Grief group helps support students who have lost loved ones

Grief group helps support students who have lost loved ones

Children’s Grief Awareness Day, recognized on November 18, was started to help others understand the impact that the death of a loved one can have on children and teens. Our school is encouraging everyone to wear blue on November 18 to show support for this initiative.

At the high school, that support can be found year round. Librarian Ms. Kate Wilcox and chemistry teacher Mr. Jeff Ward help grieving Shaler Area students with a peer grief group. The group is supported by the Highmark Caring Place whose goal is to “raise awareness of the needs of grieving children and how to respond to them”, and provide a place that supports families who have experienced loss.

The support they provide for students started five years ago when Wilcox had an idea.

She noticed that three students, whom she knew had all lost a parent, were sitting in together in the library. She decided to ask one of them what sort of support they had at school, and the student made a motion of a teacher handing them a stack of books.

At the time, Wilcox had a vague notion of the Caring Place and decided to check out their website, where she discovered that they could bring a grief counselor into the school to work with students who are grieving. She proposed the idea to Dr. Royall, who was supportive, and asked Ward to help her with it because she thought it would help to have two school contacts for the kids when the grief counselor wasn’t available. After two full days of training, Wilcox and Ward talked to the guidance counselors to receive the names of students they could reach out to about their group.

It’s helped a lot. It’s more about being in that environment and everyone who’s around you because there are a lot of people who can relate to your stories and know what you’ve been through.”

— Kollin Williams

Ward describes how there are students who don’t want to join their freshman year, then further down the road they decide to give it a chance. In addition, Wilcox recalls a time when a student told her he would join the group, but he wasn’t going to talk. “The first meeting he was the first one to open up about his loss. So people change their minds and come around too,” she said.

The peer grief group usually has its first meeting at the beginning of the second semester in January and runs for ten weeks, ending at the end of April/beginning of May. Once a week during the school day, the students meet with a grief counselor from the Highmark Caring Place, along with Wilcox and Ward.

“It’s not like a therapy session, it’s not like a counseling session, it’s more giving the kids a safe space to be,” Wilcox said. “The counselors are so good; they really know how to support the kids and encourage them to feel safe and I just can’t thank them enough for everything that they do.”

They usually spend the first four or five weeks just “dipping their toes in the pool”, encouraging students to open up about their experiences. But, as Wilcox describes it, the way the kids open up from the first meeting to the last is “really remarkable.”

Wilcox and Ward receive a lot of positive feedback from the group; whether it be students thanking them or joining again the following year, or just a nod in the hallway from a kid they didn’t previously know, they truly believe it helps.

“It’s helped a lot. It’s more about being in that environment and everyone who’s around you because there are a lot of people who can relate to your stories and know what you’ve been through,” senior Kollin Williams said.

The group has grown tremendously since its start in 2016, as the first year they only had eight students. This year they have so many that they are splitting it so Wilcox takes some students, and Ward takes the others. Their reasoning behind this is they like to keep the groups fewer than ten.

Despite the increase in students who have joined, Wilcox and Ward still want to bring light to their group and raise awareness of grief and loss.

“We want to make people in the school aware that we have this group available, and whether or not you have had this kind of loss in your life, other people have. As human beings we have the capacity to support those people and let them know that we are here for them,” Wilcox said.

We want to make people in the school aware that we have this group available…and let them know that we are here for them.”

— Ms. Kate Wilcox

To accomplish this, Wilcox and Ward have small activities planned for the week leading up to Children’s Grief Awareness Day, recognized on November 18. It was started to help others understand the impact of death on children and teens and their need for support.

It’s still hidden outside of the kids that we talk to. There’s a National Grief Awareness Day, but we’ve never celebrated it. We’re trying to dispel that let’s keep it quiet, keep it hidden. Instead, let’s have it out,” Ward said.

On November 18, all students are encouraged to wear blue to show support for Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Wilcox and Ward also plan on setting up a table in the library with cut-out butterflies, the symbol of the Highmark Caring Place. On these butterflies, students can write an anonymous note of support to a friend who is grieving or a message to someone who has passed away. They also see this as a great opportunity to remember the teachers we have lost this past year.

“(The butterflies are) going to become a memory wall, which is important. Who wouldn’t want to remember somebody they loved?” Wilcox said.

If you have any questions regarding their peer grief group, please see Ms. Wilcox or Mr. Ward.