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A large proportion of college students, (40%) have experienced the death of someone close to them (Holland, Currier, & Neimeyer, 2006), but little is known about how college students experience and cope with loss. Expressive writing has been posited as a method for dealing with traumatic experiences (Pennebaker, 1997), but its use with the bereaved has been called into question (Stroebe, Schut, & Stroebe, 2006). A stress management course at VCU allows students to complete loss-focused writing exercises, including acrostic “alphabet poems” for course credit. The current study aims to test the hypothesis that stages of grief (based on Rando’s (1993) popular “six R’s” theory) are expressed by college students in these writing exercises. A further hypothesis was that student would show progress through the stages from the beginning of their exercises to the end. Eighty undergraduate students completed a writing assignment. Students were allowed to focus their writing efforts on any type of loss experience, not just a loss due to the death of a loved one. Of these, 56 students (mean age: 21.9 years; 80% female; 33.9% African American, 32.1% Caucasian, 12.5% Asian and Latino, respectively) completed an end-of-semester feedback survey regarding the usefulness of these exercises (a 70% return rate), and 48 produced code-able alphabet poem writing projects. Two teams of two undergraduate students are independently coding the alphabet poems using a coding scheme based on Rando’s “six R’s” theory of grief. Rando’s theory suggests that the bereaved complete six processes while grieving: Recognizing the loss, reacting to it, recollecting/reexperiencing it, and finally relinquishing it, readjusting to the outside world, and reinvesting in new relationships. As we read through each poem, we analyze each line or set of lines and decide whether or not it represents one of the stages. We then compare our codes with our teammate for agreement, and have a graduate student supervisor act as tie-breaker. So far, we have found many examples emotions and of Rando’s six stages in each of the poems we have coded. Recognizing the loss, reacting to it (with negative and positive emotions) and recollecting the loss are the most common stages expressed in the poems coded so far. Most of the poems show some kind of a change in stage expression by the end of the poem. The last two stages showed up in several of the poems analyzed. We have also noted that poems tend to progress from showing the first few stages in the first half, and the last three stages in the second half of each poem. These findings suggest that qualitative analysis of expressive and creative writing processes can be a useful window into the college student grieving process. Future studies should examine how poems that progress through all or most of the stages differ from those that do not on outcomes such as grief severity.

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Sandra Gramling


Virginia Commonwealth University. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

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VCU Undergraduate Research Posters


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Expressions of Grief and Change in the Poetry Projects of Bereaved VCU Students