Purdue Profiles: Heather Servaty-Seib

September 13, 2011

At the Purdue Counseling and Guidance Center, Heather Servaty-Seib, associate professor of educational studies, meets with doctoral students to work on developing clinical counseling skills. (Purdue photo/Mark Simons)

Download image

Through meaningful engagement and service-learning, Heather Servaty-Seib, associate professor of educational studies, is working to illuminate the various ways in which people deal with grief and loss.

Using a framework of gains and losses, she aims to get people thinking and talking about death, dying, grief and loss on individual, institutional and societal levels.

Even in her own home, Servaty-Seib, who also is a counseling psychologist, openly discusses death with her young daughters, Klara, 7, and Mia, 3. "They're comfortable with the topic and talk to family and friends about it. It can be unsettling for the adults they interact with," she says. "But kids need to know about death. They aren't afraid to ask questions and talk openly about issues related to loss.”

How did you become interested in thanatology (the scientific study of death and dying)?

I think there were some non-death losses from my childhood that kind of resonated with it, but beyond that, when I was an undergrad I had to take a psychology class as part of the core curriculum. One day my professor came to class and said he had gone to a grief conference and wanted to talk to us about what he had learned. After that class period, I asked him, “If I major in psychology, can I study this grief stuff?” He said yes and agreed to be my advisor.

I think some of my attraction to thanatology was and still is the desire to bring to light the stigmatized issues surrounding the subject and the gap between grief/loss and society; and society’s hesitation to deal with such issues directly.

Why do you think people are apprehensive when it comes to talking about death and grief?

It is uncomfortable for people to talk about death, but it is the universalizing experience. People are often terrified by death, so they avoid anything that reminds them of it. That’s not a new story, but my goal with my students and the people I work with is not to eliminate their death anxiety -- that’s not healthy -- it’s all about acceptance, acknowledgment and self-awareness. I help them push through that anxiety so they can help their clients, students, and even their own family and friends.

How do you make your research and work with grief and loss relevant to the community?

I teach a service-learning course on group counseling theory and techniques. My students -- those getting their graduate degrees in school counseling or their Ph.D.s in counseling psychology -- run an eight-session support program called BRIDGe (By Remembering I Develop and Grow) for grieving families. We’ve done this five times, and every time it’s powerful and worthwhile. We translate theory and research in a way that the students can see how it works and the families really benefit. My research also indicates that students engaged with BRIDGe express less distress at the idea of interacting with grieving and dying clients than students who were not involved in the program.

In 2010 I started another service-learning course called Family Meaning Reconstruction and Loss. The service activity was a theory-based workshop and “fun day” entitled Building Pride and Potential. With the Hancook Faculty Fellowship I received from the Purdue Center for Families, we were able to work with kids (and their families) living in low-income situations at an after-school center in Indianapolis and the Hanna Community Center in Lafayette. The core emphasis was encouraging family resilience through discussion of family identity, overcoming challenges and family strengths. Many of the families discussed non-death losses they were coping with, and the program was really well received by the families and the students enrolled in the course.

Is there anything people should know about grief?

I believe the world would be a better place for grieving people in general if just three things were known about grief. Grief doesn’t end -- it is a reflection of love and just because someone dies doesn’t mean you stop loving them. Grief is multidimensional -- emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual. Grief is unique to each person and to each relationship.

It’s important for people to know that there really isn’t a linear pathway that people follow when dealing with losses. Realizing these few simple things about the grieving process can help with communication, apprehension, internal patience and self-care.

Where is your research headed?

This fall we started collecting data about the health risk behaviors of college students who have had a parent, grandparent or sibling diagnosed with cancer. A while back, I would have told you this project wasn’t going to happen, but I’m really excited we’re able to do it. The purpose of this research is to determine the potential of these students being a focus of preventive efforts.

Also, a core area of my research program is college student bereavement. As an advocate in this area, I would like to bring together the student government presidents of the Big Ten institutions to help them see how Brad Krites, former Purdue Student Government president and his team pulled together the student grief absence policy. Purdue has truly become a leader in developing and approving this sort of policy, and the connection with my research interests is encouraging.