I’ll never forget the phone call from my best friend, my precious student DeShawn’s kindergarten teacher. She explained, through tears, that DeShawn and his sweet older sister Deja had rode the bus home from school like they did every day, expecting to see their mom waiting for them at the bus stop. When she wasn’t there, they walked home and knocked on the front door. No one answered. They decided to go to their next door neighbor’s house, who kept a key to their home in case of emergency. The neighbor kindly gave the children her key and let them use it to get inside, thinking that Deja, a third grader, was responsible enough to open the door herself. As they walked in the house, the sweet siblings yelled for their mommy. They took a few more steps inside, and from that moment, their lives were changed forever. DeShawn and Deja found their mom on the floor of the family room, unresponsive. They called 911. The ambulance came and pronounced her dead at the scene. That was the last time DeShawn and Deja ever saw their mom. The center of their universe.
The very next morning, DeShawn and Deja came to school. Their grandparents had taken them in and thought that coming to school would occupy their minds and help them feel a sense of normalcy. I hadn’t expected them to return to school so soon, but as their school counselor, I had to act fast to support these sweet babies. As school counselors, we never know what students will bring to us each day, and sometimes their needs are so great, so profound, that it can be overwhelming even for us as trained professionals. Graduate school did not prepare me for having two angels sitting in front of me, completely traumatized by finding their mother dead hours before. But I knew deep in my heart that I would do whatever I could to help them.
Grief is defined as deep sorrow. Big emotions, like grief, are difficult for young children to comprehend and even more difficult to discuss. We know that keeping these big emotions inside can compound the issues of grief. Children who do not process their loss are at-risk for many physical, social, emotional, and academic consequences, including: loss of sleep, lowered appetite, compromised immune system, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, a drop in grades and academic progress, regressive behavior, loneliness, anger, depression, and loss of friendships. Although helping children cope with grief is never easy, it is essential, and school counselors are an important part of the “team” that can help children move forward and heal. School counseling does have its limits and boundaries, however, and outside therapy is almost always recommended in times like this. But, when you work with high-poverty, mostly first generation American students like I did, outside therapy wasn’t always an option. I was often all that my kids had – and I was okay with that.
Helping students cope with grief was always a challenge, but with time I realized that the two most important tools that I needed were: my heart and high quality resources.
Relationships are the foundation of counseling, and my heart truly burst with love for my students. First and foremost, I always wanted them to know, and told them time and time again:
I am here for you.
I care for you.
I love you.
I see you and your grief.
You are not alone.
I will do whatever it takes to help you.
I wanted to be that safe person that my students could turn to on their best days and on their worst days. School counselors are especially important because children often don’t feel comfortable discussing or expressing their grief to anyone else. Family members are suffering too, and they may fear burdening or pushing away their friends by involving them in their feelings. Although I wasn’t able to provide ongoing, intensive therapy to my students like an outside therapist could, I did offer individual and group counseling services and tried to be as available as possible to them when their “grief waves” hit and they needed to leave the classroom.
In addition to my heart and love for my students, having a “toolbox” full of high quality resources made me feel more equipped and confident to handle grief and loss. I hope that these books and resources are helpful to you next time your very own DeShawn and Deja walk into your office.
Written by Laura Oathout.