by Chrystal Kelly, High School Counselor at The American International School of Muscat, Oman and ISCA Task Force Member with Special Thanks to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Grief Counselor and Educator and Ms. Andrea Callaway, Middle School Counselor at The American International School of Muscat, Oman
I wrote this article “Helping Students After the Loss of a Loved One” four years ago for the International School Counselor Association because of my passion for supporting people during grief and loss experiences, and especially students after the death of a loved one. I am now updating the article with a “virtual twist” in order to support school counselors and helping professionals around the world who are experiencing this pandemic of grief.
You may ask, what is this pandemic of grief? Well, I was fortunate to work with the three wonderful children of grief counselor and educator, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who directs the Center for Loss and Life Transition. He states, “As human beings, whenever our attachments are threatened, harmed, or severed, we naturally grieve. Grief is everything we think and feel inside of us when this happens. We experience shock and disbelief. We worry, which is a form of fear. We become sad and possibly lonely. We get angry. We feel guilty or regretful. The sum total of all these and any other thoughts and feelings we are experiencing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is our grief.”
“Our pandemic grief will change from day to day and week to week. This virus is fast. As it sweeps across continents and we collectively take action to “flatten the curve,” new rules and limitations are popping up every day. Restrictions are mounting and growing increasingly severe. As circumstances grow more dire, our grief will change. And as with the virus itself, it will likely get worse before it gets better.”
In order to help ourselves emotionally, socially, and spiritually, Dr. Wolfelt reminds us that we will feel better if we mourn. He says, “Mourning is being aware of your grief, giving it the attention it needs and deserves, and expressing it outside of yourself.” This is what we all have to remember for ourselves and for the communities we are helping during this very difficult time. Self-care is so important and the reminders that Dr. Wolfelt provides are imperative:
Acknowledge the reality of the pandemic as well as your grief
Honor all your feelings
Practice gratitude for the good in your life
Be kind to yourself
Search for meaning
Reach out to others and give and accept support
That last bullet point is what really helps ground me. Whether it is through the ISCA network, my school community, my family and friends, or connecting with Dr. Wolfelt, I am stronger when I reach out and both help and ask for help. Dr. Wolfelt may not know this, but he has been a grief and loss mentor for me and his work has helped with my own grief and loss, and in my learning to “mourn well”. Over the years I have worked with many students individually and in grief support groups and his words have always resonated in those situations. They have once again surfaced now, as I think about how to best support my students and school community with grief and loss virtually, and I am thankful.
Supporting Students Virtually - Tools
As school counselors and helping professionals, we know that one of the most difficult things students, and especially teenagers, can deal with in their lives is the death of a loved one. That loved one could be a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, friend, or even a pet. As international school counselors we understand that grieving can often be different for every student depending on their age, culture, religion, support systems, understanding of the circumstances of the death, relationship with the individual whom they have lost, previous experiences with death, (and now the Coronavirus).
In order to help students and families after the death of a loved one it is important to learn more about what a student or family may or may not need during this process. This is usually facilitated with the help of your School Response Team. There are many models out there to help with creating grief response teams. This template is a very basic family response team plan that could be tailored to your school after the death of a student's parent or relative. If grief impacts your school, a Response Team that includes administrators or coordinators can help shoulder the far reaching impact that loss can have, from a systems perspective, on the school. During a Response Team meeting, the agenda can focus, for example, on who on the team might manage information about the loss/grief, who might communicate with staff, and who might address school logistics, making it possible for you, as counselor, to attend to the needs of the family or student. Delineation of roles and responsibilities can also keep you well as you manage the sometimes emotionally challenging issues that a crisis, within a time of crisis, might present. Finally, a Response Team approach to grief and/or loss within your school system alerts supervisors to what you, as counselor, may need in terms of managing time and consultation needs.Additional resources about creating a crisis or grief response team plan are provided at the end of this article.
As we are challenged during this time by not being able to connect with students and families in person, we will have to do our best to connect with them through voice calls, video calls, emails, texting, and social media. Dr. Wolfelt reminds me, “The point is to stay connected as much as possible AND to be open and honest in those communications about whatever it is you are feeling or struggling with at the moment. Your candor will encourage others to be honest as well, creating the opportunity for mutual support and kindness.” For example, sending that email or WhatsApp condolence to the family after a student’s parent dies is the best work we can be doing right now. Asking them what might be most helpful at this time is important even if we can’t do a whole lot in our social distancing spaces.
Depending on how the family responds and what needs they have in regards to their specific grief situation, the list below represents a variety of ways to work virtually to help students as they grieve.
1. Meeting individually with the student via GoToMeeting, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.
Some students are ready to talk right away after a loss and I encourage you as a school counselor to take advantage of these very important times to connect (even if it is online). Talking about death can be difficult, even for counselors, and it is important to make sure you have colleagues or other individuals you can also consult with after tough meetings. If you are the lone counselor in your school and don’t have a response team, reach out to our ISCA network. We are in this together! For those students not wanting to talk right away it is important to provide students with space and privacy, and to make sure they know you are a willing resource when they do want to talk. In addition, making sure your staff is aware of a loss and how to respond is very important as many students find resources in their teachers or other trusted adults in your school.
2. Providing information virtually.
In working with students as school counselors we know how important it is to provide a variety of resources for students. Each student is unique in how they grieve. Some students want to talk, some want to read, and many others simply have questions about the confusion that they feel and want to learn more. Providing students with different genres of books, websites, and tips can be helpful and easy to send in an email. In addition, I have found that students are often helped by the discussion of “what is normal?” Being able to either talk or provide information to students that assures them that all the different ways they are reacting to death is normal will help. Remind students to not judge themselves or others and that comparing one person’s loss to another’s is not therapeutic. Instead, helping students see that each person has the right to express their grief in their own special way is important. As Dr. David Kessler, grief expert, said with Brené Brown in her podcast on Grief and Finding Meaning, “The worst loss is always your loss.”
3. Facilitating a grief support group virtually.
One of the most rewarding things I have done in my school counseling career is to facilitate small (6-10 students) grief support groups. Now, I have never facilitated a grief support group virtually, so that means I may have to think about things differently. For example, I may decide to do a group with a student who has lost a parent and include a sibling, friends, or even other family members. Although these groups have typically been six to eight weeks long for forty to fifty minutes (timing can vary) each week, I may decide to try four weeks for 30 minutes.
Before I begin a group virtually, I will meet individually with the students in a GoToMeeting and explain what a grief group is and find out about interest. I have always tried to find a location that is conducive to good group dynamics (a room where students can have privacy, sit in a circle, and be comfortable) and I will still encourage that for students in their homes meeting with me online.
It is important to still have a group plan and purpose for each session, along with a check-in and closure activity. The power in a grief group is that students (especially teenagers) see that there are others dealing with grief and it becomes less isolating. It truly becomes a support group for not only grief but other issues and concerns in a student’s life. I have facilitated these groups differently every time I have done them in person, and I will continue to use resources from many different places as I explore virtual groups with students. Of course, I always like to refer to Dr. Wolfelt and he has a variety of support group ideas for children of all ages in this resource: Companioning the Grieving Child Curriculum Book.
Here are some examples of grief group topics for an eight week session (choose the number of weeks that fits your schedule and the student). Many of these ideas can still be used virtually when meeting with students.
Group 1: Why are you here? Establishing goals and norms and sharing stories.
Group 2: Grief support, education, responses. Who are your resources?
Group 3: Sharing memories (pictures, mementos, other).
Group 4: Art/music therapy-drawing/writing/music to describe what our losses look and feel like.
Group 5: Secondary losses-how do you cope?
Group 6: Spirituality/rituals/ceremonies/cultural differences
Group 7: Rose/Balloon Ceremony (activity where students can honor, celebrate or acknowledge the loss)
Group 8: Closing, lunch and next steps. Set a date for a reunion meeting.
If you are not comfortable facilitating your own virtual grief group there are virtual support groups that organizations are creating and that you can refer students. Both the Dougy Center and grief.com have great resources.
4. Creating a virtual book club to help with grief.
There are many great resources available to help students and families deal with grief and loss. This resource comes from one of our ISCA Task Force members and has some great books to reference. Some of my favorite books and websites are listed on the ISCA website too. A book club can be a great way to facilitate grieving for students and families. I have shared books with families and then come back together with the family a month or so later to process. In addition, one of my favorite books for students who are grieving “in general” is How to Survive the Loss of a Love. This book can help students with death, breakups, moves, and other major transitions. I think it could even be helpful during this pandemic. Simply find a time virtually (after school with food maybe) to either process chapters or the entire book if it is short. Similar to a grief group, students often find the support that comes from one another very valuable, even when it means being online.
5. Referring to online resources in and outside of your country.
Sometimes students need additional support that a school cannot provide. This is when it is important to understand what resources are available in the country you are in. Are their hospice centers, grief counselors, and others who specialize in helping students and families with these concerns? Some medical offices and clinics in certain countries are offering virtual therapy appointments to support grief, loss, and other mental health concerns. Helping students find someone that can listen to them without being judgmental and accept them as they are is important. Understanding what cultural or religious expectations a student and family have of an outside counselor or therapist is also a major factor. ISCA is lucky to have a strong relationship with the Truman Group. The Truman Group provides high quality remote psychotherapy and mental health consultation to expatriates living around the world. They work with individuals, couples, families and children in regions of the world that have few local English-speaking resources available for mental health.
We can do this! Grief and loss can be a difficult topic but there are many great resources available to help with so many of the above ideas. Don’t forget to check out the ISCA website and learn about these resources and also connect with the people that you can consult and network with (think about those school/division/city school counselor groups you probably already have in place). It is so important that we work together and share our stories with each other so that we can best help our students, families and staff by being role models in how to do that. In the wise words of Brené Brown, “Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we'll ever do.”