In August 2006, Michael Franklin lost his mother to pulmonary fibrosis – a condition that causes the lungs to be overcome by scar tissue. Though his mother’s health had declined for a year and a half, her death still shocked him.
“It’s this really intense demonstration of mortality,” the 29-year-old American studies graduate student said. “Your parent, who you think is going to live forever because you just don’t think about it, gets sick and dies. It’s a really intense reminder that this is waiting, in some way, for everyone.”
Franklin said he had difficulty talking to his friends and family after his mother died. Friends didn’t understand, he said, and after a couple months were asking, “Why aren’t you happy yet?”
He began to attend a group counseling session during the fall semester of 2006. He said it allowed him to grieve in his own way and reduced his feelings of bewilderment and isolation.
Franklin no longer joins the group, but every Tuesday evening four students who have also lost a loved one gather to confront their grief and share insights at Eddy Hall.
The group’s facilitator, Sarra Beckham-Chasnoff, is a psychologist at University Counseling & Consulting Services. She said it’s common for people to have to deal with death for the first time during college. Students deal with feelings of depression and isolation after losing someone, she said.
She said the group counseling sessions differ from more routine one-on-one counseling, but both are free at the University.
Instead of a two-party conversation with a counselor offering advice, group sessions open conversation and let the participants decide what topics to cover. She said she provides guidance and highlights subjects, but lets them dictate the conversation.
“I’m like a cop directing traffic, but they drive,” she said.
Counseling with peers allows students to learn how to talk about death, grief and emotional experiences in a comfortable setting.
“When you know someone has walked in your shoes, that’s comforting,” she said.
Brittany Rask, a kinesiology senior, began attending the group last fall after avoiding counseling since her mother lost her battle with lung cancer four years ago.
“I didn’t want to ask for help, and so giving in was like telling someone I needed help or an outlet,” she said. “Sometimes you never know if the emotions you’re feeling, if that’s how you should be feeling or if it’s out of the ordinary.”
Even though she has always felt comfortable talking about her mother’s death, Rask said the sessions have still made an impact.
“Grief is something that lasts a lifetime,” Beckham-Chasnoff said. “It’s just the intensity that changes.”
She said conversation helps group members deal with their initial grief while they help her confront long-past issues. Rask said her prior conceptions of counseling were misconstrued.
“It’s just a way to feel normal,” she said.
Rask said she can openly talk with her dad about the loss of her mother for the first time, and her relationship with her family has gotten better.
Group counseling at the University is available for a host of subjects, from students with psychological disabilities to those struggling with their dissertations.
Last year 162 students participated in 32 counseling groups – about 10 percent of the number of students who seek individual counseling services, according to the Counseling and Consulting Services 2006-2007 annual report. Group numbers have risen slowly over the past three years, according to the report.
Jessica Stahl, the co-facilitator of the grief group, said the mental health services on campus are always trying to reach out, but will never get to all the students as they would like to.
“We’re doing a great job of helping people come here, but I’m always surprised about the amount of seniors who say they never knew the counseling center existed,” she said.
Students interested in counseling services should go to University Counseling and Consulting Services in 109 Eddy Hall in Minneapolis, or 199 Coffey Hall in St. Paul.