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Crisis, Traumatic Event, Death, Grief and Bereavement

The death of a school community member can be a crisis event. A crisis is defined as a state of emotional turmoil. Emotional crises have four characteristics:

  1. They are sudden.
  2. The "normal" method of coping with stress failed.
  3. Are short in duration. Most crises last from twenty-four to thirty-six hours and rarely for longer than six weeks.
  4. Have potential to produce dangerous, self-destructive, or socially unacceptable behavior.

Traumatic Event
A death of a school community member is a traumatic event if the impact on the students and staff is sufficient enough to overwhelm the usual effective coping skills. Traumatic events are typically sudden, powerful events which are outside the range of ordinary human experiences. Because of the suddenness of the event, even well-trained, experienced people can experience a sense of strong emotions.

Determining The Degree Of Trauma Following A Death
Three variables are generally considered:

  1. Who - The number of people the person who has died knew and his/her length of time at the school.
  2. How - The circumstances of the death (suicide or murder generally result in more trauma than death by natural causes.)
  3. Where - A death at school or to and from school and school-related activities generally results in more trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress
Some students may experience post-traumatic stress as a result of a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress is a condition which is precipitated by an event beyond the range of typical experience. A student who has, for example, suffered repeated losses in their life may experience post-traumatic stress upon the death of a friend. Also, students may experience post-traumatic stress if a catastrophe has occurred at school (i.e., shooting of teacher or students, natural disaster, etc.) Symptoms of post-traumatic stress include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event (flashbacks).
  • Avoidance of stimuli the person associates with the traumatic event.
  • Numbing of general responsiveness.
  • Pattern of distressful behavior which lasts longer than one month.

Group Support

  • Providing a safe and supportive environment.
  • Reassuring the person that the reaction is a normal reaction to abnormal stress.
  • Helping the person discharge "pent-up" emotions and pain.

Often times, counseling groups provide the most support for the individual, particularly teenagers. The ideal group size is from six to eight members.The group sessions should be time limited with the purpose of providing mutual support and understanding as each group member deals with their reactions to the traumatic event.

The sudden loss of a student or adult in the school system is a tragic event and can be a point of crises for the school system. The school community's response to the death situation will set the stage for how well people cope with the loss. The best approach to a death is to acknowledge the death, encourage people to express their emotions and feelings, and provide adequate supportive assistance and counseling.

Bereavement is the process of grieving. The process is unique for each person and may last from six months to two years.

Grief is the sorrow, emotions, and confusion we experience as a result of the death of someone important to us. Grief is mourning the loss of that person and mourning for ourself.

All people grieve differently, depending upon their own life experiences. However, all grief is painful, and like all other pain, the body's first reaction to grief may be a feeling of numbness as if one were in shock.

Grief And Children

Preschool To Age Nine
This age child usually sees death as temporary and reversible. Between ages of five and nine, children begin to see death more like adults but still believe it will never happen to them.

Age Nine To Eleven
Child begins to understand death can happen to them. Death is becoming more real. This age child may show keen interest in the cause of death, details of the funeral, and in the biological aspects of death.

The adolescent searches for the meaning of life, which includes death. "Why" questions will be asked, many of which have no concrete answers. Often, adolescents' emotional response to death will be very intense and issues of unresolved grief of divorce of parents, etc., will emerge.

The Healing Process
A major part of the healing process is allowing oneself to experience the intense emotions associated with the pain of grief. The emotions typically experienced are:

  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Depression

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has developed five stages to the healing process:

  • Denial and Isolation
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Guidelines For Helping Someone Who Is Grieving

When we are required to respond to a death, we ask ourselves: What should I do? What should I say? A few suggestions are:

  • The best action is to take some kind of action. Let the students know how you feel, encourage them to express their feelings and provide support to those who are grieving. Do not restrict the amount of time for the conversations to be finished so that the student does not sense "urgency" in your conversation.
  • Be a good listener and accept the words and feelings being expressed. Don't minimize the loss and avoid giving cliches and easy answers.
  • Encourage the grieving person to care for themselves.
  • Acknowledge and accept your own limitations. Sometimes you may wish to have the help of outside resources.

Emotional First Aid
During the first few days following the death of a student or adult in the school community, each adult will be responsible for administering emotional first aid to those in distress. The goal of emotional first-aid is to give people permission to express their emotions during this time of acute distress. Emotional first aid is the freely giving of support without becoming invasive.

The first stage of emotional first aid is through words. Keep your words simple and be brief.

  • Use simple questions."Can I help?"
  • Use simple suggestions."It's okay to let it out."
  • Use simple comments. "It must really hurt." "You must feel very bad."

During the grief process, a person may quickly switch emotions. The primary switch of emotions while crying is to anger. Encourage the person to express his/her anger without pushing it to the point of rage. The best way to be encouraging is to accept the person's feelings of anger.

When administering emotional first aid, don't push the contact with the grieving person. Take "no" for an answer. If you are concerned about the well being of the person, stay nearby, find them something to drink, or make some gesture of caring for his/her well being.

Problematic Expressions Of Grief
People grieve in different ways. Occasionally a student or adult may grieve in a manner that potentially could be harmful to the person. When administering emotional first aid, be aware of the following problematic expressions of grief:

Acting Out
Getting "carried away" by an enthusiastic expression of grief. Take the person's grief seriously and consult a crises management team member.

Self Pity
This is a normal part of grief but at times becomes problematic in that it can bring out anger in the helper. The helper needs to restrain his/her emotions but still be guided by his/her feelings.

This can be a serious situation. This is when the grieving person has no affectual response. If attempts to communicate with the person fail, remain with the person and have someone get help.

Endless Hysterical Sobbing
Be patient with the person, the sobbing will stop when the person is exhausted. Make the person as comfortable as possible, usually covering with a blanket.

Self-Destructive Behavior
In rare instances, the person may become self-destructive by running around the room, crashing into objects. You may have to encourage the person to yell, restrain without harming, etc. Do not leave the person, but get additional help as quickly as possible.

© 2021 Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency