CRISIS: HELPING CHILDREN COPE WITH GRIEF AND LOSS


By Scott PoLand,EdD, NCSP,Cypress-Fairbanks (TX) Independent SchooLDistrict; & Katherine C. Cowan & TedFeinberg, EdD, NCSP,National Association of SchooLPsychoLogists

Everyone is affected when a death or tragedy occurs within a school community. The effects can be significant, whether it is the loss of a student, parent of a student, or staff member. Even highly traumatic or violent deaths, like those we have witnessed in recent years, such as g/ll, can have a strong impact. How school personnel handle the crisis can help shape the immediate and longer term grieving process for students, staff, and families. Children, in particular, need the love and support of their teachers and parents in order to cope with loss and to reach constructive grief resolution.

Expressions of Grief

Talking to children about death must be geared to their developmental Level and their capacity to understand the facts of the situation. Children will be aware of the reactions of significant aduLts as they interpret and react to information about death and tragedy. The range of reactions that children dispLay in response to death may include:

Emotional shock: This may appear as an apparent Lack of feelings, which serves to heLp the child detach from the pain of the moment.
Regressive (immature) behaviors: These behaviors include needing to be rocked or heLd, difficuLty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sLeep in a parent's bed, or an apparent difficuLty compLeting tasks weLL within the child's ability Level.

ExpLosiveemotions and acting-out behavior: These may reflect the child's internaL feeLings of anger, terror, frustration, and helpLessness.Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek controL over a situation for which they have Little or no control.
Asking the same questions repeatedLy: This may be because the information is so hard to beLieve or accept and not that the child does not understand the facts. Repeated questions can heLp us determine if the child is responding to misinformation or to the reaL trauma of the event.

HeLpingChildren Cope

The following tips will heLp teachers and parents support children who have experienced the Loss of parents, friends, or Loved ones. Some of these recommendations come from Dr. ALan WoLfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, in Fort CoLLins, CO.

Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences: Give children the opportunity to teLL their stories and be good Listeners.
Don't assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings: ALL children are different, and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences.

Grieving is a process, not an event: Parents and schoos need to all ow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child. Pressing children to resume normal activities without the chance to deal with their emotionaL pain may prompt additionaL problems or negative reactions. Don't Lie or teLL haLjtruths to children about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They will see through faLse information and wonder why we do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not heLp the child through the heaLing process or heLp deveLopeffective coping strategies for Life's future tragedies or Losses. HeLpaLLchildren,regardLessofage,tounderstandLossanddeath:Givechildreninformation atthe LeveL that they can understand. Allow children to guide adults as to the need for more information or