Dr. Alan Wolfelt lends expertise on grief and mourning

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Andrew Alvarado
  • Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations

Those who experience the unexpected loss of a friend or loved one can find themselves catapulted into a process of grief and mourning. According to renowned death educator and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief is the inner response, while mourning is the external expression of our thoughts and emotions as we navigate that loss.

Dr. Wolfelt discovered his calling to teach others about grief during his teenage years following the death of several people close to him. These losses had a profound impact on his young life, leading him to write a book about the needs of children and adolescents during periods of grief, all before he was 19 years old. The reaction to his work was swift, leading to numerous invitations to speak at engagements across the nation. Years later, Dr. Wolfelt continues this journey, helping others reach a place of understanding within themselves after a healthy acknowledgment of grief.

“When a life ends, we are simply unprepared,” said Dr. Wolfelt. “We can’t be fully prepared, even when death is anticipated. It is human nature to want and expect life to continue. We are just not made to welcome death into our daily lives easily. That is why we call it the ‘hard work of mourning.’”

Dr. Wolfelt recently visited Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and held several speaking engagements across Dover Air Force Base. His unique perspective on loss and grief gives him a helpful perspective of the importance of AMFAO’s mission to not only care for the fallen but also support their families during their time of mourning.

“We know that how the mourner is responded to in early grief has a profound and lasting influence on the capacity to integrate grief into one’s life,” said Dr. Wolfelt. “I’m honored to be asked to provide such training to your service members who are called upon to support military families.”

This training focuses on providing AFMAO personnel with a “grief-informed body of knowledge” to proactively assist the families who travel to the Fisher House Campus to attend the dignified transfers of their fallen loved ones. Dr. Wolfelt emphasized the importance of recognizing our own limitations and pausing when necessary to address those needs.

“I often say— You can never take anyone any further in grief than you go yourself,” said Dr. Wolfelt. “When anyone who wants to support people in grief is impacted by his or her own grief, it demands that we step back and give attention to getting the support that is needed and deserved.”

Dr. Wolfelt explains the process of continuing provision for survivors isn’t rooted in erasing pain but rather in navigating it as a whole. Dr. Wolfelt references his Tenets of Companioning model, which reflects the need to be present for another person’s pain without the need to take it away.

“I would most like to see us move away from thinking we ‘cure’ people in grief and instead advocate that we ‘care’ for people in grief,” said Dr. Wolfelt. “We need to acknowledge that the application of a medical model of grief care is inadequate and can actually contribute to stigmatizing and complicating the very capacity to mourn authentically.”

The Resiliency Team at AFMAO steps in to care for the families of the fallen by allowing people to come as they are, in their various forms of grief. Their primary mission to care for the families of the fallen is accomplished, in part, by promoting wellness within AFMAO’s diverse team of deployed members, civilian workers, and stationed military personnel.

“Dr. Wolfelt’s profound teachings on the nature of grief have inspired our team to reflect inwardly,” said Maj. Benjamin Quintanilla Jr., Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations senior chaplain. “This further empowers us to create a hospitable atmosphere of healing and compassion for families of the fallen.”

Opportunities for rest and reflection hold special significance at AFMAO, where leadership understands the value of self-care before, during, and after mission requirements. Dr. Wolfelt’s visit underscores this need and highlights tangible steps personnel can take while enduring any adversity in life.

“Dr. Wolfelt’s visit was a true gift to our AFMAO family and partners,” said Lt. Col. Crystal A. Glaster, Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations deputy commander. “His teachings help strengthen not only those who have direct contact with the families but also our entire AFMAO team.”

Dr. Wolfelt explains how his mission to help others heal from loss is a remarkable exchange of shared humanity: He believes the time, effort and opportunity found in self-care often transform into helpful kindness toward others.

“There is a reciprocal relationship that we must respect: When loss impacts our lives, we must receive the support we need and deserve, but eventually, as we come out of the dark and into the light, we can go on to provide compassionate support to other people that are impacted by life losses.”