Sustainable Support for Grieving Students
Inside this story:
- The death of a parent or sibling during childhood is an adverse experience that increases risk for future behavioral health, academic, and relational problems
- In 2017, the Children’s Grief Center of El Paso (CGC) received funding from the Hogg Foundation to implement a school-based peer-support program for students experiencing grief
- The program draws on research that shows how mental health interventions improve academic achievement, and empowers school counselors to sustain support for students even after the program is over
- The CGC received additional funding from the Hogg Foundation to strengthen their response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic
In August 2019, a small nonprofit offering grief services in El Paso was overwhelmed with families in sudden need of support. The organization was the Children’s Grief Center (CGC) of El Paso, and the precipitous event was the 2019 mass shooting at a local Walmart, the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern American history. El Paso, a city on the border with an 80 percent Hispanic population, has long been a focal point in the national conversation about immigration policies and anti-Latino racism. For the survivors of this tragedy and the families of the 22 people who were killed, the most immediate concern was facing their own profound experiences of grief and loss.
Since 1995, the CGC of El Paso has been supporting children and their families through the complex, painful journey of grieving a loved one. The Center remains the only social service agency in the area providing bilingual, culturally sensitive, peer-based bereavement and grief support services to children and their families. Over the last 25 years the Children’s Grief Center has reached over 3500 children and their families.
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Children in Texas will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18
An estimated 1 in 16 children in Texas will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the time they reach adulthood.
Childhood Bereavement: Understanding Prevalence and Related Adversity in the United States
One out of 16 children in Texas will experience the death of a parent or sibling before the age of 18. The loss of a loved one can impact a child physically, emotionally, behaviorally, and spiritually. The experience of childhood grief, if unaddressed, can result in emotional difficulties for the child that may evolve into more serious, chronic mental health conditions later in life. Unresolved grief in children place them at higher risk for Complicated Grief, associated with self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, preoccupation with death, and chronic mental health disorders, including clinical depression, anxiety, personality disorders and suicide.
“We don’t recognize the mental setbacks that grieving children can have,” says Laura Olague, M.Ed., FT, executive director of CGC El Paso. “The depression, the anxiety, the behavioral disorders – all clinical stuff that they can experience that can only get worse if they don’t have some intervention. If we can keep these kids off having to go to psychiatrists or develop behavioral disorders, then I think that is a huge win for our community.”
Community-based peer-support groups like the ones CGC offers help prevent the onset of depression in grieving children and their families in a way that is proactive, rather than reactive. As opposed to individual therapy, which can be a prolonged process that further isolates a grieving child who may feel alone in their experience, support groups can provide children with a sense of camaraderie and insight as they meet other kids who are having similar experiences.
“When there’s a death, particularly suicide and homicide, there’s always shame involved,” explains Ms. Olague. “They don’t want to tell the other kids how it happened. But when you have one or more kids in a group who say, ‘My parent died the same way,’ it quickly removes that stigma of, ‘I am the only one,’ or, ‘I am embarrassed because it happened to my family member.’ We begin seeing the strengths that they can develop, other than, ‘I’m stuck because I’m the only one.’”
“We begin seeing the strengths that they can develop, other than, ‘I’m stuck because I’m the only one.’”
Sustainable Support for the Entire Community
When Ms. Olague first started CGC El Paso, her understanding of childhood grief was still developing. “When we first started out,” she explains, “we were very naïve. It was about helping the grieving child. Families would drop their kids off and come back, but then children were going back to the same environment, and it wasn’t working. We quickly realized we have to get those parents in here too so that they can begin to work through their grief.”
According to a recent survey on bereavement and family relations, 71 percent of those who lost a parent growing up wish that there had been more resources available to help their surviving parent cope with his or her grief. Forty-seven percent said that the struggles of their surviving parent to cope with the loss had a negative impact on them. Recognizing that the successful resolution of grief in a child hinges upon their surviving parent or adult caregiver’s ability to cope, CGC El Paso developed a more holistic, sustainable approach.
“One of the first things I tell our parents is, you can’t help your kids until you help yourself,” Ms. Olague says. “And that’s where we are going to start – helping you as a parent so you can help your child. So, we involve the parents – they must attend! Our policy is every child must attend with a caring adult.”
Support groups at the CGC are always peer-based, meaning individual children and family members are placed in groups with others who are in similar age groups and life phases. The youngest groups, called the “Littles” are aged 5-8, followed by the “Twiddles,” aged 9-11, the “Middles,” 12-14, and finally the Teens/Young Adults, aged 15-18. In addition, parents can attend men’s and women’s groups, so that they can process their grief with other adults who have recently lost a spouse or loved one. By creating these spaces for children and adults with shared experiences of grief, the CGC empowers those who receive their services to feel safe, heard, and supported.
Every facilitator at the CGC of El Paso is fluent in both English and Spanish and all their groups are bilingual. This is crucial in El Paso, a largely Hispanic community. If there are at least three parents in a group who only speak Spanish, the Center is also able to offer entirely Spanish-speaking groups to accommodate the needs of the families.
Educators agree that childhood grief is a serious problem that deserves more attention from schools
An estimated ninety-three percent of educators agree that childhood grief is a serious problem that deserves more attention from schools; yet only 15 percent of educators said they feel very comfortable addressing students’ emotional needs.
New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers Grief in School survey
Accessibility remains an issue, however, as many families that struggle with transportation are not able to get their children to the Center to receive support services. In addition, many parents may not recognize the depths of their children’s grief. By offering their services throughout the community and within local public-school districts, the CGC is better able to serve children whose struggles may be less visible.
Identification of grief in children depends on schoolteachers, administrators, nurses, and counselors who can recognize the symptoms of grief. Teachers may witness the destructive outcomes of unaddressed grief in school before family members and caregivers become aware that these problems have emerged.
A recent survey found that 93 percent of educators agree that childhood grief is a serious problem that deserves more attention in schools, and 87 percent agree with the statement that “over the past five years, it has become more common for students at my school to seek out emotional support from their teachers.” And yet, only 15 percent of educators said they feel very comfortable addressing students’ emotional needs, including anxiety, grief, and/or trauma. Barely a quarter (24 percent) say they feel very comfortable offering support to a student who suffers the loss of someone close to them.
“By not addressing mental health, it is proven that children do not graduate,” explains Stephany Bryan, Hogg Foundation Senior Program Officer and Consumer & Family Liaison. “They dropout, get into trouble, end up in the juvenile justice system. It’s reckless not to address mental health in the one place where children are all day. If we don’t address their mental health needs, then they will not be able to succeed or thrive in school.” Fortunately, there is a range of well-researched mental health interventions linked to improved academic outcomes.
“It’s reckless not to address mental health in the one place where children are all day. If we don’t address their mental health needs, then they will not be able to succeed or thrive in school.”
In 2017, the Hogg Foundation awarded the CGC of El Paso $188,000 to grow and develop their school-based peer-support program. The CGC is one of seven grantees to receive nearly $2 million in funding through the Hogg Foundation’s Improving Academic Achievement through Mental Health initiative, a three-year grant program with the goal of identifying and building on resources that improve academic achievement and mental wellness.
Public School-Based Grief Support
The school-based grief program offers workshops; training and bereavement events; and train-the-trainer sessions with local school districts. The education program for school counselor consists of two one-hour workshops prior to the start of the peer-based support groups at the participating schools. Each semester, the school-based grief program was able to serve between 126 and 164 individuals, including children, parents, and facilitators.
School-Based Peer-Support Program Outcomes:
- Following the School Grief Support Project, 90 percent of children and teens reported they were better able to express their feelings regarding their deceased loved one.
- Among parents who participated in the program, 90 percent of parents reported learning better coping skills for themselves as they move through their grieving process.
- All participating counselors reported a higher degree of confidence working with grieving students; and
- Most children and teens reported an increase in their ability to focus at school.
One of the keys to the success of this program has been its emphasis on sustainability. By educating the community of school counselors, CGC can sustain support for grieving students even after the program ends. “That was part of the whole intent of the project,” explains Ms. Olague, “that you could pick up where we left off and continue this service.”
In the last several months, the importance of this sustainability model has been felt deeply by those whose school communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. When Ms. Olague spoke with a contact from last Spring’s cohort of school counselors, they mentioned that a child from one of the schools had died from COVID. “We were able to send a group of the school counselors that had gone through the training and participated in the school project to respond to that,” the contact explained, “and we felt much more confident that they could help the family.”
COVID-19 Opens Eyes to Impact of Grief and Loss
In recent weeks, the CGC has had five new families enter the program because of deaths due to COVID-19. These families – who are mostly young, with parents in their late 30s-early 40s – are showing symptoms of grief that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. “The piece that is making it so difficult,” says Ms. Olague, “is that they couldn’t go in to see their loved one because of the regulations hospitals have. When their loved one died, they were in there for three weeks, and they couldn’t see them. The guilt they feel is tremendous.”
Recent findings show that COVID-19 has amplified the need for social and emotional support in our nation’s schools. Three in four educators report that COVID-19 has opened their eyes to the immense impact of grief and loss, and 93 percent believe that the traumatic effects of the coronavirus on students will be felt long-term. Already, we can observe the far-reaching impact the pandemic is having on children’s mental health, communities in schools, students on college campuses, and young people of color.
Since March 2020, The Hogg Foundation has awarded $473,117 to 26 organizations to strengthen their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. CGC El Paso was one of them.
“The pandemic has impeded the way families are able to express their grief,” says Ms. Olague. “How do you share your grief with your friends and family, when you can only have a few people attend the service, or no one? How can anyone come and acknowledge or celebrate the person who died?” This inability to gather and celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed can intensify feelings of disbelief in children and their families, who may be struggling to accept their new reality.
On a program level, the CGC has had to adapt. During the first few months of the pandemic, the Center did their best to recreate their group sessions in a virtual setting using Zoom. These virtual sessions were met with mixed reviews. “I absolutely hate Zoom sessions,” admits Ms. Olague. “The kids don’t like them. They like the human interaction. They like to be able to sit across the table and smile at each other.” Fortunately, since May 1, in-person sessions at the Center have resumed, albeit with new mask requirements and social distancing.
“We are one children’s bereavement center in El Paso,” explains Ms. Olague. “And we have a large community. Do I wish we could reach more? Of course, I do. But we do the best we can with the resources we have. And we have been able to do that with the help of the Hogg Foundation. I don’t know what we would have done without their help.”
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