Parker and Tyler Lewis, brothers in the first and second grade respectively at Lake Mary Montessori Academy, had more on their minds than the upcoming field trip to the Orlando Museum of Art. Their mother Victoria Lewis had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Lewis family tried to carry on with life as usual while Victoria underwent punishing chemotherapy. Concerned about her children’s emotional wellbeing with all the stress and uncertainty at home, Victoria found the support her family desperately needed at school. “When I was diagnosed, I wanted to be somewhere that my children would be loved. This was the nurturing environment that they needed and the entire school reached out to me,” says Lewis.

That outpouring of support came naturally as parents, teachers and staff quickly mobilized to assist the Lewis family with their needs during this difficult time. “The camaraderie of the school meant so much to me when I was sick. The parents brought meals to my family and I had people volunteering to come over and do laundry. I thank God for those people in my life,” adds Lewis.  What could’ve been emotionally chaotic experience for Lake Mary Montessori Academy became an opportunity for positive action, which started the healing process. Educational Coordinator Shelia Linville credits the school’s grief/crisis plan for harnessing all that compassion and concern into an effective support system for the Lewis family.  “I have a responsibility to lead the school through those difficult times. Without a grief/crisis response plan, we do everyone a disservice, the parents, children, classmates and teachers,” says Linville

Often when a student experiences a traumatic loss whether it’s the illness of a parent or death of a loved one, the school becomes a refuge, a place to turn to for support and comfort. As educators, we can rise to the challenge with a grief/crisis response plan that calls for acknowledgement and action. No longer is it standard procedure for society to hide or protect children from grief but rather help them openly deal with it. Linville remembers the devastating effects of this former way of thinking having lost her father while she was in second grade. She remembers her return to school after her father’s death as only exacerbating her pain and confusion.

“Here I was in such a state of loss and sadness and none of my teachers or classmates said anything about it. There was no recognition of my loss,” says Linville whose mother felt it best to not speak of the death. Feeling alone and ignored in her pain at school, Linville eventually turned to an extended family member for support.

The Forgotten Grievers:

Linville’s experience comes from living in what mental health experts call a death denying culture where all to often talk of grief and loss is taboo. A century ago, death was a very real, natural part of life that children understood and experienced early on. Elders often died naturally in the home surrounded by extended family members, rather than hidden away in a nursing home.  Children were exposed to illness and loss as a fact of life whether it was the death of a family member, farm animal or pet. Through these experiences, they learned resilience skills to cope.

“For a long time children were referred to by experts in the field of grief as forgotten grievers,” explains Anne Curtis, Child Bereavement Specialist. Curtis works with children using Drama Therapy, as a Certified Trauma Services Specialist and Grief counselor.   “People thought they were protecting the child by saying ‘Grandma has gone to sleep,’ but this avoidance actually causes more pain and lengthens the grieving process,” says Curtis, “She joins a growing number of child development and mental health professionals concerned about the lack of resilience skills in children today and the rise of chemical dependency and depression.  For tips on cultivating your child’s resiliency see the side bar

Today the focus has shifted back to the thinking of long ago. Parents are encouraged to share with children the realities of loss, that life is a cycle and death is a natural part of it.  If children learn early on that life is a mixture of happy and sad times, they are better able to cope with grief. Curtis says its important for children to realize that life is challenging and that grief is a common experience so that no grieving child feels isolated or singled out.

But schools also play an important and inevitable role in grief and loss as a safe haven for the suffering child. This underscores the need for the school community to reach out to the grieving child and family.

Finding Teachable Moments:

As educators and parents, we need to create opportunities to talk about loss. These teachable moments can be a creative parallel or illustration that is non-threatening. Lake Mary Montessori Academy found its teachable moment in a holiday charity project, the annual Christmas Teddy Bear Drive. Children collected Teddy Bears, which were donated, to sick and grieving children. As founder of the project, Curtis visited the school to talk with students about their good deeds.

Through comedy, song and dance Curtis explained to children how their teddy bear gifts would become “Healing or Sadness Buddies” bringing comfort to many sick and grieving children. “These healing buddies take the pain away-pain in your heart, pain from sadness and pain from sickness,” Curtis explained. She talked with the children about how their minds are connected to their bodies and a relaxed happy mind can make a body feel better. “When people laugh, it puts special healing chemicals in their body. When you’re with someone who is sick, you can help them smile and laugh and it helps give them strength and power to feel better,” said Curtis, who brings the bears as well as drama therapy into Orlando Hospitals as part of her ‘Healing Arts Program.”

Seeking out these teachable moments can create a safe, accepting environment at school where the realities of loss can be dealt with openly. All too often, death is kept closeted until a traumatic event forces it out into the open. “As a school we wanted to adopt a charitable project that gives us an opportunity to learn about empathy, healing and the power of the human spirit,” says Linville.

At home, parents are encouraged to broach the subject in non-threatening situations so that the child begins to understand that life has a cycle and an end. Curtis advises using metaphors and stories such as The Lion King, Charlotte’s Web and Bambi to help children understand the concept of death and work through grieving.  “Answer your child’s questions honestly and directly and try to avoid euphemisms which might confuse the child,” Curtis adds. Drama, music and art also help a child grasp and express their emotions.

Understanding Childhood Grief:
Young children perceive and understand death very differently from older children. The understanding of a child’s developmental needs is essential to helping a child cope. Younger children tend to think death is temporary. As a child matures, he or she begins to understand that death is permanent and can happen to their loved ones, even themselves. Experts say that at approximately age nine or ten, children have the cognitive capabilities to grasp these more complex thoughts. Childhood grief can be confusing for parents and educators because it tends to self-centered and experienced in short spurts. Also, children don’t go through the stages of grief in the same chronology as adults.
Because children are predominantly concerned with their own fate, their biggest fear is “What would happen to me if my parents died?”  As a parent, you can reassure your child that Mommy and Daddy will live for a long time but if something ever happened there is someone such as a relative who will take care of him. Children can switch off grief by getting totally absorbed in play. This natural anesthesia to pain can be disturbing to parents who perceive it as insensitivity.  For example, at a grandma’s funeral, a grieving child might be playing with his or he cousins yet experiencing child a lot of emotions.
“It’s wishful thinking on the parents’ part to think the child is happy because he or she is playing and not crying,” says Curtis. She advises grieving parents to designate an adult friend or family member who is not emotionally involved in the loss to step in as the child’s emotional support. “A grieving parent can’t be there for the child emotionally.  He or she needs time to recuperate and shouldn’t feel guilty about asking friends and neighbors to help,” says Curtis.

The Grief/Crisis Plan
The reality of loss reaches the classroom in many ways whether it’s the death of a classmate, parent or teacher or pet goldfish. Schools that are prepared with a protocol or action plan can best respond to a grieving community’s needs.  The goal of any grief/crisis plan is to alleviate the grieving child’s sense of isolation and frustration.  Lake Mary Montessori Academy has created a grief/crisis plan that builds the infrastructure to begin the healing process. “Our plan builds a comfortable, loving rapport with the parents and openly acknowledges sadness and grief in the school community,” explains Linville.  “Parents need to feel comfortable talking with you about personal matters that affect their child and we have to create those relationships early on.”
Often, when crisis strikes, a parent is dealing with his or her own shock and anger unaware of their child’s own difficulties with the grieving process. This is where open communication with parent and educator is critical to the healing process and emotional well being of the child. “We’re not here to provide grief counseling but we need to understand where the child is in that grieving process. As a school, you need have to have a united front on how to approach that,” says Linville.

The open acknowledgement of sadness and grief manifests in many ways at the school. Children may create bereavement cards to send to the grieving classmate and his or her family. Parents volunteer with the school’s  “Meals on Wheels” program cooking and delivering meals to the family in crisis.  In the case of a traumatic loss, the school calls in a grief counselor or family therapist to help the teacher lead group time with the children. Students are encouraged to ask questions, process what has happened and deal with emotions. “The healing process starts once we are able to communicate what has happened in a confidential respectful way. The children begin to understand and empathize,” says Linville.
Acknowledging grief also can be an optimistic expression of hope and love.  When students found out about Mrs. Lewis’ illness, they immediately halted work on a solar system science project that she was working on with them as a school volunteer. “When she left for treatment, the students wouldn’t let anyone finish that project. They saved it as a statement of hope for her return to finish it. It gave us all a daily reminder that her sons were really suffering,” says Linville. She suggests incorporating the following key elements of into the creation of a school crisis response plan:
•    Develop a parent or hospitality committee:  There needs to be a group of volunteers ready to reach out to comfort and help. Establish a clear definition of the committee’s role in crisis response. Make sure volunteers can staff a phone tree to inform the school community if need be.

•    Establish a Family Therapist relationship with your school: This professional that you can refer the family for grief counseling. As someone familiar with your school, a family therapist is a resource for your school, someone to call in to talk students in times of crisis.

•    Raise the consciousness of crisis and grief: Give your students a larger reference point for sadness and difficult by aligning with a charity. A school-adopted charity is a tangible way for a child to understand the point. Invite someone from that charity to talk to students so that they get meaning from the charitable endeavor.

•    Create classroom activities that validate and express the children’s emotions. Perhaps it’s a the creation of a memory space, a corner of the room where the children can process their emotions, go to draw, look at photographs, write messages and process their emotions.  This memory space can be part of the healing process encouraging a grieving child to live in the present keeping the happy memories. Other suggestions include: creating a class banner, a collection box for notes to the family, or writing in a journal.

In addition, educators can look to Anne Curtis’ curriculum  ‘Circles of Life: A Creative Curriculum for Healing Traumatic Loss in Childhood” as a guide for developing an action plan. In it, she offers the following tips for educators:

•    Create a crisis team consisting of administrators, teachers and support staff and parents
•    Designate who will inform the children and how
•    Designate who will communicate with the deceased’s family
•    Plan a letter for parents/guardians
•    Create a telephone chain to inform the school community
•    Offer group crisis sessions led by a counselor to any classes requesting it.
•    Have help available, counselors that you can call on to visit the school
•    Designate ways for school community to reach out to the grieving family
•    Give teachers a checklist for recognizing grief

Whether your school is in the process of creating a protocol or action plan or modifying an existing one, the end goal should be a safe place where children are free to express their emotions, find support and begin integrating loss into their lives.

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Building a Resilient Child:
As stated earlier, resilience is an essential skill to survival and sorely lacking in today’s youth. As a parent, you can help your child cope with life’s difficulties by building resilience skills. Teach your child to look for happiness in everyday life.  Use humor to take a lighter look at life and laugh together. Curtis offers the following tips for teaching resilience skills to children:
•    Offer creative tools for sharing emotions such as expressive arts
•    Give the child a strong value system that promotes hope
•    Teach empathy and caring
•    Develop a sense of humor in your child
•    Teach positive attitudes by example, play and discussion
•    Appreciate the present and find small joys daily
•    Build your child’s self-esteem
•    Give your child structure and security
•    Accept that life is challenging

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Anne Curtis is a registered Drama Therapist and Certified Trauma Services Specialist dedicated to helping develop child-friendly interventions to help grieving and seriously ill children. For more information on her Circles of Life: A Creative Curriculum for Healing Traumatic Loss in Childhood, contact her at ?