Following the news of a sudden death, the shock can be intense for students, teachers, and parents. Children often see themselves as invincible. Teachers may be consumed by worry about students who may have had to deal with other such deaths. The event reminds parents of their worst nightmares.
For more than a decade, Hospice of San Luis Obispo County’s Community Crisis Response Program has responded to such calls concerning elementary, middle, and high schools and colleges. The program was established to consult, support, and augment the staff in schools with knowledgeable grief counselors who know how to deal with sudden death.
According to Steve Thayer LMFT, Director of Counseling Services at Hospice of SLO, “The death of a family member, friend, or classmate can have a powerful effect on a child. A child’s grief, in all its forms, is a natural and healthy reaction to loss. But a child’s grief is unique. Children and teens grieve differently than an adult. What is clear is that a child’s grief is real and natural and can be supported by caring adults.” Death be an overwhelming experience, even for the strongest and healthiest of surviving adults. But for a child or teen, the loss may have an even greater impact on the formation of personality.
When someone dies, children react differently than do adults. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters that die and come to life again. Children between five and nine years old begin to think more like adults about death, yet they still believe it will never happen to them or anyone they know. Most children beyond the age of nine understand the concept of death.
It is normal during the weeks following a death for some children to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the deceased is still alive. However, long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can lead to severe problems. Children can hear about a death, maybe cry for a few minutes, and then be on their way out the door to play with their friends. It is not so simple with the adults. Hearing about a death, even if they don’t know who died directly, can bring up old grief and fears. Adults are more complex than children and usually have a more difficult time with grief.
Children who are having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs. If these signs persist, professional help may be needed. A qualified counselor can help the child accept the death and assist the others in helping the child through the mourning process. (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry):
•an extended period of depression in which the child loses interest in daily activities and events
•inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone
•acting much younger for an extended period
•excessively imitating the dead person
•repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
•withdrawal from friends, or
•sharp drop in school performance or refusal to attend school
“Over the past years, we have established a good working relationship with the school district, local private schools, and the colleges,” Thayer said. Hospice SLO facilitates groups for children and teens that run during the school year at some county schools. The groups are aimed at helping the children feel they are not alone in their grief. They share with each other and participate in activities to help them express their grief. “We have had an increasing need for the groups for young people this past year and there have been many requests from counselors and parents for our youth support groups to continue through the summer of 2010,” Thayer said.
Hospice of San Luis Obispo County has a north county office location at 1345 Oak Street in Paso Robles. To respond to a need to add youth support groups this summer, Hospice SLO is seeking community support and donations to fund two eight-week groups, one for young children and the second for teens. These groups will, like all services offered by Hospice of San Luis Obispo County, be offered at absolutely no cost to clients.
For more information about Hospice SLO services or to learn how to support the group, call 544-2266.
Kris Kington-Barker is Executive Director of Hospice of SLO County. Send comments via the editor at email@example.com