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Suicide Postvention

 

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Postvention
  1. Postvention is a term used to describe prevention measures implemented after a crisis or traumatic event to reduce the risk to those who have witnessed or been affected by the tragedy. Additional information- http://www.fema.gov/kids/safes6.htm
  2. A suicide, violent or unexpected death of a student, teacher, or even a celebrity can result in an increased risk of suicide for vulnerable students. Source – http://www.maine.gov/suicide/docs/Guidelines%2010-2009–w%20discl.pdf
  3. Appropriate response to a tragedy that may put students at risk, is an essential part of any crisis or suicide prevention plan. Additional information – http://www.starcenter.pitt.edu/files/document/Postvention.pdf
  4. Suicide postvention strategies are designed to minimize contagions. Additional information – http://www.cdc.gov
  5. School postvention efforts should restore the learning environment. Additional information – http://dpi.wi.gov/sspw/safeschool.html

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) has compiled a comprehensive resource to help schools after a suicide. Many of the resources listed in this section come from this reference.

For additional information go to: http://www.afsp.org/files/Surviving/toolkit.pdf

Aftermath of Death or Suicide - School Procedures
  1. Get the Facts – consult with law enforcement to confirm the cause of death. Source
  2. If the Cause of Death is Unconfirmed – If the body has not yet been recovered or if there is an ongoing investigation, schools should state the cause of death is still being determined and that additional information will be forthcoming once it has been confirmed. Acknowledge that there are rumors (which are often inaccurate), and remind students that rumors can be deeply hurtful and unfair to the missing/deceased person, their family, and their friends. If there is an ongoing investigation, schools should check with local law enforcement before speaking about the death with students who may need to be interviewed by the authorities. Source
  3. Keep the school open – The school is a magnet in times of crisis.  Collaborate with the district office to establish bell schedules, crisis centers and provide services for students, staff, parents, and witnesses. Source
  4. Contact the family – A visit from the principal and the district’s crisis response coordinator will give added support to the family and provide communication about the district’s postvention procedures.  If the death is a suicide but the family does not want it disclosed, the principal and district representative can explain that students are already talking about the death amongst themselves, and that having adults in the school community talk to students about suicide and its causes can help keep students safe.Source
  5. If the family dos not want the cause of death disclosed – If the family refuses to permit disclosure, schools can state, “The family has requested that information about the cause of death not be shared at this time” and can nevertheless use the opportunity to talk with students about the phenomenon of suicide: “We know there has been a lot of talk about whether this was a suicide death. Since the subject of suicide has been raised, we want to    take this opportunity to give you accurate information about suicide in general, ways to prevent it, and how to get help if you or someone you know is feeling depressed or may be suicidal.” Source
  6. Crisis Team – Assemble the crisis team at the school to discuss the facts, review the postvention procedures and assign responsibilities. Source
  7. Provide fact sheets – Keep parents informed as to warning signs, activities, services and support available at the school. Faculty fact sheets should also include information on bell schedule, debriefing meetings, and crisis center locations. Source
  8. Determine intervention groups – Groups might include the deceased student’s classes, friends, siblings (and their schools), teachers/staff, parents, and community. Source
  9. Grief counseling – Students should be given every opportunity to express their grief in whatever setting is most comfortable: individual or small groups (in the crisis room); in classroom discussions with their teacher and crisis facilitator(s).  Provide for ventilation of feelings and validate all expressions of grief. No large group assemblies.  Provide referrals of community agencies and other available services. Source
  10. Media – Refer media to district’s spokesperson. Intervention and prevention efforts should be emphasized. Additional information – http://www.afsp.org/media Additional information – http://www.sprc.org/library/at_a_glance.pdf
  11. No memorials/dedications/plaques – Appropriate activities include donations and letters to the family, charity, or suicide prevention efforts; establish support programs at the school. Additional information – http://rems.ed.gov/docs/LessonsLearnedSuicideApril12.pdf
  12. Emphasize no one/thing is to blame – Suicide is very complex and cannot be simplified by blaming individuals, drugs, music, or the school. Additional information – http://www.sprc.org/library/AfteraSuicideToolkitforSchools.pdf
Postvention Preparations and Actions

Postvention Preparation – District Office

  1. Designate a crisis response coordinator – this person would be responsible to assist schools when a crisis arises.  They would go to the school and consult with the school administration on appropriate actions.
  2. Create a community crisis team – effective crisis teams are comprised of mental health professionals from local mental health agencies or hospitals.
  3. Designate media spokesperson – this person would assist the school administration in preparing appropriate media response.

Postvention Actions

  1. District office crisis coordinator and school administration meet to:
    1. Confirm the cause of death
    2. Meet with the deceased’s family
    3. Determine needs of the school
  2. Assemble the crisis team
  3. Meet with faculty and staff as soon as possible:
    1. Introduce the crisis team
    2. Review details of death
    3. Read statement that will be given to teachers to read in the classrooms
    4. Allow discussion, questions and grieving
    5. Offer crisis team assistance for teachers who may not be able to read statement or go to class
    6. Explain plans for the day, including locations of crisis counseling rooms and how to refer students that need assistance
  4. Alert counselors at other schools where siblings are enrolled.
  5. Provide counseling, paying particular attention to friends of the deceased and those students with recent losses or a history of suicide threats or attempts. Some students will need to be seen individually, others may benefit more by sharing in a group.
  6. Prepare a fact sheet for telephone inquiries
  7. Prepare and send out a parent letter giving the facts.
  8. Relay additional information (funeral arrangements, etc.) as it becomes available.
  9. Permit students to attend the funeral with written permission from their parents
  10. Request assistance from the district should additional adults be needed to help in classrooms during the funeral.  Teachers should not be responsible for taking students to a funeral.
  11. Do not glorify suicide with memorials (planting trees, yearbook page, etc.)
  12. Prepare to hold a community meeting in the evening if necessary
  13. At the end of the day hold a second faculty meeting to debrief with the crisis team.
  14. Provide necessary follow-up counseling for students and staff.
  15. Call appropriate departments to delete student’s name from rosters, etc.
  16. Invite parents to clean out their child’s locker.
  17. Log all decisions and actions taken.
Death on Campus
  1. Call 911
  2. Secure the area surrounding the incident moving students to a neutral site
  3. Isolate any witnesses for police interviewing
  4. Decide if it would be best to restrict class movement (no bells), or continue normal schedule.
  5. Send school representative to the hospital (if the victim is transported) to meet with the family and friends who may congregate there.
  6. Inform the staff and student body. Using the public address system or holding an assembly to announce a death is not recommended.  Memos may be sent to the teachers or crisis team members may visit classrooms to convey the information.
  7. Permit students to leave the campus only with parental permission.  Release students to only authorized people.

For more information:  http://www.nasponline.org/resources/principals/Dealing%20with%20Death%20at%20School%20April%2004.pdf

Recommendations for Media

Recommendations for Media when Reporting a Suicide

Suicide is a public health issue. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy. However, the way media covers suicide can influence behavior negatively by contributing to contagion or positively by encouraging help seeking.

Suicide Contagion or “Copycat Suicide” occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide.

Important Points when Covering Suicide

  • More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.
  • Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/
graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
  • Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths which can
 encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.

Source – http://reportingonsuicide.org/

Schools are encouraged to share the above information with local media. Schools have the right to allow the media on campus during a crisis. Communication between schools and the media builds a relationship of trust.

Sample Media Statement

To be provided to local media outlets either upon request or proactively.

School personnel were informed by the coroner’s office that a [__]-year-old student at [________] school has died. The cause of death was suicide.

Our thoughts and support go out to [his/her] family and friends at this difficult time.

The school will be hosting a meeting for parents and others in the community at [date/time/location]. Members of the school’s Crisis Response Team [or mental health professionals] will be present to provide information about common reactions following a suicide and how adults can help youths cope.

They will also provide information about suicide and mental illness in adolescents, including risk factors and warning signs of suicide, and will address attendees’ questions and concerns. A meeting announcement has been sent to parents, who can contact school administrators or counselors at [number] or [e-mail address] for more information.

Trained crisis counselors will be available to meet with students and staff starting tomorrow and continuing over the next few weeks as needed.

Source

Sample Staff Meeting Agenda

Allow at least one hour to discuss the following goals:

  1. The school administrator should welcome everyone and introduce the crisis team members.
  2. Share accurate information about the death.
  3. Allow staff an opportunity to express their own reactions and grief. Identify anyone who may need additional support and refer them to appropriate resources.
  4. Provide appropriate faculty (e.g., homeroom teachers or advisors) with a scripted death notification statement for students. Arrange coverage for any staff who are unable to manage reading the statement.
  5. Prepare for student reactions and questions by providing handouts to staff on Talking About Suicide and Facts About Suicide and Mental Disorders in Adolescents.
  6. Explain plans for the day, including locations of crisis counseling rooms.
  7. Remind all staff of the important role they may play in identifying changes in behavior among the students they know and see every day, and discuss plan for handling students who are having difficulty.
  8. Brief staff about identifying and referring at-risk students as well as the need to keep records of those efforts.
  9. Apprise staff of any outside crisis responders or others who will be assisting.
  10. Remind staff of student dismissal protocol for funeral.
  11. Identify which Crisis Response Team member has been designated as the media spokesperson and instruct staff to refer all media inquiries to him or her.
  12. Encourage those students who may be interested to write down their positive memories about the student to be collected and delivered to the parents. The school administrator and crisis team should evaluate these before being delivered.

Source

If a death occurs after school hours, it is helpful to contact the faculty and staff in the evening to invite them to the morning crisis meeting.

End of the First Day

It can also be helpful for the school administrator and crisis team to have an all-staff meeting at the end of the first day. This meeting provides an opportunity to take the following steps:

  • Offer verbal appreciation of the staff.
  • Review the day’s challenges and successes.
  • Debrief, share experiences, express concerns, and ask questions.
  • Check in with staff to assess whether any of them need additional support, and refer accordingly.
  • Disseminate information regarding the death and/or funeral arrangements.
  • Discuss plans for the next day.
  • Remind staff of the importance of self-care.
  • Remind staff of the importance of documenting crisis response efforts for future planning and understanding.

Source

This meeting is also an excellent opportunity for teachers and staff to share their concerns about students who may need additional support.  Also, remind teachers and staff that the school will not be closed for the funeral.  However, students and staff who wish to attend the funeral will be excused from school.

Sample Parent Meeting Agenda

Meetings with parents can provide a helpful forum for disseminating information and answering questions. The Crisis Response Team Leader, Team Coordinator, all Crisis Response Team members, the superintendent, and the school principal should attend. Representatives from community resources such as mental health providers, county crisis services, and clergy may also be invited to be present and provide materials. This is a good time to acknowledge that suicide can be a difficult subject to talk about and to distribute suicide prevention materials.

A word of caution: Large, open-microphone meetings are not advised, since they can result in an unwieldy, unproductive session focused on scapegoating and blaming. Instead, the meeting should ideally be broken into two parts. During the first part, presented by school staff, the focus should be on dissemination of general information to parents, without opening the meeting to discussion. During the second part, have parents meet in small groups with trained crisis counselors for questions and discussion. The following is a sample meeting agenda.

First Part: General Information (45 to 50 minutes)

Crisis Response Team Leader or School Superintendent

  • Welcomes all and expresses sympathy
  • Introduces the principal and members of the Crisis Response Team
  • Expresses confidence in the staff’s ability to assist the students
  • Encourages parent and school collaboration during this difficult time
  • Reassures attendees that there will be an opportunity for questions and discussion
  • States school’s goal of treating this death as it would any other death, regardless of cause, while remaining aware that adolescents can be vulnerable to risk of imitative behavior
  • States importance of balancing need to grieve with not inadvertently oversimplifying, glamorizing, or romanticizing suicide

Principal or Designee

  • Outlines the purpose and structure of the meeting
  • Verifies the death
  • Discourages the spread of rumors
  • Informs parents about the school’s response activities including media requests – Informs parents about student release policy for funerals

Source

Crisis Response Team

  • Discusses how school will help students cope.
  • Mentions that more information about bereavement after suicide is available at
  • Shares facts about risk factors and warning signs and noting that over 90 percent of suicides are linked to underlying mental disorders such as depression or anxiety that can cause substantial psychological pain but may not have been apparent to others (or that may have shown up as behavior problems or substance abuse).
  • Reminds parents that help is available for any student who may be struggling with mental health issues or suicidal feelings.
  • Provides contact information (names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses) for mental health resources at school and in the community, such as:
    • School counselors
    • Community mental health agencies
    • Local hospitals
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Second Part: Small Group Meetings (1 hour)

  • Ideally, there should be no more than 8 to 10 parents per group.
  • Each group should be facilitated by at least two trained counselors.
  • Support staff should be available to direct parents to meeting rooms, distribute handouts, and make water and tissues available.
  • If possible, additional counselors should be available to meet with parents individually as needed.

Additional Considerations

  • Since some parents may arrive with young children, provide onsite childcare.
  • Provide separate discussion groups for students who may accompany parents.
  • Media should not be permitted access to the small groups; arrange for the media spokesperson to meet with any media.
  • In some cases (for example, when the death has received a great deal of sensationalized media attention), it may be necessary to arrange for security to assist with the flow of traffic and with media and crowd control.

Source

Sample Death Notification Statements for Students (Suicide)

When the Death has been Ruled a Suicide

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, _________, has taken [his/her] own life. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

A suicide death presents us with many questions that we may not be able to answer right away. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors you may hear. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Suicide is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

Each of us will react to _____’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known ______very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness. Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction.

We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss and to enable us to understand more about suicide. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

Source (p. 14)

Help teachers and staff understand that sharing their emotions as they read a statement can help grieving students. Crisis team members may read statements if too difficult for teachers and staff. Students should be allowed to express feelings.

Sample Death Notification Statements for Students (Unconfirmed)

When the Cause of Death is Unconfirmed

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, _________, has died. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

The authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. We are aware that there has been some talk about the possibility that this was a suicide death. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors since they may turn out to be inaccurate and can be deeply hurtful and unfair to _______ as well as [his/her] family and friends. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Each of us will react to _____’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known _____ very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness. Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction. We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

Source

Teachers and staff should not feel compelled to rush through daily routine and avoid discussions about the death.  Listening to students’ concerns and feelings will assist them through their grieving process. Teachers need to be cautious and used good judgment to not allow rumors or descriptions of the death that may re-traumatize students. Crisis team members may assist with questions from teachers and staff on how to help students through their grieving process.

Sample Death Notification Statements for Students (Not Disclosed)

When the Cause of Death is not Disclosed

When the family has requested that the cause of death not be disclosed

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, _________, has died. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

The family has requested that information about the cause of death not be shared at this time.

We are aware that there has been some talk about the possibility that this was a suicide death. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors since they may turn out to be inaccurate and can be deeply hurtful and unfair to ______ as well as [his/her] family and friends.

We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us. Since the subject has been raised, we do want to take this opportunity to remind you that suicide, when it does occur, is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them.

Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

Each of us will react to _____’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known ______very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness.

Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction. We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

Source

Many times information about the death has spread among students.  If students try to share details in the class, teachers need to remind the students to respect the family’s request to not share information about the death at this time.

Sample Death Notification Statements for Parents (Suicide)

When the Death has been Ruled a Suicide

I am writing with great sadness to inform you that one of our students, ________, has died. Our thoughts and sympathies are with [his/her] family and friends.

All of the students were given the news of the death by their teacher in [advisory/homeroom] this morning. I have included a copy of the announcement that was read to them.

The cause of death was suicide. We want to take this opportunity to remind our community that suicide is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; other times, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. I am including some information that may be helpful to you in discussing suicide with your child.

Members of our Crisis Response Team are available to meet with students individually and in groups today as well as over the coming days and weeks. Please contact the school office if you feel your child is in need of additional assistance; we have a list of school and community mental health resources.

Information about the funeral service will be made available as soon as we have it. If your child wishes to attend, we strongly encourage you to accompany him or her to the service. If the funeral is scheduled during school hours, students who wish to attend will need parental permission to be released from school.

The school will be hosting a meeting for parents and others in the community at [date/time/location]. Members of our Crisis Response Team [or mental health professionals] will be present to provide information about common reactions following a suicide and how adults can help youths cope. They will also provide information about suicide and mental illness in adolescents, including risk factors and warning signs of suicide, and will address attendees’ questions and concerns.

Please do not hesitate to contact me or one of the school counselors with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely, [Principal]

Source

Sample Death Notification Statements for Parents (Unconfirmed)

When the Cause of Death is Unconfirmed

I am writing with great sadness to inform you that one of our students, ________, has died. Our thoughts and sympathies are with [his/her] family and friends. All of the students were given the news of the death by their teacher in [advisory/homeroom] this morning. I have included a copy of the announcement that was read to them.

The authorities have not yet determined the cause of death. We are aware that there has been some talk about the possibility that this was a suicide death. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we have asked the students not to spread rumors since they may turn out to be inaccurate and can be deeply hurtful and unfair to _______ as well as [his/her] family and friends. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Members of our Crisis Response Team are available to meet with students individually and in groups today as well as over the coming days and weeks. Please contact the school office if you feel your child is in need of additional assistance; we have a list of school and community mental health resources.

Information about the funeral service will be made available as soon as we have it. If your child wishes to attend, we strongly encourage you to accompany him or her to the service. If the funeral is scheduled during school hours, students who wish to attend will need parental permission to be released from school.

Please do not hesitate to contact one of the school counselors or me with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely, [Principal]

Source

Sample Death Notification for Parents (Not Disclosed)

When the Cause of Death is Not Disclosed

I am writing with great sadness to inform you that one of our students, ________, has died. Our thoughts and sympathies are with [his/her] family and friends.

All of the students were given the news of the death by their teacher in [advisory/homeroom] this morning. I have included a copy of the announcement that was read to them.

The family has requested that information about the cause of death not be shared at this time. We are aware that there have been rumors that this was a suicide death. Since the subject has been raised, we want to take this opportunity to remind our community that suicide, when it does occur, is a very complicated act.

It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about the problems in his or her life and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; other times, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs.

Members of our Crisis Response Team are available to meet with students individually and in groups today as well as over the coming days and weeks. Please contact the school office if you feel your child is in need of additional assistance; we have a list of additional school and community mental health resources.

Information about the funeral service will be made available as soon as we have it. If your child wishes to attend, we strongly encourage you to accompany him or her to the service. If the funeral is scheduled during school hours, students who wish to attend will need parental permission to be released from school.

Please do not hesitate to contact the school counselors or me with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely, [Principal]

Source

Talking about Suicide

Give accurate information about suicide.

Suicide is not caused by a single event such as bad grades, an argument with parents, or the breakup of a relationship. In most cases, suicide is caused by an underlying mental disorder like depression or substance abuse. Mental disorders affect the way people feel and prevent them from thinking clearly and rationally. Having a mental disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, and help is available. Talking about suicide in a calm, straightforward way does not put ideas into kids’ minds.

What to say:

“The cause of _____’s death was suicide. Suicide is most often caused by serious mental disorders like depression, combined with other complications affected [his/her] feelings, thoughts, and ability to think clearly and solve problems in a better way.”

“_____ was likely struggling with a mental health issue like depression or anxiety, even though it may not have been obvious to other people.”

“Mental disorders are not something to be ashamed of, and there are very good treatments to help the symptoms go away.”

Address blaming and scapegoating.

It is common to try to answer the question “why?” after a suicide death. Sometimes this turns into blaming others for the death.

What to say:

“The reasons that someone dies by suicide are not simple, and are related to mental disorders that make it difficult to think clearly. Blaming others—or blaming the person who died—does not acknowledge the reality that the person was battling a mental disorder.”

Do not focus on the method or graphic details.

Talking in graphic detail about the method can create images that are upsetting and can increase the risk of imitative behavior by vulnerable youth. If asked, it is okay to give basic facts about the method, but don’t give graphic details or talk at length about it. The focus should be not on how someone killed himself or herself but rather on how to cope with feelings of sadness, loss, anger, etc.

What to say:

“It is tragic that he died by hanging. Let’s talk about how _____’s death has affected you and ways for you to handle it.”

“How can we figure out the best ways to deal with our loss and grief?”

Source

Helping Children Cope with Suicide Loss for Teachers and Parents

Helping Children Cope with Loss

Schools and communities around the country will be impacted by the loss of life associated with the war in Iraq. The effects may be significant for some people because of their emotional closeness to the war and/or their concern over terrorism. How school personnel handle the resulting distress can help shape the immediate and longer-term grieving process for students, staff, and families. Children, in particular, will need the love and support of their teachers and parents to cope with their loss and reach constructive grief resolution.

Expressions of Grief

Talking to children about death must be geared to their developmental level, respectful of their cultural norms, and sensitive to their capacity to understand the situation. Children will be aware of the reactions of significant adults as they interpret and react to information about death and tragedy. In fact, for primary grade children adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping their perceptions of the situation. The range of reactions that children display in response to the death of significant others may include:

  • Emotional shock and at times an apparent lack of feelings, which serve to help the child detach from the pain of the moment;
  • Regressive (immature) behaviors, such as needing to be rocked or held, difficulty separating from parents or significant others, needing to sleep in parent’s bed or an apparent difficulty completing tasks well within the child’s ability level;
  • Explosive emotions and acting out behavior that reflect the child’s internal feelings of anger, terror, frustration and helplessness. Acting out may reflect insecurity and a way to seek control over a situation for which they have little or no control;
  • Asking the same questions over and over, not because they do not understand the facts, but rather because the information is so hard to believe or accept. Repeated questions can help listeners determine if the child is responding to misinformation or the real trauma of the event.

Helping Children Cope

The following tips will help teachers, parents, and other caregivers support children who have experienced the loss of parents, friends, or loved ones. Some of these recommendations come from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado.

  • Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences: Give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.
  • Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings: All children are different and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences. (Developmental information is provided below.)
  • Grieving is a process, not an event: Parents and schools need to allow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child. Pressing children to resume “normal” activities without the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions.
  • Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive.  They will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
  • Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death: Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
  • Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death: Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.
  • Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way: We all grieve in different ways and there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.
  • Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need: Sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings.
  • Children will need long-lasting support: The more losses the child or adolescent suffer, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
  • Keep in mind that grief work is hard: It is hard work for adults and hard for children as well.
  • Understand that grief work is complicated: Deaths that result from a terrorist act or war can brings forth many issues that are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. Grieving may also be complicated by a need for vengeance or justice and by the lack of resolution of the current situation: the conflict may continue and the nation may still feel at risk. The sudden or violent nature of the death or the fact that some individuals may be considered missing rather than dead can further complicate the grieving process.
  • Be aware of your own need to grieve: Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Adults who have lost a loved one will be far more able to help children work through their grief if they get help themselves. For some families, it may be important to seek family grief counseling, as well as individual sources of support.

Developmental Phases in Understanding Death

It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding of death and dying. This understanding depends on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media, and previous experiences with death. Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.

  • Infants and Toddlers: The youngest children may perceive that adults are sad, but have no real understanding of the meaning or significance of death.
  • Preschoolers: Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible. They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition. Preschool and even early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death. For instance, as a result of the World Trade Center disaster, some children may imagine that going into tall buildings may cause someone’s death.
  • Early Elementary School: Children at this age (approximately 5-9) start to comprehend the finality of death. They begin to understand that certain circumstances may result in death. They can see that, if large planes crash into buildings, people in the planes and buildings will be killed. In case of war images, young children may not be able to differentiate between what they see on television, and what might happen in their own neighborhood. However, they may over-generalize, particularly at ages 5-6—if jet planes don’t fly, then people don’t die. At this age, death is perceived as something that happens to others, not to oneself or one’s family.
  • Middle School: Children at this level have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event that results in the cessation of all bodily functions. They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts discussed by adults or on the TV news but are likely to be guided in their thinking by a concrete understanding of justice. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions, and their expressions may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance and despair.
  • High School: Most teens will fully grasp the meaning of death in circumstances such as an automobile accident, illness and even the World Trade Center or Pentagon disasters. They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief. Teens (as well as some younger children) with a history of depression, suicidal behavior and chemical dependency are at particular risk for prolonged and serious grief reactions and may need more careful attention from home and school during these difficult times.
Helping Children Cope with Suicide Loss for Children and Teens

Helping Children and Teens with Grieving Friends or Classmates

Seeing a friend try to cope with a loss may scare or upset children who have had little or no experience with death and grieving. Following are some suggestions teachers and parents can provide to children and youth to deal with this “secondary” loss.

  • Particularly with younger children, it will be important to help clarify their understanding of death. See tips above under “helping children cope.”
  • Seeing their classmates’ reactions to loss may bring about some fears of losing their own parents or siblings, particularly for students who have family in the military or other risk related professions. Children need reassurance from caregivers and teachers that their own families are safe. For children who have experienced their own loss (previous death of a parent, grandparent, sibling), observing the grief of a friend can bring back painful memories. These children are at greater risk for developing more serious stress reactions and should be given extra support as needed.
  • Children (and many adults) need help in communicating condolence or comfort messages. Provide children with age-appropriate guidance for supporting their peers. Help them decide what to say (e.g., “Steve, I am so sorry about your father. I know you will miss him very much. Let me know if I can help you with your paper route….”) and what to expect (see “expressions of grief” above).
  • Help children anticipate some changes in friends’ behavior. It is important that children understand that their grieving friends may act differently, may withdraw from their friends for a while, might seem angry or very sad, etc., but that this does not mean a lasting change in their relationship.
  • Explain to children that their “regular” friendship may be an important source of support for friends and classmates. Even normal social activities such as inviting a friend over to play, going to the park, playing sports, watching a movie, or a trip to the mall may offer a much needed distraction and sense of connection and normalcy.
  • Children need to have some options for providing support—it will help them deal with their fears and concerns if they have some concrete actions that they can take to help. Suggest making cards, drawings, helping with chores or homework, etc. Older teens might offer to help the family with some shopping, cleaning, errands, etc., or with babysitting for younger children.
  • Encourage children who are worried about a friend to talk to a caring adult. This can help alleviate their own concern or potential sense of responsibility for making their friend feel better. Children may also share important information about a friend who is at risk of more serious grief reactions.
  • Parents and teachers need to be alert to children in their care who may be reacting to a friend’s loss of a loved one. These children will need some extra support to help them deal with the sense of frustration and helplessness that many people are feeling at this time.
Resources for Grieving or Traumatized Children

At times of severe stress, such as the trauma of war or terrorist attacks, both children and adults need extra support. Children who are physically and emotionally closest to this tragedy may very well experience the most dramatic feelings of fear, anxiety and loss. They may have personally lost a loved one or know of friends and schoolmates who have been devastated by these treacherous acts. Adults need to carefully observe these children for signs of traumatic stress, depression or even suicidal thinking, and seek professional help when necessary.

Resources to help you identify symptoms of severe stress and grief reactions are available at the National Association of School Psychologist’s website— www.nasponline.org.