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Strategies for Understanding and Assisting the Grieving Student

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1 Strategies for Understanding and Assisting the Grieving Student
Presented by Paula J. McCall, PhD, NCSP National Association of School Psychologists February 2011 Annual Convention

2 Nearly five percent of children under the age of 15 will experience the loss of a loved one in their lives. Currier, Holland, & Neimeyer, 2007

3 The Loss… May be of a parent, sibling, grandparent, close friend, or other family member. May have occurred suddenly or with knowledge ahead of time However, even children who are “prepared” for the loss are still overcome by the intensity of actual grief and loss. Impacts every individual differently but always makes some kind of impact.

4 Outcomes of Loss Heightened risk for psychological problems
Difficulties concentrating and performing in school Increased feelings of fear and sadness Decreased self-esteem Loss of connection with social network - Currier, Holland, & Neimeyer, 2007

5 Harvard Child Bereavement Study
125 children, ages 6-17, who had lost a parent; compared to 70 children who were not grieving Common symptoms: crying, anxiety about safety of self or others, feelings of guilt about misbehavior and lack of affection in past Increased physical complaints Increase in accidents and serious illness in first year compared to non-bereaved but then returned to normal levels in 2nd year - McEntire, 2003

6 The Good and Bad News Approximately 80% of children in the HCBS demonstrated the resilience needed to adjust to the loss in a healthy way. 15-20% continued to demonstrate significant emotional and/or behavioral concerns 2 years after the loss - Currier, Holland, & Neimeyer, 2007

7 What Can We Do to Help? Understand typical reactions to grief across age levels Become familiar with the grieving process Get to know the child: age, type of loss, personal understanding, etc. Provide supports to child and family

8 Emotional Reactions to Grief
Sadness, confusion, despair Anger, desertion Fear, anxiety about safety Guilt Confusion, powerlessness Adolescents may suppress due to social pressures, giving the mistaken impression that they are unaffected (Fiorini & Mullen, 2006)

9 Behavioral Reactions to Grief
Anger: acting out, rage toward the one who has died Changes in eating and sleeping patterns Withdrawal, internalization of symptoms Regression to activities and needs of a younger child Attempts to bring the person back through fantasy, bargaining Play that incorporates death and dying May appear to return to “normal” routine quickly and easily but will continue to demonstrate grief sometimes due to unexpected triggers

10 Cognitive Understanding of Grief and Loss (Fiorini & Mullen, 2006)
Birth to Age 3 (Sensorimotor, beg. Preoperational) Do not understand concept of death or forever Recognize absence but may expect to return Intervention: allow to cry, regress, attach; help label emotions

11 Cognitive Understanding of Grief and Loss (Fiorini & Mullen, 2006)
Ages 3-5 (Preoperational) Magical thinking: they have powers to control world; they should have been able to stop the person from dying Egocentric: cannot see another’s perspective Beginning to understand what death means but still may believe it is reversible Intervention: listen to concerns, answer questions, prepare for changes, allow for as much choice and control as is possible

12 Cognitive Understanding of Grief and Loss (Fiorini & Mullen, 2006)
Ages 5-9 (Concrete Operational) Developing understanding of death as final, irreversible, and inescapable Resulting feelings of powerlessness May believe that their actions somehow contributed to the death, especially if sudden Intervention: answer questions, encourage outlets

13 Cognitive Understanding of Grief and Loss (Fiorini & Mullen, 2006)
Ages 9-12 (end Concrete Operational, beg. Formal Operational) Beginning development of abstract reasoning Often ask “What if” questions about past and future events Increased emphasis on friends, desire to not stand out or appear different Ages 12 and up (Formal Operational) Exploration of what death means, attempts to integrate the experience into their own identity

14 The Grieving Process Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning”
To accept the reality of the loss To work through the pain of grief To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing (external, internal/identity, and spiritual) To emotionally relocate the deceased (as protector, supporter, provider of values to now follow) and move on with life - Perschy, 2004

15 The Grieving Process Wolfelt’s Model of Mourning for Teens
Acknowledge the reality of the death Move toward the pain of the loss Remember the person who died Develop a new self-identity Search for meaning Let others help you now and always - Perschy, 2004

16 The Grieving Process: Core Issues
Predictability of events Mastery and control over lives Development of self-image Tend to have a more negative view of own performance while also seeing selves as more mature Sense of belonging Tend to withdraw socially Fairness and justice Comparisons to others’ “perfect” lives - Perschy, 2004

17 The Grieving Process Grief can manifest differently in each person, and it may come and go throughout life Key triggers to returned feelings of sadness and loss include: Holidays Birthday and death anniversary Experience of another death Rites of passage (graduation, big birthday, etc.)

18 Getting to Know the Child
Consider age and developmental level when preparing for meeting. Have plenty of materials available: stuffed animals, markers and paper, books, etc. Begin with a basic statement and question (“I understand that you had something sad happen. Can you tell me about it?”) and allow child to guide conversation. Encourage use of materials for expression Allow and accept silence

19 Getting to Know the Child
Key Information to Obtain about Child: Current understanding of the loss Current emotional state Desire to share Support system, both family and friends Possible secondary losses (i.e., financial difficulties due to loss of income)

20 Which Interventions Work?
Bereavement interventions for children have the greatest impact when they: Occur within a short period of time following the loss Target children who are demonstrating high-risk concerns showing significant difficulty with adjustment to the loss Focus on normalizing grief - Currier, Holland, and Neimeyer (2007)

21 Individual Interventions
Allow the child to talk about the person who has died and their emotions Discuss how life was before and how it has changed Educate the child about grief, normalize the experience Provide outlets such as puppets, drawing, and pretend play Share books related to grief, read them together and discuss Help the child set goals related to personal well-being Assist the child in identifying sources of emotional and social support

22 Individual Interventions
Guide the child in changing negative cognitions to positive ones Encourage to share stories about when the person was alive and not only the experience of the death Encourage identification of personal strengths and accomplishments in this process Encourage use of positive self-statements Encourage identification of ways to experience joy again now Encourage identification of a commemorative activity and assist in its implementation Balloon release (with letter or poem) Memorial Making of a vase to put flowers in on special days Creating an album of the person’s life

23 The Story of Dahlia Dahlia was a first grade student. Her 3-year-old cousin, who lived with her, was killed by a falling television in her parents’ bedroom. The family was shocked and in complete grief. Her mother sought me out, as she didn’t know how to cope with her own grief or that of her children. Her teacher was concerned too, as Dahlia was breaking down into tears in the classroom upon her return from the funeral. I met with Dahlia and asked her to draw a picture of her cousin, and she shared stories about her and all that they did together. I also met with her brother, a 7th grader who shared his feelings of sadness and loss in a verbal format. After two sessions each, I met with the siblings together. Together, Dahlia drew pictures and her brother wrote a letter to their cousin. We put the items in balloons and sent them off one early morning. When the balloons could no longer be seen, Dahlia stated, “She got them.” Both were able to resume focus to school and Dahlia later in the year made a book for a class assignment commemorating her cousin.

24 What We Can Learn from Dahlia
Children must balance their own grief with the grief of others in the home; they must be given time to process their own. Children can benefit from sharing their grief with others in the home. Young children may best express themselves through modes such as drawing while older may prefer verbal discussion and written outlets. A safe private environment allows for honest expression and normalization. Balloon liftoffs can offer a sense of closure while also providing a visual sense of “where” the person is for younger children. Short-term grief interventions can be effective.

25 The Story of Jasmine Jasmine was 13 years old, a 6th grader who had been retained and had a learning disability. She also had a very difficult background, with extreme financial distress and a recent history of having been abducted and sexually assaulted. She was sexually active by choice as well, and she found out that she was pregnant after going to the doctor due to her assault. Jasmine was excited about the baby, about having something to love and to love her back; she and her mother planned to keep it. At a check-up, the doctor found that the baby did not have a heartbeat but, due to insurance issues, Jasmine would have to wait for a miscarriage rather than getting a DNC. I already knew Jasmine for behavioral concerns earlier in the school year, and we began to meet multiple times a week to talk about her loss. At first, we had to focus on her fears and anxiety about the upcoming miscarriage, and her denial that it was really going to happen. She began cramping one day in school and went to the hospital, where she miscarried the baby. After returning a week later, Jasmine was ready to explore her grief at the loss. We talked about the stages of grief and how her feelings were normal. When she hit another student, she processed with me how her anger at the loss fueled her actions and worked to find strategies to control it. Jasmine shared with me her intense guilt that she must have done something wrong or else the baby would have lived. We talked about ways to commemorate her baby, and Jasmine began using a journal to draw pictures and occasionally write. Jasmine felt alienated from her peers, most of whom did not know and others who suspected and made cruel comments to her about it. She tried marijuana, and we discussed the attempts to escape and reconnect and how to do so in a more healthy manner. Jasmine worked on identifying sources of support and making goals for herself, as she had already envisioned her life as a teen mother. She had to create a new identity. Her behavior improved, and she began opening up to other adults at the school.

26 What We Can Learn from Jasmine
We must consider the primary and secondary losses in grief; in Jasmine’s case, this was not only the loss of the baby but also of the identity she had created for herself. Normalization and education of the grief process is critical. Adolescents may not be able to connect their emotions and behaviors to their loss and may need guidance. Some students may not be ready to commemorate; they instead may find comfort in other activities such as journaling. Peers can be unaware of the impact of their comments; we must help adolescents find positive sources of support. Goal-setting is an important method of re-focusing the student to their own life so that they can envision more than where they are now.

27 When Loss Impacts the School
If a traumatic event has occurred, the trauma must first be handled before the loss can be explored. Processing of what happened and students’ reactions to it can help in exiting from the shock and frozen state (Perschy, 2004). Teachers and other staff may also be experiencing grief and should be offered opportunities to discuss it as well as resources.

28 When Loss Impacts the School: Example
Sudden loss of beloved mother of twin girls in the 3rd grade Administration sent out letters to parents notifying them of the loss Classroom meetings the next day to answer student questions Discussion included how to react to the students when they returned Students made cards Teachers were instructed to look for drawings, statements, or emotional reactions that indicated difficulties Follow-up with individual students and their parents when abnormal or intense reactions were noted Follow-up with father of girls to ensure that they had the support and resources they needed

29 Bereavement Groups Recommended when multiple students have been impacted by a common loss or when multiple students have experienced a loss within a short period of time Provides mutual support, a sense of community, development of relationships, normalization, a safe outlet, and an opportunity for students to help, question, and encourage each other (Murthy & Smith, 2005) Activities vary by age and level of students but may include identification and exploration of emotions, discussion and sharing of the loved one, commemoration, and preparation for moving on

30 References Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M, & Neimeyer, R. A. (2007). The effectiveness of bereavement interventions with children: A meta-analytic review of controlled outcome research. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 36(2), Fiorini, J. J., & Mullen, J. A. (2006). Counseling children and adolescents through grief and loss. Champaign, IL: Research Press. McEntire, M. (2003). Children and grief. ERIC Digest, EDO-PS Retrieved January 8, 2011, from Murthy, R., & Smith, L. (2005). Grieving, sharing, and healing: A guide for facilitating early adolescent bereavement groups. Champaign, IL: Research Press. Perschy, M. K. (2004). Helping teens work through grief (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.

31 Other Resources Buscaglia, L. (1982). The fall of freddie the leaf: A story of life for all ages. Thorofare, NJ: SLACK Inc. Fahy, M. (1989). The tree that survived the winter. New York: Paulist Press. Jackson, A. R. (2004). Can you hear me smiling: A child grieves a sister. Child & Family Press. Johnson, M. (1982). Where’s Jess: For children who have a brother or sister die. Centering Corporation. Kaplow, J., & Pincus, D. (2007). Samantha Jane’s missing smile: A story about coping with the loss of a parent. Magination Press. Stiles, N. (1984). I'll miss you, Mr. Hooper. New York: Random House. Thomas, P. (2001). I miss you: A first look at death. Barron’s Educational Series. Wolfelt, A. (2000). Healing your grieving heart for kids: 100 practical ideas. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion Press. Wolfelt, A. (2001). Healing your grieving heart for teens: 100 practical ideas. Ft. Collins, CO: Companion Press.

32 Other Resources Compassionate Friends: a national network of support groups and resources for parents and siblings grieving for a child of any age New Song Center: Phoenix-based program offering programs and resources for grieving children The Dougy Center: Portland-based program offering programs and resources, including special links for children and teens, related to grief


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