Grief, Loss and Trauma
Grief is an emotion that all of us will experience at one time in our lives. Research shows that seven out of 10 teachers have a student affected by loss in their classroom. The challenges associated with grief can lead to missed school days, a loss of concentration and falling behind in school work. Too often, schools fail to properly assist grieving students. A compassionate response and a supportive environment can go a long way in preventing long-term damage to the student’s educational progress and enhancing their social and emotional well-being.
NEA Healthy Futures, as part of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students unveiled a full website of resources for schools at www.GrievingStudents.org to help educators and parents support students as they go through the bereavement process.
Every adult in a school building plays a role in this supportive environment as part of a school’s comprehensive approach to school health and safety. With the proper training and resources, school personnel will be empowered to support students and respond appropriately in times of grief and crisis.
You can download additional resources for grief, loss and trauma at the bottom of this page.
A Continuum of Trauma
While grief and loss are sad reality of life, hard times seem to have become epidemic for many families and communities in recent years. Between 2007 and 2010, the average U.S. family lost 40 percent of its wealth. Home foreclosures, job losses, and the resulting rise in food insecurity leave more families relying on the social safety net of public services and charities. Natural disasters, like hurricanes and wildfires, displace families and cause devastating destruction to communities.
Schools provide structure and reassuring routines as well as responsive and supportive relationships. Caring, trusted adults and qualified school-based professionals can support students in times of need and refer them for more intensive services if necessary.
A connection to school is one of the most significant protective factors in children’s lives, helping them develop resilience. Resilience refers to our tendency to cope with stress and is commonly understood as a process rather than a character or personality trait. In addition to developing individual coping mechanisms, children’s positive connections to people in school—teachers, administrators, and their peers—can help promote resilience.
One’s ability to recovery from any traumatic experience also has much to do with what happens after the event and what kind of support one receives.
Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Growth
Exposure to a traumatic experience can have very different effects on different people, particularly children who may not understand the context or nature of the event. Furthermore, repeated exposure to multiple adverse experiences or chronic environmental stressors can have a cumulative effect on a person, leading to any number of symptoms on a continuum of post-traumatic stress responses, as seen in PTSD.
More than 75 percent of us will experience one or more traumatic events in our lifetimes, and will likely experience stress symptoms as a result. Stress symptoms are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We human beings have an amazing capacity for resilience, and research shows most people feel and function better over time. For most people, the symptoms of stress will lessen or disappear entirely.
Some people will develop acute stress disorder, a temporary disorder with symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs within four weeks of a traumatic event and lasts at least two days but no more than four weeks. When the normal post-trauma stress response persists for over a month or do not go away over time, the diagnosis may be PTSD.
No more than 10 percent of those who experience traumatic events will develop PTSD. But, encouragingly, most people who do develop PTSD experience some degree of recovery including a reduction in symptoms and a restoration of capacity to function.
Although our schools are among the safest places for children, we know all too well that traumatic events do not stop at the schoolhouse doors. School staff members often must act as first responders when faced with violence in schools and are not immune to the effects of these traumas.