Sunday, January 06, 2008

Rethinking Life After Death

Life Continues

As the ghosts in Hades presented themselves to Odysseus, one in particular stood out from the rest. It was his mother, Anticlea. There, in the land of the dead, Odysseus finally realized that he had been absent from his family’s life for nearly fifteen years. The grief gripped him in a powerful way. He inquired of his mother the condition of his home in Ithaca and of his wife and son. He had a strong desire to know how his father was faring and the manner of his mother’s death. As his mother relayed the news from home, the Greek king fell into agony, understanding that to his family he was thought dead and that he had missed out on much of life.

When we stop to visit the graves of the loved ones that have passed on before us, it is difficult not to consider the living we have done since their passing. Births, graduations, marriages, and other major life events come and go, with the deceased individual apparently missing it all. This can provoke very powerful feelings of sorrow in those who are still here. It is no different for adolescents who lose someone special.

A student who loses a beloved grandmother, for instance, might have a difficult time around holidays, knowing that life’s customs and traditions are taking place without her presence. Another, experiencing the death of a close friend, may struggle with feelings of grief or guilt after winning an important basketball game. A teen whose mother has died could experience serious emotional pain during her senior prom, knowing that her mother would have loved to see the color and style of her prom dress. The dragon that stalks all these students, constantly struggling with the things they know their loved one is missing, is known as Despair.

How can we work with students who are grieving because they have come to the realization that their lives are continuing without the presence of someone they loved? What can make a difference in their lives?

One of the most crucial things we can do is to pay attention to the student who has lost someone special. Watch their behavior and interaction with other students, especially around times of the year and during events that may have been significant to the one that died. Does the student seem sad or cry easily? Is he unusually irritable or angry toward his friends? Do you notice that he is quiet, almost trying to disappear? These can all be clues as to the inner conflicts of the heart.

If you should happen to become aware of such changes in behavior or attitude, address it as soon as possible. Be a listening ear if students are comfortable discussing their struggles with you. Sometimes simply talking about the feelings one is experiencing can be very cathartic.

Art therapy works well in grieving situations, as well. Try having a student draw the things they wish the person who died could have experienced. Writing a letter to the deceased, describing what they have missed, can be very freeing to the young person who is grieving. Letters or artwork can be placed at the gravesite or similar memorial. Be creative. Try to empathize with the adolescent—put yourself in their shoes. The dragon of Despair would want a young heart to wrestle with these issues alone and in isolation. This beast can be slain by affording students an opportunity to share their pain with others, thus ultimately freeing the spirit to begin living again.

Odysseus, still in Hades, met his old ally Achilles, the mightiest of the Greek warriors. The hero, now a resident of the underworld, asked Odysseus for news of his family and whether or not his name was still remembered in the lands of Greece. Odysseus could not supply him with this information, but he was able to tell the ghost the tale of his son, Neoptolemus, and his heroic endeavors on the field of battle. Upon hearing this news, the great Achilles swelled with pride and went off along a meadow, now at peace.

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