Loss & Leadership

Preparing Students to Serve When Someone Passes


For the first time in many students’ lives, they do not know what lies ahead. Indeed, the whole world does not know what lies ahead. Students are facing genuine possibilities that a family member, mentor, or friend will die because of COVID-19 and its complications.

DRAFT – prepared by David Keck

Conventional patterns of support and comfort are disrupted, and needs will be real.

What can we do to help students amid the needs of this time?

The Loss and Leadership program prepares students to serve others in times of grief. By equipping them to help others, it also strengthens them for those inevitable times when someone they love dies.

Our basic assumptions are:

* We can’t change the reality, but we can change the experience.

We cannot change the fact that a person has died, but we can influence the way others experience this death. We can listen. We can prepare something for others to eat. We can pray, sing, or write. We can assert the power of community amid the loneliness of loss.

* Even a little training can go a long way.

Something extraordinary happens when a person realizes that she has something to offer.

For example, sometimes we feel paralyzed when we feel like we don’t have the right words to say. But maybe what a grieving person needs is not our words, but an invitation: “I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. Can you tell me about her and what she meant to you?” The person may decline, or she might launch into a series of beloved memories.” Either way, she knows that the profound loss she is experiencing is being taken seriously, and someone is not afraid of tears and anguish.

Our three core concepts are:

* Self-Awareness

The more aware we are of our own ideas, feelings, and impulses, the more control we have over our behavior.

There’s an ancient story of a grieving person who wandered the earth in anguish until at last he came to a wise, compassionate person whose face did not add to his misery. When someone shares their anguish with me – what does my face look like? Am I relaxed, tender, and receptive? Or am I tense, or afraid? Was is listening attentively, or was I interrupting with my own stories?

* Servant leadership

What are my motives for serving? At what points am I being selfish?

There’s a story of a Catholic layperson who was deeply devoted to his priest, Father Michael. Father Michael had seen this person through many celebrations and crises, but he now had advanced dementia. The layperson went to visit him and asked, quite understandably, “Father, do you know who I am?” Father Michael replied, “Does it matter?” This forced the layperson to ask why he was there in the first place. Was he there because he didn’t want Father Michael to be alone, or was he there because he wanted Father Michael to know that he was there?

* Storytelling and story listening

We make sense of our lives through stories, and sometimes we need someone to listen so that we can tell the story that helps us get through the mess.

There’s a story (what else!) of a pastor who heard that a member of his congregation had died. He didn’t know any of the details, so he went to visit the widow. Along the way, he was thinking of all the things he would need to do (prepare the church, musicians, etc.), but he needed more information. When he arrived the widow started talking about going into the backyard earlier the day with her husband, how hot it was, how they thought her special lemonade might be a good idea, how she went to find the lemons and the juicer, and whether she had enough sugar. The pastor was getting more irritated – he needed the facts of the death so that he could start preparing the service. Then he realized that what she needed was to tell the story of her last hours with her husband.

Loss and Leadership builds on these basic assumptions and core concepts and introduces students to the ideas, skills, and practices that contribute to humanizing end-of-life care.

It offers a series of short presentations for reflection (and discussion, if possible) in order to help students develop a stronger sense of who they are and what they have to offer.

Sample topics include:

- listening to different types of stories

- exercise: writing your own obituary

- interfaith perspectives

- how to listen effectively

- how to be an observer-participant

- the importance of religion, spirituality, and/or worldview

- learning from loss and seeing everything differently

We can’t change the reality of death, but we can change the way the living live.

For more information, contact David Keck, Chaplain: keckd2@erau.edu