In the Circle: Shared Grief is Half the Grief

A few weeks ago in Ohio, several of the teachers I was coaching raised a concern I've heard before. It's about handling student emotions in a circle. "Was it safe to raise emotional issues in a circle?" these teachers asked "After all, they weren't therapists."

I'm not trained as a therapist either, I explained. Also, circles aren't necessarily about raising emotions. Having said that, though, I think it's in important to keep in mind that we all experience feelings, some of them more pleasant than others. It's part of what it means to be human. 

And so in circles, sooner or later, feelings are going to come up, whether we, as keepers, ask about them or not. Sometimes what people need more than anything is a listening ear, someone to be present as they talk through a challenging experience.  We want to know we're not alone.  In this way, the circle process can be reassuring and comforting; it can be therapeutic without it being therapy.

As it happened, the students we were with later that day demonstrated this in a powerful way.

The circle process is powerful, transformative at times, but it can also be challenging and time-consuming. For teachers, sharing of themselves in a circle with students can be uncomfortable. Many also worry that the circle process will open up upsetting personal issues students are facing—issues that they as teachers aren't prepared to handle. They aren't trained therapists, after all (nor am I). 

Yet in my experience, adults who are courageous enough to try the process despite these concerns often discover for themselves why circles are worth the discomfort and time. I've facilitated circles for almost a decade, and I've learned to trust the circle and the people participating in it to address the worries and concerns that we bring to the process.

I was asked to facilitate a circle with a group of 6th grade students and staff.  As a group, they were relatively new to circles so I gave them a quick overview and used the poem The Invitation by Shel Silverstein as the opening ceremony.  I explained that in circles, everyone is invited - the dreamers, the pretenders, the liars. And every part of everyone is invited - the good, the bad and the ugly - because we all have those sides to us. Some days we're putting forward our best selves, and we might be kind and generous.  Other days we're not feeling up to it, and we may display an uglier version of ourselves. 

I invited students to share in several go rounds about how they considered themselves to be dreamers, pretenders and/or liars. The students took it to the next level almost immediately. One student shared that she sometimes pretends that her grandmother is sitting next to her. Her grandmother died last year and she misses her deeply. So she pretends her grandmother is still here, sometimes, and she talks to her. Her sadness was palpable and she clearly affected others in the circle who took her lead and opened up, many talking about loss in their lives. One of the students was in tears as she shared. Her friend grabbed a box of tissues and put her hand on her friend's shoulder, trying to ease her pain.

Some students talked about parents and grandparents they'd lost. A student shared that she'd held her baby brother in her arms the day he was born. He didn't make it through one day of life. Another student talked about the twins in her mother's belly who had died. Yet her mother survived. She was so grateful - it seemed to have been a close call. The girl's fears about her mother's survival came out through the relief and gratitude she expressed in our circle. By the time the talking piece came back to me, sadness had filled the room. There were students reaching out to friends and neighbors. The girls who had been sharing tears and tissues were laughing loudly by now, a somewhat uncomfortable laughter, perhaps an effort to push away the tears. 

I acknowledged the feelings of grief, loss and loneliness in the room. I also shared how in Holland we have a saying, "Shared joy is double the joy and shared grief is half the grief." The girl next to me had reflected earlier on how the circle is different from other spaces at school, how we sit differently, and how it is a kind of "community." I used that word as I shared the Dutch proverb: In circle, we build relationships and connections with each other so that we can be in community and support each other. 

The next go round was about being liars, and I shared that sometimes I lie about how I'm doing. I say that I'm fine and pretend that I am, when deep down inside I'm not. It's just that sometimes I don't want to talk about it, so I lie, I pretend. I saw a lot of nodding and several students shared that they do that too. Students shared the kind of things they try to hide when they pretend they're okay. When the talking piece came back to me, I once again acknowledged the feelings in the room. 

One student shared that he's afraid for his grandfather, who has prostate cancer.  Another shared she was afraid for her mother, who was sick. As I initiated a go round of thoughts, reflections, and connections, the sharing of loss continued. One student shared how when her grandma died, it had happened suddenly. She had to go to the hospital to say goodbye. Her friend's birthday party was that same day and she couldn't reach her friend to let her know she was going to have to miss it. When her friend found out, the party was moved so that the girl in our circle could attend. I was able to draw on that when it was time for us to start wrapping up our circle. 

It had been a circle filled with sadness, pain and loss. But it had also been a circle in which students had been able to connect, and generously gave of themselves by listening fully and with compassion. I asked students to think about what the friend had done in moving her birthday party. I also pointed to the girls with the box of tissues reaching out to each other and students bearing witness and waiting their turn. These are all things that can help us. As a community, we can be there for each other, when we get sad.

As we closed up the circle, I asked what other things we could do to support each other when we're struggling, when we're going through hard times. It was beautiful: students talked about being kind, about being each other's friend, about forgiveness, and about stepping in to stop mean behaviors. They were open and kind, and strongly connected to each other. 

I ended with the "well of confidentiality." We all reached our left hand into the center of the circle, creating a "well." I invited students to hold everything we had talked about in their right hand, and then to symbolically drop it into the well. This is where the things we'd talked about would stay. 

Afterward, several students came up to me to say how relieved they felt, how important it had been for them to share what they had shared. It was like a weight had been lifted. Some said they'd shared things in the circle that they had never told anyone before. Their classmates in the circle had given them solace, eased their pain, and helped make them feel part of a caring community.