students take turns picking a question out of the basket and answering it...again by this point in group they're good at rounds/discussions. This can easily be 1 or 2 sessions depending on the how much time they take to answer the questions. This activity will kind of run itself...the students should be able to talk to each other easily, open up about their experiences, and relate to each other. I didn't really do anything in this session. They talked and it was amazing watching and listening to them. At the end don't forget to remind them that the group is ending soon.

Session 11
This session is titled Letting Go. I read the students an article about grief, guilt, and regrets (p. 20-21). I then ask the students to complete the Letting Go (p. 43-44, 49) worksheet. Rounds is a little different this week. One person shares, everyone is provided a chance to talk with that person, and then I wrap it up (I wrap it up before we move on to the next person). I wrap it up by asking the person if they're ready to let go of their guilt/regret or if they're going to hold onto it.  If they say they're ready to let it go, then I tell them to rip up their paper and throw it all away.  If they say they're not ready yet, then I say "that's fine if you're not ready now but I hope you can let go of it someday because it's painful to hold on to that guilt/regret." I also offer to meet with them after group if they'd like to work through it more one-on-one.  Once everyone has shared, then we finish with a closing activity. I gave each student a blanket with a little handout....they loved it!! I bought the blankets at Walmart for like $3 each and then sewed their names onto it...I love to personalize things. If that's to much work for you then you can always do the Grief Survival Kit as a closing activity.

Other Grief Activities To Try:

I hope you found this post helpful and that you feel a little more prepared to handle grief counseling. When in doubt just grab some resources/activities and go with it! 

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