I'm no expert, but I have had death touch us many times in the classroom, as well as in my family. I am a hospice volunteer. I researched it over the years. There is no right way to handle it, but you must respect the age of the child, and the reality of the situation.
Ontario teachers are wearing black arm bands.
I believe this is wrong if it is being done in schools. As always, there is little real information.
Adults must protect the children. Older kids must protect the younger.
When my cat died two years ago, crossing the street, we used it as a learning opportunity for my 4-year-old granddaughter. We don't talk about Oliver the cat every day. We do bring it out from time to time. Oliver died because he did not look both ways. We are sad. We miss him.
Some counselors tell parents not to show their emotions. This is wrong. Children need to have grief modeled. It is normal. We need to know that it is not the end of the world. Children need to understand traditions, culture and values, as well as spiritual beliefs of their family that gives them strength. We tell them that we can, and will, carry on. For adults, a death that touches our lives brings up grief from our past. It is an opportunity to deal with our emotions, not to live in denial. Hope, faith, the future, they will survive.
We have had frank discussions in classrooms. If death touches us, we deal with it in the here and now. We deal with truth, not rumours. We deal with the questions. We tell them that this happened far away. We tell them that we have many ways to protect ourselves in the schools: lockdowns, locked doors after entry, adults who must sign into the school.
We've had lockdown drills in schools all the time. They work. We had an angry husband shoot a wife in a near-by store. We locked down, it gave us something to focus on.
When death occurs, we let the children talk about their fears and allay them. This hit home on 9/11 in Ottawa. Far from the terror, the kids were terrified to walk home. This is just wrong.
When a sibling of a student passed away, we talked about our worries. We did something positive.
We shared good memories.
"To live in hearts we leave behind is to never die."
We drew or wrote down our fears, put them on paper and destroyed them.
1. Respect their needs to talk or to be silent.
2. Deal with the issues as they arise. Talk to the Trauma Response team if you have students who are directly affected.
3. Listen to their concerns.
4. Let them you know you are upset, too.
5. Model the means by which you deal with your grief.
6. Do not tell them the answers if you do not know the answers.
7. Clear up faulty misperceptions, if they arise. (During 9/11 kids were afraid to walk home. Kids were afraid for their pets, relatives, etc.)
8. Have them talk to their parents about their feelings. Parents need to know.
9. Let them tell their stories. Draw pictures, create poems, write letters.
10. Make a fear box. Cut out pictures from newspapers and magazines that represent their fears.
11. Write down your fears. Assign them a number from 1 - 5. have them talk about these fears with their families.
12. Help others. Do 20 things in remembrance of the children who died. Give a donation to one of the relief agencies.
RESOURCES FOR TALKING WITH YOUR CHILDREN
The following resources may be helpful in speaking with your children about the school shooting in Newtown:
American Red Cross: "Recovering Emotionally"
Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services: Crisis Intervention Hotline
National Association of School Psychologists: "Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers"
Save the Children: "How to Help Children cope with a Crisis"
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: "Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event"
Always, I would read stories to the kids. My favourite, when a grandparent died, was the Ten Best Things About Barnie. The child, who lost a pet, was told to remember ten good things. This is another great opportunity.
The book doesn't matter, the opportunity to share your grief surely does.
What Happened When Grandma Died is terrific. It tells the child that Grandma has a new body, a new home and a new life. I believe in this one.