Parents' Grief Over Son's Death Is Used To Help Others

Foundation Offers Aid In Getting On With Life

November 18, 1990|By Dolly Merritt

Six years had passed since 8-year-old Steven Jeffreys died of cancer in 1975. Somehow, life continued for the family he left behind -- his parents, Sheppard and Helane Jeffreys of Columbia, and two siblings, Deborah and Ronald, who were 15 and 12 when Steven died.

By the early 1980s, Sheppard Jeffreys, a clinical psychologist, wanted to return to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Steven had been a patient, and help other parents whose children were sick. But he didn't feel confident that he'd be able to counsel them. He was, after all, still trying to confront his own grief.

At the suggestion of a friend, he enrolled in a workshop by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, famed author of the book "On Death and Dying."

"It took me three days to get enough nerve to deal with the pain that was ripping my guts inside," Jeffreys said.

"Everybody takes his or her own time in working through the grief process. . . . I have taken my pain and experience and have converted it into a way to help other people," he said.

That way is through the Steven Daniel Jeffreys Foundation Ltd. -- a non-profit group based in Columbia that is dedicated to helping people who are grieving.

Following a Kubler-Ross training program, Jeffreys, who has a private family practice in Columbia, became a senior staff member for the Kubler-Ross Center. He now travels throughout the United States and around the world, setting up workshops to help people cope with grief. Recently, he completed a book, "Getting It Out: The Externalization of Emotional Pain," which he co-authored with Kubler-Ross.

Today, Jeffreys says he is working through his own final stage of grief.

And, after four years of being "on the shelf," the foundation named for his son recently was legally incorporated.

"Our organization is about life; we are not about death," said Jeffreys.

People who learn to handle their grief learn to appreciate life more fully, he and his wife say.

The foundation offers professional training, mostly to mental health professionals and health-care providers.

"The professional medical institutions are highly skilled and sophisticated in the clinical sense, but they are lacking in 'soul,' " said Jeffreys, who is on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Our foundation wants to combine the spiritual dimension with the academic dimension."

"Instead of a sad thing, we view this foundation as Steven's gift to people in grief," said Helane Jeffreys.

The programs also address other forms of loss that are not related to death, such as job loss.

The foundation plans to provide programs on professional training, grief counseling, public information and education and research and publications, all focusing on varying stages of grief and for various groups of people.

For example, the foundation's 25 volunteers, who handle such tasks as typing and answering phones, recently completed one session to provide them with a basic understanding of death, dying and other types of loss.

Sheppard Jeffreys believes that program will enable volunteers who are not therapists to help people who they know are grieving.

Other programs scheduled for next year will be offered to such people as clergy, hospital volunteers and corporate managers, lay people who can benefit by learning how to work with people who are trying to cope with grief.

And a two-part program, planned for next fall, will focus on training professionals in the mental health field. Therapists will be able to see clients through the foundation, which will provide supervised counseling.

The clients will be charged on a sliding scale based on their income. A second segment of the program will help personnel managers who are helping people cope with job losses.

The Jeffreys also offer some basic "Dos" and "Don'ts."

"One 'Do,' which is over all the 'Dos,' is to listen," said Sheppard Jeffreys. "People so often try to fix it -- particularly health-care providers. There's no way you can fix it. . . . And don't tell them, 'I know how you feel.' How could you?"

Friends and family can help a bereaved person with ceremonies and rituals, but they should also let the person know that he or she is able to make decisions even though suffering a loss.

Explaining a death as "God's will" can be devastating to a person's religious beliefs, say the Jeffreys. The couple knows from their own experience of loss how such statements -- meant to help -- can actually hurt.

Additional skills for dealing with the bereaved: Allow them to talk about their loss. Do not tell them everything will be all right. Pay attention -- do not overlook the grief of other family members and loved ones.

The Jeffreys also focus on ways to help a dying person.

First, keep your commitments to that person, they say. The "call me if you need me" approach is not good enough.

"When someone is sick, he or she may not have the energy to make that call," said Helane Jeffreys. "Nothing you can do is too little. For example, a person can bring in the newspaper or vacuum the house." And teaching the sick person how to ask for help is another "biggie" that the foundation addresses.

They also address how to help children who have lost a sibling.

"We want to figure out how a family, parent or rabbi can provide the best situation and do the right thing. We need to know what to do to minimize the negative effects on the child," said Sheppard Jeffreys.

With much of their work still ahead of them, Sheppard and Helane Jeffreys are bursting with energy.

"Every healer is a wounded healer. Being aware of my own grief and pain has enabled me to reach out to others. When we make friends with our own grief, we can be available to someone else," said Sheppard Jeffreys.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.