Moving into Grief 

Richmond counselor Karla Helbert's first book shows us how to cope with inevitable loss.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Super Bowl broadcast is an orgiastic victory parade of consumerism. I allow it anything. But this year it crossed a line when it used the Sandy Hook Elementary School choir to sing "America the Beautiful." I didn't know at the time why it bothered me so much. I wrote it off as one more thing in life that made me worse just for having seen it.

Weeks later, I sat down with Karla Helbert to discuss her first book, "Finding Your Own Way to Grieve: a Creative Activity Workbook for Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum" (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, $22.95). The book synthesizes different elements from the author's life to provide lessons she's learned on a personal and professional level about processing grief. In plain, clear language, Helbert's book suggests how caregivers can better communicate with the bereaved and how the bereaved can begin to deal with their feelings.

Helbert has worked in Richmond since 2000 as a licensed professional counselor. She went into private practice more recently, and, according to her website, has "extensive experience in working with people with autism spectrum disorders and individuals who have experienced traumatic events." In 2006, Helbert and her husband, Jamie, experienced the death of their first child, Thelonius.

Theo was born healthy in 2005 but at three months became sick with a rare and aggressive brain tumor. Multiple surgeries failed and left him with complete neurological devastation, after which the parents made the decision to cease additional treatment. After five more months at home, cared for around the clock, Theo died. Helbert's book is, in part, a product of how she thinks about her own particular grief.

"Much of the information ... transcends disability and ability, as well as age or station in life," she says.

Relying on George Henry Lewes' philosophy that "the only cure for grief is action," brilliantly conceived creative activities complement the chapters. Using a blend of cognitive behavior therapies, the exercises are aimed at getting the wheels turning on the grief process. Cataloging and journaling encourage readers to start right on the page, while crafts, arts and cooking projects ask readers to take the process beyond the book. Images of completed examples typically follow step-by-step directions so that readers can create their own body maps, scream boxes or pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Projects and indexed resources are sensitive to the way diverse cultures, religions and belief systems regard death and dying. "Grief is very individual and unique to each person," she writes. It "is not a sickness or an illness. ... There is no way to know how short or long each person's grief may last."

Death and grief have also spurred her political interests. Helbert is working with the Miss Foundation, an international group that provides support after children die, organizing a monthly support group for the Richmond chapter. Recently she lobbied on behalf of Miss to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act for bereaved parents, which allows only two unpaid weeks off. She's also pressuring revisions to a guide to mental illness, "The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," a new version of which removes a bereavement exclusion and so allows a grieving person to be diagnosed with a mental disorder only two weeks after the death of a loved one. This could overwhelmingly result in pharmaceutical-only treatment options and provide little means for individuals to process their feelings naturally.

The problem, according to Helbert, is that the new institutional approaches to categorize, hide, or too quickly move on from grief simply prove that "we currently live in a death-denying society that does not honor the dead or those who are grieving," she says.

Writing represents only one facet of Helbert's life. Her causes, her art and interests, her family and her profession all orbit around a nucleus of grief. She's always her own best example of how to positively "integrate grief into life in order to fully live," she says. Above all, the way Helbert copes with grief is authentic and unflinching.

Maybe this is what troubled me so much about the Sandy Hook Super Bowl choir, the little taste of grief they tried to put on the tongues of 112 million U.S. viewers, and the weird message of patriotism on the heels of another act of senseless gun violence. It just seemed so inauthentic. I only wondered what the parents of those missing children must have thought in the flickering light, before grown men played a game for money. S


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