Helping students with the healing process

Helping students with the healing process

When a Monticello High School senior died in a car accident last month, school officials mobilized quickly to help her classmates through the first wave of shock and grief.

Counselors and clergy members were made available for any students who wanted to talk about it. Poster boards were provided for students to write notes to the grieving family.

"This is the first time that many of these students have lost a significant person in their lives," said Monticello High School counselor Amy Malone.

There's barely a school district that doesn't deal with the death of one of its students or teachers at some point, and how the school responds can make an impact, many counselors believe.

Several dozen Monticello students came to talk to counselors after hearing that their classmate, Tori Lanter, had been killed in an accident on Interstate 72. Many also just wanted to sit alone, or in small groups with a minister they were already familiar with, Malone said.

"Then a big group that maybe were closest to the victim just wanted to wrap their arms around each other, and one of us was there," she said. "We weren't really counseling them. We were just sitting in, and they were just talking about their experiences, what they'll miss about the victim. It was kind of a small group therapy session."

Because Tori Lanter's classmates were likely the ones who knew her best, "we also went into every single one of her classes at the beginning of class," Malone said.

That was also helpful for some of the teachers because they were able to share their own sorrow with the students and model healthy grieving, she said.

The school's principal addressed the entire student body before the first class and made an important point, she recalled, "that everybody grieves differently."

Malone considers talking it through and leaning on trusted people the most healthy response. But it was also important for students to hear that however they react to grief, it's OK, she said.

Another key message for students was to realize grief is a process.

"And when these extra counselors are done doesn't mean you're done grieving," Malone said.

 

Dogs provide comfort

In May 2016, when Fisher High School senior and football player Justin Unzicker was killed in a car accident, his grieving classmates had opportunities to talk to counselors, write notes to the family and drop by the school library to spend some time with therapy dogs.

Many students visited the dogs that day, Principal Jon Kelly said, and he believes it was very effective.

"Those dogs are something to try and get your mind off it a little bit, just to see a happy face," he said.

School counselor Jamie Nigg said the loss of Mr. Unzicker was the first experience of a student death that school has had in quite some time, and it was a new experience for many of the staff.

They got the idea to bring in therapy dogs from another school, she said, and they also decided to bring in some local clergy along with the counselors to be available for students who wanted to talk.

"There was just kind of a surrounding of the students that they would feel comfortable with," she recalled.

This school is a close-knit community in which most of the kids have grown up together, Niggs said.

"He was a football player. He had grown up through the school," she said.

 

'Hey, you're not alone'

When a classmate passes away, it can be more than a kid's first experience with death in their lives, school counselors say. It's the first time many kids and teens truly realize their own mortality.

"I think there is some shock that can come, because young people feel they're invincible," said Kevin Floress, chairman of the counseling department at Urbana High School.

It's important for adults to be patient with grieving kids and teens and understand not every student will be ready to talk right away, he said.

"We let them know we're available when they're ready," Floress said.

He tries to explain to kids that grieving takes time, and it isn't a linear process. Sometimes, it also takes a step backward.

"When I talk to kids, I say, 'It hurts right now as bad as it's going to hurt. It gets better,'" Floress said.

He sometimes asks close friends of deceased students if he can contact their teachers to pay extra attention to how they're handling a loss, he said.

"They're the ones who are seeing them every day, and can look for signs of distress," he added.

Urbana High School further runs support groups for students affected by trauma and loss. The groups are kept small enough to give all students in them a chance to talk and be heard, Floress said.

Thanks to social media, school is no longer the first place students often learn that one of their classmates or teachers died. But many schools want to have help waiting when they arrive the next day.

"Hey, you're not alone. We need to circle our wagons and lean on each other," Malone said. "That's the message we hope to get out there."

 

Following students' lead

The Champaign school district has a two-tiered response team that can be mobilized in the event of a student or teacher death, according to Elizabeth deGruy, the district's trauma response team manager.

The district prefers to dispatch a big group of social workers and psychologists if the school administrator requests the help, and then send some team members back later if they're not needed, she said.

Students most likely to struggle — for example, close friends — are identified, and "one of us will be assigned to that person to have a conversation and check in on them," said Natalie Bradley, a social worker at Central High School.

Sometimes, schools provide some grieving space for students even when a former classmate has died.

When Parkland College student Carl "CJ" Parks Jr. died in an accident this past October, just months after graduating from Unity, the high school provided a space for students to gather and talk, said one of the school's counselors, Shannon Mills. Some upset students who had their parents' permission were also allowed to go home for the day.

Each situation is different, Mills said, and she's found that, often, grieving students really want to be with each other.

"Honestly, we try and follow the students' lead," she said.

Bement High counselor Donna Sharp said that school doesn't typically bring in counselors after a death.

"In my experience, kids want to talk to kids," she said.

She's come to learn that grief is very personal, she said, and nobody should make judgments about the level of someone else's grief.

"I tell people not to judge other peoples' depths of grief, because you don't know what they're feeling," she said.

 

Tips for parents of a grieving child

Parents can best help grieving kids and teens at home by making themselves available to listen, school counselors say.

Don’t be afraid that encouraging kids to open up about a loss will make them more sad, Monticello High School counselor Amy Malone advised.

Some additional advice from the National Alliance for Grieving Children:

➜ Let kids know that grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one.

➜ Tell kids the truth, and don’t avoid using words such as death or died.

➜ Understand that grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood.

➜ Know that children can experience personal growth through grieving, but that doesn’t diminish the sense of loss they feel.

While there’s no one right way to grieve, parents should be on the lookout for grief reactions that could be something to worry about.

Losing interest in daily activities, trouble eating or sleeping, withdrawing from friends and activities, refusing to go to school, fear of being alone and obsessive talking about death or a wish to join a deceased person are all distress signals that might call for professional help, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The most important thing, the doctors’ group advises, is that your kids have you as a sounding board to meet them at their comfort level.

“I would suggest the most important thing is to listen to what the child has to say,” Bement High counselor Donna Sharp said.

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