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Supporting the Grieving


KLeigh.HeadshotRobert Frost wrote in his lyric poem, The Road Not Taken,“I took the road less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Our guest, Korie Leigh, a certified child life specialist and certified thanatologist, knows that choice well. She began working in a traditional setting. Then, responding to inner callings, she chose to focus on end of life and grief, in nontraditional settings. Currently in private practice, Korie also teaches at the graduate level, conducts research, and writes.

Let’s be honest, dying and death are hard topics to discuss and even harder to face. We become uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say or how to act. Yet, as my mother, a nurse by profession and a pragmatist by nature, would point out, “we’re born knowing we’ll die.” She knew how to be with the dying and the grieving, how to bear witness to their grief without being undone by it.

Korie Leigh does too. She grew so passionate about supporting the grieving that she earned a MA in thanatology, the study of death and dying. Currently a doctoral candidate in integral and transpersonal psychology, her dissertation focuses on “legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings.” Her professional journey is a series of passionate responses to her deeply felt sense of the purposefulness in her life.

She begins with a quote,

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put into every heart” –Rumi

From the time I was a young child I knew I wanted to work in the helping profession. At the age of seven, I recall sharing with my second grade teacher my desire to be a counselor with “sick kids”. Little did I know that this inner calling, this deep knowing, would lead me on a career path that would define my life’s purpose. The path would be filled with obstacles unknown, immense joy that filled my soul, and such sadness and pain that struck deep within the core of my existence. 

Along this path, I completed my BA in child life at Wheelock College in Boston, MA. With a passion for music and the expressive arts, I was constantly trying to push the limits of the traditional role of a child life specialist. Every practicum, internship, or placement I sought to challenge existing norms, asked hard questions, and fought to broaden the scope of child life. Though I had a handful of mentors, I generally encountered great resistance and was told over and over again that the role of a child life specialist was to “first and foremost be a play lady”.

Is play important? Yes. Is it how children learn, grow, and express? Yes. Is it an integral tool for children coping with stress, illness, and tragedy? Yes. Is it the core of child life?  In my opinion, No. And I would soon find out that this core, which at first I only intuitively understood, is so much more than play alone.

Soon after I began working my first position as a CCLS in intensive care settings, I was faced with an unusually high level of death and loss. And yet, during my internship, I was the only student from my class that never experienced the death of a patient. Frankly, I was not interested in death and end of life. However, I ended up working with the most medically fragile children in the hospital, an experience that makes me recall the saying, “sometimes our soul knows what we want before our hearts and heads do”.  During this short time on the intensive care unit, I experienced upwards of four to seven deaths a week within the first few months. During this emotional time, I came to realize that not only was I interested in working with death and grief, I was deeply passionate about doing so. Yet I was ill equipped at the time to deal with the magnitude of loss and suffering I encountered – not just with parents and siblings, but also with my own relationship to death and loss.

I left my ICU position and enrolled in a Thanatology Masters degree program at City University of New York, Brooklyn. Thanatology is the study of death and dying and thus, I spent three years immersed in these highly sensitive and culturally taboo topics. Concurrent with this program, I held a variety of traditional child life positions, working in a one-person program at a hospital in Queens, NY, then in hematology/oncology at a hospital in Manhattan. After completing my degree and successfully passing the CT (certified thanatolgoist) exam, I left the traditional field of child life and embarked on a new path – hospice and palliative care.

Working as a bereavement counselor in a city-wide hospice agency, I was profoundly impacted by the nature of my profession. During my time tending to the end of life needs of patients’ families, I began to understand the ‘core of child life’ that I had struggled to articulate in positions past. The core was uncovering itself and leading me to realize that child life is not limited to hospital walls, pediatric patients, or even medical experiences. Rather, this core is rooted in empathy, unconditional positive regard, the ability to bear witness to suffering, and the self awareness to hold space while placing my own agenda, beliefs, and values aside for the sake of true emotional expression.

Shortly after I began working in adult hospice, I moved to California to pursue my dream career of working at a pediatric palliative care facility. There I held a dual position as a child life specialist and bereavement coordinator. However, as life had shown me in the past, our souls know far deeper and sooner what we desire than do our heads and hearts. While pursuing this deeply meaningful and passionate work, I began to experience a longing to contribute to the larger field of child life and find ways to legitimize our profession beyond the walls of medical facilities through research and scholarship. Thus, I enrolled in a PhD program in Transpersonal Psychology.

Transpersonal psychology is a holistic field dedicated to acknowledging the full scope of human experience. This scope, for me, includes examining experiences of suffering, trauma, grief, and the subsequent processes of post traumatic growth, meaning making, and spiritual growth that result from such experiences. During this time I experienced a flood of personal, professional, and spiritual growth. It challenged my comfort zone, shifted deeply held assumptions and beliefs, and led me to embark on a new journey in private practice.

Working in private practice did not come easy. In fact it took me nearly four years to develop my practice enough to have a steady client population. While focusing on childhood grief and loss, I also work with children, adults, and families experiencing a host of stressful life transitions. I also began lecturing at the graduate level to child life, early childhood, infant mental health, and special education students at Mills College, in Oakland, CA.

I currently work as an assistant adjunct professor, internship supervisor, and academic advisor to the graduate child life students at Mills College. Some of the courses I teach include The Hospitalized Child, Childhood Grief & Loss, and History & Theories of Play. I still see clients in my practice and am always finding new ways to reach out to the community to provide child life and grief counseling. I am now in the final stages of my dissertation process on the topic of legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings, and will defend my research in the early fall of 2016.

Throughout my 10+ years of child life and grief work, I feel blessed to be constantly learning from and growing with the children and families I work with. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the countless opportunities I have been offered to walk along side and companion parents and siblings through their grief. I have much to say about grief, loss, compassion, and the human capacity to share pain and grief with others. For now, I will leave you with these thoughts.

1. Grief is a journey, not a destination. What we, as a western culture, understand about grief is often wrong. And through its wrongness, we continue to disenfranchise and silence millions of grievers, children especially. The notion that grief comes in stages, phases, or tasks for that matter is helpful for our desire to make sense of and compartmentalize an experience which by its very nature is unpredictable and intense. But these stages, phases, or tasks can also limit our understanding of the grief experience.

2. The death of a loved one fundamentally changes you. The notion that you can ‘go back to normal’ or simply ‘move on’ after a death is not accurate. There are of course ways by which we can integrate and make sense of death and loss, but simply going back to what was is not a realistic goal for this process.

3. Childhood grief looks different and lasts longer than adult grief. Due to the unique aspects that development plays in a child’s ability to understand the finality of death, the grief process of children is constantly evolving. As children reach new cognitive and personal understandings of death, they must revisit their loss and their grief in new and unfolding ways. This happens over the course of a lifetime. As children reach and meet new milestones, so too they must integrate and make sense of their loss.

4. Be a companion-not an advice giver. For those of us who support and love others in our lives who are experiencing death and loss, one of the best things we can do is walk along side our friends and peers in their grief. Grief and the process of grieving needs to be witnessed, held, and honored with respect. Provide a safe space for peers and loved ones to feel what they need to feel, without judgment or the advice to “move on”. Some of the most hurtful experiences bereaved parents tell me are the little comments that friends or family say, such as “God needed another angel”, “he/she’s in a better place”, or even “you can always have another child”. If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I can see you are really hurting now. I don’t know what to say. Can I sit here with you and hold your hand?”

5. There is no right way to grieve, only your way. We are constantly flooded with information about how to grieve. Whether it be through cultural or religion norms, we have programmed ourselves to limit our grief expression. If someone is not crying, there must be something wrong. If someone is crying too much, there must be something wrong. If someone is struggling, there must be something wrong. If someone is not struggling enough, there must be something wrong. We, in this western culture, have made a habit out of shaming others into believing they are not grieving the right way, when in fact there is no right way. There is only your way, with your heart, your culture, your expression, and your coping tools. We need greater permission to allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel, and provide one another with the space and tools to do so.

Korie Leigh offers services for professionals, from trainings and presentations to self-care workshops and retreats and both child life and bereavement and grief services to individuals and families. Her passion for expressive arts and knowledge of holistic practices, allow Korie to incorporate the arts, mindfulness, guided imagery, and Reiki into her practice. And she makes home visits! She understands the challenges families face in getting to appointments and recognizes they feel safest and most comfortable in their own home. That’s proof of her compassion and commitment to service. www.expressive-coping.com.

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