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Making A Difference for Grieving Students

Making A Difference for Grieving Students

----John, 10 years old, experienced the death of his sister from cancer. He did not talk about her illness or death. His parents never saw him cry. There was no bereavement support at his school.

John’s family moved to Syracuse when he was 14. He started attending HOPE For Bereaved’s youth support group. At the very first meeting, John drew a volcano with every swear word he could think of erupting from it, he even spoke at the meeting. On the way home, he talked to his parents about his feelings. He continued to attend HOPE For Youth regularly, at first for the help he needed and then to help others. At the meetings, John learned coping skills and the importance of talking about his grief. His parents saw a spark come back into his life. John took courses to become a grief counselor, interned at HOPE and took a position at a hospice after graduating from college. He and his wife aspire to establish a Ronald McDonald House in South Carolina.-----

John’s experience illustrates the need for school support. Without the help John received at HOPE, he would have continued burying his grief. This would have adversely affected him in his teen years and for the future.

In the past, we did not worry when our children went to school and they weren’t afraid to go. We live in a different world today as shown by the Parkland, Florida shooting. The rise in violent death by suicide, drug overdose, accidents and homicides are life shattering and impact students. Traumatic death may bring intense feelings, panic, shock, sadness, isolation, depression, anger, anxiety and helplessness.

It is critical to be prepared to help students as soon as possible after a death. Unfortunately, there may be pressure to get things “back to normal” quickly. However, this is not helpful to students or staff. It is essential to help bereaved students understand and learn how to cope with grief. Otherwise, grief may remain with them until adulthood and continue to cause problems. Bereaved youth are at risk for early pregnancies & juvenile delinquency. They may become abusive adults. Unresolved grief may negatively affect their relationship with family, friends, classmates and teachers. It may cause youth to suffer from poor physical and emotional health as well as low self-esteem. Performance in school may be jeopardized.

Some teens that die by suicide had experienced the death of a loved one and saw suicide as a way out of their pain. On an intake form at a drug and alcohol rehab center, the question was asked “Has someone significant in your life died?” Over 80% responded “yes”. They had turned to drugs or highly escalated their use as a means to blot out their pain.

My friend’s daughter died in a car accident. Her 17 year old brother was devastated. Not wanting to further upset his family and not knowing how to handle his grief he turned to drugs. In the past, he had dabbled in weed and alcohol. In order to mask his pain, he became very involved with drugs, even heroin. Eventually, he went to a rehab facility. So much of his struggle might have been avoided if he had received help in school.

Since students spend seven plus hours in school each day, it is important that their “school family” learn ways of providing support. Reference to school personnel includes teachers, counselors, coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance & security personnel. School personnel should understand grief not only for their students but in their personal life. We can’t provide understanding and comfort unless we personally understand grief and how to cope. Students learn behavior from parents and teachers. As role models for good or bad, adults mold the way in which youth mourn. Teens may see their teacher, coach, etc. as a friend and confidant. They may turn to them for help with their grief. School personnel may never know what a positive influence their concern and efforts are in the lives of grieving students.

I was asked to provide a workshop on suicide for a high school health class. Throughout the workshop, one student asked a lot of questions. Afterwards, she apologized. I assured her it made the class more interesting. After the other students had left, she mentioned being absent from school. The teacher said “Oh yes, you were sick”. She said “no, I slit my wrists and you were the only one I wanted to tell.” Teachers have a lot on their plate and I hesitate to add more. However, sometimes it is a welcoming attitude, genuine interest in student’s concerns and active listening that makes a real difference.

School personnel need to be willing to be involved in reaching out to students after a death of a family member, friend or classmate. This is especially imperative when there are multiple deaths by car accident or homicide. School personnel can make a difference by LISTENING! Some others ways to help are:

Encourage students to keep a journal; write poems, stories or a letter to the person who died; draw their feelings or what happened.

Encourage students to exercise; run, walk, swim, play sports etc.

Send a note to the family & to the student

If possible attend the wake and/or funeral

Let the students plan appropriate memorials and activities.

It is critical that schools have an organized pro-active outreach plan in place to help grieving students. HOPE For Bereaved has provided workshops, consultation and resources for schools for 40 years. We have seen firsthand the need for helpful resources. A committee of teachers, counselors and social workers reviewed and helped revise our Grief Resource Kit:K-12. They recommend that the kit be in the schools and that the Crisis Team become familiar with the contents before a death occurs. The kit includes sample letters from the principal, new brochures and in-depth articles on depression, suicide and drug overdose. It is on a flash drive. An 8 page booklet on homicide was specifically written for inclusion. HOPE’s book and a grief book for teens are also included. The kit is packed with information.

By providing grief education for students and school personnel the school administrators and staff can better help grieving students process their grief in a healthy way. It is especially important considering the daily news of death by drug overdoses and mass shootings.

Concern and efforts on behalf of grieving students is CRITICAL. School personnel, parents, family and friends can make a difference by LISTENING………being understanding……….validating the students feelings……..offering on-going compassionate support……………and continuing to LISTEN.

About the Author-------------------------

Therese Schoeneck is the Founder/Director of Hope for Bereaved, Inc. in Syracuse, New York. She has been the Support Group Facilitator since 1978. She is a consultant locally, nationally and internationally. She is the author of Author: HOPE FOR BEREAVED: Understanding, Coping and Growing Through Grief, HOW TO FORM SUPPORT GROUPS AND SERVICES FOR GRIEVING PEOPLE, HOPE’s Newsletter, How to Help When Grief is in the Workplace Training Manual, brochures and Participant Workbook, How to Help Children Six and Under Cope with Grief,
Grief Resource Kit for Schools (Elementary and Middle/High) contains brochures, for students, parents, school personnel, checklist, books, etc. and Bereavement Support for the Staff of Hospitals & Skilled Nursing Facilities Program, brochures & Participant Workbook.