The fact that I’ve gone from being a very successful homebuilder to being passionately interested in how your brain works and how my brain works is more than a little astonishing to me. Image-scanning technology was only a dream when I was in graduate school, and most everything we knew about how brains worked we learned from rat autopsies and sawing open the dead skulls of Aunt Julia and Uncle Fred. How living brains actually operated was mostly the work of creative imagination based on lots of curious people peering at dead brain tissue under low-powered microscopes. My own interest emerged solely by accident. Or so it seems.
Smiley, the Reaper
In graduate school in the 80s I was hanging around minding my own business when one day a woman showed up to make a pitch to our class. She was trying to sell us on the idea of spending our poppy-sweet Northern California nights hanging out with dying people and the family survivors of people who’d committed suicide, been murdered or been killed by cancer or car crashes.
“This woman is nuts if she thinks anybody wants to spend free time hanging out with people like that,” I remember thinking. But she wasn’t nuts; and to my amazement several of my classmates signed up at the conclusion of her presentation. And that’s when I noticed something that should have been obvious to me from the outset: Even though this woman was talking about her work with dying and grieving people, she was absolutely radiant in her bearing. As she described the nature of her work to my class, she positively glowed with high energy and great passion. Imagine my surprise when I found myself walking up to the front of the room and writing my name on her Training Sign-Up Sheet.
Slow Out of the Gate
First off, let me be clear: right out of the gate I sucked as a grief counselor. After my first four home visits the clients immediately called the agency and asked them not to send me back. The problem was evident to everyone, including me: dying people and people in emotional distress made me nervous. And not just a little nervous: tongue-tied, rigor-mortified, dry-mouth, freeze-response nervous.
Sadly (and happily), I had one thing going for me: I was male. There weren’t a lot of males eager to volunteer their time in emotion-heavy environments back in the 80’s. With a lot of compassion and skilled coaching, gradually I got to the point where I could get beyond a first home visit. Slowly, my brain began to change in ways that allowed me to more easily manage my own emotions. Clients began to stick.
Each One Train Ten
Years passed and I began to thrive in the work to the point of joining the team that trained new volunteer counselors. At some point it occurred to this team that there was a grief population that wasn’t being served, either in our community or in few other places in the world – children. So, together four of us researched, experimented and put together a program that we could offer as a free community service to kids in Palo Alto, California.
And then, when the program was up and running, a funny thing happened. Kids were required to attend with their surviving parent. The parents would meet together with a group facilitator while the kids would go off separately with a pair of grief counselors trained to work with the kids for an hour and a half. Pretty soon it became apparent that not only was what we were doing working – and beneficial for both parents and kids – but the kids were working through and integrating their losses much more rapidly than the parents were. This fact got me very curious.
Scouring the Research
My first impulse when I find myself curious is to go out and do some research. My initial exploration into grief took me to the trauma literature. The trauma literature not surprisingly took me to the psycho-neuroimmunology literature. From there it was a short leap to somatic psychology and developmental neurobiology. Turned out there were specific things we were doing with the kids – which weren’t being done with the parents – that was making an undeniable difference in the rate and quality of their healing.
First was, parents, kids and counselors met together initially for 10-15 minutes to chat and share cookies and juice. Then parents went off with a counselor and kids went off separately. Once gathered together in the Play Room, the kids sat in Circle. They weren’t required to use words to say anything about their loss beyond who the person’s name was who died, and what they died from. Next, after the initial 5-10 minutes of Circle, kids were free to engage in any activity they wished to. All the activities were non-verbal – drawing, sandtray, tile-making, collage, coloring, mask-making – basically artwork in its many varied forms (This turned out to be one of several significant variables).
Healing Full Steam Ahead
Art wasn’t all we did. I have since come to appreciate both from my work with the kids, from my own direct experience – and from neuroscience research – that there was one thing we did in addition to the activities above that to my mind made the greatest difference: we built a “Steam Room.” The Steam Room was just like it sounds, a room roughly 16 by 20, heavily padded on the ceiling, floor and all four walls. It’s primary purpose was to allow kids to let off steam. Every week, three at a time, together with a facilitator, kids would all want to go into the Steam Room first. In there they could throw pillows, jump, scream, tumble and wrestle to their heart’s content.
And that is essentially what ended up happening over and over: their hearts became content.
When I look at research like this, this and this, that indicates over and over again that the human brain is first and foremost designed for movement, should I be the least bit surprised at this result?