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The Positive Psychology of Grief

Teaching students how to mourn.

I have not taught them what to do when a 20-year old young man armed with a .223 Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle enters their first grade or high school classroom and begins to fire multiple shots at them and at their students. I have not taught them how to recover from horrific loss, or trauma, or grief, or how to help others in a time of unimaginable suffering.

Final exams in my classes were over before the shooting started this time. In the aftermath, I know there would have been questions for me – questions far more important than the questions about educational content, theory, and practices that we discussed most days.  Over the years, I have tried to answer those questions on other sad occasions: San Diego, Stockton, Lindhurst, Jonesboro, Springfield (Ore), Columbine, Red Lake, Nickel Mines, Chardon, and now, Newtown.

Perhaps, today, my students would have asked me how my expertise in positive psychology could possibly offer any instruction - never mind explanation or comfort - regarding such a negatively destructive and devastatingly haunting crime against defenseless, loving, happy children awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus or looking forward to a family holiday vacation. Perhaps, they would be surprised if I told them that, indeed, positive mourning is the best pathway through the crushing grief that sits on their chest and strangles their breathing.

Positive Emotion

Grief vacillates between abiding sorrow and tiny spasms of bittersweet joy. Listening to others tell happy - even funny - stories about their lost children brings at least moments of brief respite. Emotional grief is raw and intense. Yet, poignant and humorous remembrances can also bring intense happiness in the recollection. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer to God!” - Dostoyevsky

Engagement through Strength 

The struggle to comfort, and be comforted, engenders resilience. Research finds that resilience is forged not by focusing on our own strengths only - rather by focusing on the strengths of those we have lost. We idealize, eulogize, and memorialize the talents, gifts, and virtues that they shared with us and it makes us stronger. We muster our strength to honor their legacy of love and courage. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” - C.S. Lewis


When grief feels like walking through a windstorm over broken glass, we must not walk alone. When others offer to help, take it. When they ask what they can do, tell them. When you feel like you will bleed to death from the heartbreak, let them patch you up and take care of you. When they offer to listen, talk to them. Learn to speak the language of grief and do not suffer grief alone. “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Sometimes it is difficult to find meaning in life and it is even a greater trial to try to find it in death. Yet, when the tears stop burning, when the stomach stops retching, the soul seeks comfort in finding a purpose in the sorrow. The unholy sacrifice is transformed into holy mission. “He sought…to transform the grief that looks down into the grave by showing it the grief that looks up to the stars.” - Victor Hugo


When the valiant teachers return to their classrooms, when brave children return to their schoolyards, there is transcendence of sadness. When a father speaks of love and forgiveness, there is testimony to the goodness left behind for us to embrace. “So long as we live they too shall live and love for they are a part of us, as we remember them.” - Chaim Stern/Gates of Prayer

Always teach what is most important.


Read Bonanno, G. (2010). The other side of sadness: What the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. New York: Basic Books

Read Wortman, C. (2011). The emotional life and positive emotions: Do they have a role in grieving? Washington, DC: PBS

Visit Open to Hope Foundation

Visit The Healing Garden

Visit National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement

Visit Scholastic’s Children and Grief Resources (NY Life)

Visit PBS Kids It’s My Life: Dealing with Death

I would love to hear from you. How has the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School affected you? Will you discuss the incident with your students? Will you encourage children to write about or draw their emotional responses? Is there a book with an uplifting message that you will read with younger children or recommend to older students? Is there a positive psychology lesson or activity – writing gratitude letters to someone they have loved and lost – you will use in your classroom? Or will you tell them the story of other young people who have died leaving a positive legacy: Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Rachel’s Charity Water


My upcoming book, Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom, is the first in a series intended to help teachers build positive psychology classrooms.

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