Grief Work in Career Planning and Development

By Peter Manzi

Many scholars have argued that mental health and career development are inexorably linked, and so I reflected back on earlier experiences and old course notes that had been sealed and stashed, as a doctoral intern at the University of Rochester in 1985. I counseled a 20-year old sophomore who lost his dad in a car accident. The father, only 42, fell asleep while driving home from a weekend visit to a friend's snowmobiling cabin. The death of a parent has a major impact on a student's educational and career goals and grief work must take place to facilitate career growth.


I had never worked with so young a grieving client, and I wondered if I could help him. I was able to read about grief work before meeting Eric and I had a wonderful and very skilled supervisor, Dr. Linda Locher. I asked Eric how his life changed after his father's death. He was reluctant to speak. I waited a few minutes, moved my head closer and asked, in a lowered voice, "What kind of relationship did you have with your father?" He said, "We were real close," and then just started crying and shaking -- for a good five minutes. I had a big lump in my throat until he stopped and then he described the shared hunting trips, how his father always supported him, even when he "messed up," and that his dad would punish Eric yet make him feel like he really loved him. "He was gold," Eric said. I asked him about his most recent conversation with his dad, and he grew quiet and looked down. He and his father had an argument. He called his dad the Friday night before he died. Eric was struggling in college, getting mostly C's and a few D's after being an A student in high school. He wanted to quit and come back home, but his father would have none of it. He said, "You got into a very good school by working hard- you are not going to throw it away the first time you have a problem." Eric, who has a temper, shot back, "You don't understand.  You've never been to college and don' t know how much work there is ." His father paused and then said, "Yes, you're right, I've never been to college, but I've worked hard all my life and know that quitting is the easiest thing to do. Your mother and I are making sacrifices to send you there. Damn it, you want to be an engineer!"


Eric grew frustrated and resented the guilt trip his father laid on him and hung up. He intended to call him back but decided to study his engineering notes for a more few hours. He knew his dad was getting up early to go snowmobiling so he did not call him. Two days later, his mother called and gave Eric the bad news, which devastated him.


In our first meeting, I said, "Eric, what would you want to tell your dad, if he were still alive?"


Eric grimaced and said angrily, "He's not alive, so what's the point!"


"OK," I said, "I know that and you know that, but you can still talk to him."


He screwed up his face and said, "Really?" in a sarcastic tone.


"Absolutely," I replied, with feigned certainty, as I was in the hot seat right now. "Here, take this sheet of paper and write this down."


Dad, I want to tell you that  _______. He added, "I am so sorry I got mad at you and hung up . I feel so bad right now.  I wish I could change what I said and did but I'm stuck with it. Please forgive me. I miss you a lot and  ...  love you so much."


I had never heard such heartfelt repentance in all my life. I sat there speechless and barely moving, with more than a few tears running down my cheeks.


The other two sentences to be completed included:


Dad, what I feel about you right now is ____.


Dad, I want you to know that I am (activity) ____.


We did the first one together, but he took the sheet home to do the others. I asked him if he would ever consider going to his father's grave to do this, but only if he felt ready or comfortable. He said, "That's a great idea because when I visit his grave, I just choke up."


Two weeks later, I saw Eric and asked him how he was doing. He said better but it was still tough. I said I understood and asked him to come back for another session. He said he had exams but would do so the following week. He later told me he took advantage of the study skills and time management workshops and that he got the best exam scores in engineering ever and thanked me profusely for my help. I said, "You did most of the work and your dad helped, too." He smiled and said he would never quit and would earn his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering, in honor of his dad's life, a goal he ultimately accomplished.




Peter A. Manzi, Ed.D., NCC, NCCC, MCC, CDFI is a career counselor, consultant and part-time faculty at Walden University and Buffalo State College.He would like to acknowledge input from his BSC SPA students, Max and Danielle, and his CSP 632 class, for this article.  His interests include multiculturalism, disability, and spirituality in counseling.  He can be reached at pmanzi@waldenu.edu.  

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Jill Barlow-Kelley   on Thursday 12/02/2010 at 09:01 AM

Powerful account of an important piece of career development. I was moved by Peter's planning for the discussion and would like his suggested readings for those of us with supervisors that might not be as helpful. Awareness is so important in our field and I find often talking to students about internships and career services, I need to be able to handle all types of conversation topics that come up. I am familiar with students whose parents divorce when they entered college, those that lose grandparents and family pets. This is an important addition to our repertoire. Thank you Peter.

Employment Specialist   on Thursday 12/02/2010 at 11:46 AM

Great comment, Jill!

Career Navigator   on Thursday 12/02/2010 at 01:10 PM

The article spoke to me as many of the students I work with come with unfortunate backgrounds. I often am told stories, in confidence, and do not always know what to say. Often times, students just need an ear to bend.

Don Harting   on Monday 06/17/2013 at 11:42 AM

Great article. Thanks so much for writing it. This reminds me of a long-standing interest of mine: how does parental divorce affect career development for college-age students? I've heard anecdotal evidence that many parents wait until the kids are off to college before ending their marriages, thinking this will soften the blow. But does it? What happens when the college kid, age 18 or 19 or 20, comes "home" for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and Mom (or Dad) is no longer there? When travel plans get complicated by the need to visit two "homes" instead of just one? When one parent, or the other, is in deep grief, perhaps bitter and angry, due to the behavior of the other? When money set aside for tuition gets spent on legal fees, or perhaps rent for a second household? When the quantity and quality of parenting decline? What about the desire to grow up to be like Dad (or Mom) when your dad hates your mom (or your mom hates your dad)? Are there articles, or books, that have been written on this topic?

Melanie Reinersman   on Monday 06/17/2013 at 01:12 PM

Good questions, Don. You can search the Career Convergence archives for the keyword "divorce". Perhaps something there will be of interests. I also suggest you directly email the Associate Editor of the Post-Secondary dept of Career Convergence, plennahan@uri.edu. Patrick may know of resources regarding how parental divorce affects career development for college-age students. If anyone wishes to write an article for Career Convergence on this topic, we would welcome it.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.