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 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’d love to share with you two of my favorite story books for grief and loss and three helpful resources that I created.
“The Invisible String” (Amazon Affiliate link) by Patrice Karst is probably the most popular grief and loss story for elementary students – for good reason. Its powerful message sticks with us and offers a special and meaningful sense of togetherness with the loved one that we lost. The story explains that all of us are connected by an invisible string of love. When we miss someone, they feel a tug on the invisible string, and know that we are thinking of them and loving them from afar. Our invisible strings can connect us to mom and dad while we’re at school, to grandma who lives in another state, to our loved ones in heaven, and to anyone and everyone in between. No matter what, our invisible strings can never be broken. This story is so touching and beautiful and helps children remember that their loved ones are never truly gone, but instead are with them in their hearts wherever they go.
“Grief is Like a Snowflake” (Amazon Affiliate link) by Julia Cook is a story about a little Christmas tree whose daddy is cut down and taken away. The little tree just can’t believe that his dad is gone, and begs his mom for an explanation of why this had to happen to his little family. His mom explains that even though his dad’s trunk and branches are gone, his roots are still there, hugging his. And dad isn’t really gone – he is, and always will be, a part of him. The little pine tree also learns that everyone experiences and expresses grief differently. Sometimes our grief comes in one flake at a time, and other times it feels like an overwhelming blizzard. All of our experiences, feelings, and journeys are unique to us – and all of them are okay.
In addition to having high quality story books on hand, there are a few resources that I created that were my go-to’s for supporting students through grief and loss. Although I absolutely love the two stories that I mentioned above, I often wished for a book that addressed the specific special loved one that my student lost. By reading a story about the loved one that the child is grieving, whether that is grandma, mom, or dog, the child feels seen, understood, and not so alone in their experience. I wasn’t able to find such a book…so I created my own! I wrote 13 stories (6 for K-2nd grade, 7 for 3rd – 5th grade) to help children through grief, and each story addresses the loss of a different loved one. The lower elementary stories use a more kid-friendly barn animal theme, and each story details Bessie Cow’s experience losing mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, sibling, dog, and friend. The upper elementary stories use a more mature human theme and address the same 7 types of losses. It meant so much to my students for them to read a story about a character going through the same loss as them and was one of the most powerful tools I had in supporting my students. The stories are available as a printable PDF and digital for Google Slides™, and a Memory Journal is included, too.
When COVID-19 hit, I worried that students could be losing loved ones more than ever, but not have the same support as they did when school buildings were open. So, I created a digital and printable Grief and Loss Journal that helps students understand and process the complicated journey of grief. It supports students through their good days – and the days in which they feel blindsided and overwhelmed with grief. Students are able to define and understand what grief looks like for them, how it affects their body and mind, and how its emotions and experiences can change each day (and even each moment). Students also learn about the stages of grief and have the opportunity to remember and honor their loved one by creating a memory box, writing them a letter, and sharing special memories they had together.
The last resource that was very helpful for me to use in-person with students was my Grief and Loss Lap Book. Lap Books are amazing to keep on hand because they store so easily in a Manila folder and are a perfect “grab and go” activity. This resource uses a weather theme to help students understand the stages of grief and the complex, ever-changing journey towards the “acceptance rainbow.” It teaches students 10 coping strategies to help them manage and process their feelings and includes 11 questions to help guide discussion.
I hope that these stories and resources are helpful to you next time your very own DeShawn and Deja walk into your office. If I can ever be of help to you, feel free to reach out to me any time!