Engaging in conversation about grief, bereavement and loss with young people always surfaces a multitude of considerations and feelings for me as an educator, youth advocate, and therapist. Over the course of my tenure in education, I have seen the beautiful growth beyond trauma that is possible when structural opportunities for our humanity are created; spaces such as circles that allow for our students to be seen and felt within the school day. And still: regardless of the number of circles I’ve held after the loss of a community member, I worry about my ability to show up at the right time, in the right ways.
Depending on my proximity to the loss a school has experienced and my proximity to the time of that experience, I wade through varying degrees of fear at the thought of creating an experience for young people that doesn’t induce even more harm. Along with fear and a deep sense of responsibility, being a part of my school community’s collective and individual healing journey brings me incredible gratitude. Facilitating a what some call a talking circle for young people as a means towards healing through bereavement requires an artful balance of hard skill (e.g., the choreography, design, script, facilitation methods) and ways of being (e.g., presence, response, intuition, discernment).
With that said, in my experience, facilitating a circle well and with integrity means that one must be able to navigate firmness and boundaries, a commitment to safety on a micro level, and steadiness, all while leading with a soft heart and tongue. It requires diligence to detail (firm!) and trusting the process (soft!). With this being said, the only way to embody this tension is through holding it with attunement and reflection in regards to the many needs of the circle. These needs include what arises for me as an educator personally and professionally (even if I’m leading the circle, I might be grieving, too).
The following are guideposts I’ve learned along the way as an educator when supporting students processing loss in schools through circles:
- Establish and Maintain Safety. Safety is a precursor to any authentic, honest and transformative sharing. As the primary facilitator of a talking circle after loss, and possibly, as the only adult in the room, I see it as my responsibility to protect the emotional and physical safety of our circle members at all times. Creating group agreements, discussing what will happen if those agreements aren’t upheld and being transparent and instructional when I see safety breaches within the circle is critical to establishing and maintaining trust and safety.
- Ensure Consent. There is so much within a young person’s day that they don’t have control over; being a part of a circle after experiencing loss should definitely not be one of those times (meaning, the circle should be an offering, not a demand). Allowing students to choose to be a part of something as intimate and personal as a talking circle that processes loss is integral to creating meaningful partnership and participation in the circle; indeed voice and choice is a living practice of trauma informed principles. Watching for signs of verbal and non-verbal resistance throughout the circle is important as is allowing for an honorable out at any point within the duration of the circle.
- Allow for multiple entry points and ways of engagement. The use of song, poetry, quotes, journaling and art have served as powerful tools that encourage reflective thinking as well as support youth in accessing language that is authentic to what they might be experiencing. Not all students or young people want to talk (or can talk) about the bereavement they are holding; as a facilitator, I think about creating other ways of expression beyond the verbal to process bereavement. Sometimes it’s sitting in silence.
- Intentional Self-Disclosure. Knowing when and how much of my own grieving and grief journey to share has taken me some time to figure out; it has been a journey of trial and error. Personal sharing can be invaluable in building rapport, exposing my own humanity, communicating care and modeling possible ways of contributing to a circle. It is important to give some attention to why you are sharing before determining what and when to share. Practicing discernment, in what way of personal experience, you share is necessary. As much as it is always my intention to communicate the many ways I stand in solidarity with my students, as facilitator of the circle, the circle is not for me, it is for them. Though I benefit immensely from being in and holding the space, I have to center the young people in my circle over my own need to share and find spaces within my community where I am able to tend to my wounds.
Here are reflective questions I offer myself and you as colleagues in this bereavement work, questions to ask myself and yourself prior to holding space of others:
- Do I have the internal and external resources to hold space for others now?
- Who might I lean on for support if needed (e.g., do I have peers and adults in the school community to ensure I have a space to prepare or debrief my experience)?
- Who might I refer students to if their need is beyond my capacity?
- Who within the circle I am leading might need my physical and/or emotional proximity? Who do I need to keep a closer eye out for during the circle process?
- What community agreements do I already have within my practice, school community, school culture, or already existing circles that I can call into and/or re-establish in this specific space to support the processing of our loss?
Resources on facilitating Circles, “holding space” and other resources I’ve found that help me help my students processing loss:
- Virtual Grief Circles: A Hosting Guide from The Circle Way (The Circle Way, 2020)
- Circle process, 5 ways to effective processing of grief & trauma. (Miner, 2012)
- Holding liminal space (Plett, 2016)
- The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership (Plett, 2020)
- In the Circle: Shared Grief is Half the Grief (van Woerkom, 2016)
- Venet, Alex Shevrin (2019) “Role-Clarity and Boundaries for Trauma-Informed Teachers,” Educational Considerations: Vol. 44: No. 2. https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2175
- Curriculum: Introducing Talking Circles in the Classroom (Ides, 2010)
I am forever grateful for the deep love, grief, honesty, affirmation and celebration of life I have been allowed to witness and feel as a part of talking circles after loss with my students in our bereavement. These beautiful opportunities to honor life and share our truths have undoubtedly shaped who I am, in every realm of my life.