Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Left and Left Out: Teaching Children to Grieve through a Rehabilitation Curriculum

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Left and Left Out: Teaching Children to Grieve through a Rehabilitation Curriculum

Article excerpt

When somebody dies in real life they really don't die in your heart or spirit.

- Damien, member of children's grief support group

This article describes an ethnographic evaluation of an educational grief program that was based on a curriculum drawn from mental health rehabilitation theory. The program took place at a neighborhood elementary school in Brooklyn, NY. Among the approximately 750 students, 43% are Latino, 19% African American, 5% Arabic, and 33% are Anglo. The idea for the research was conceived when a first grade teacher arrived at the office of the assistant principal (the researcher) holding the hand of a frightened little boy and reported, "This little boy, Ben, got so upset, so angry-about what I don't even know-that he picked up a chair and threw it. When I told him to put back the chair, he hit me. He just cannot continue to behave this way."

From conversing with Ben, it appeared that the above events were the result of a response that was out of proportion to the situation, that is, Ben's classmate took Ben's pencil. At the other extreme and just as noteworthy, was his unemotional report of his father's death 2 years earlier, when he was 4 years old.

Theoretical Rationale

Ben is not unique in his experience of losing a significant other. Hundreds of thousands of children each year experience the death of significant others (Lagorio, 1991; Ross,1992). Among inner city children such as those in this study who are dealing with losses related to AIDS, prostitution, drugs, and random shootings as well as cancer and cardiac conditions, such losses are very much a part of their experience.

Feelings of grief, shame and guilt accompany significant losses, especially among children. In turn, these feelings are often accompanied by feelings of anger and rage, which can be manifested in a variety of ways (Honig, 1986; Ross,1969). Thus, these children have been emotionally traumatized and are in need of mental health rehabilitation.

Similar to the rehabilitation process from physical trauma, the principles of the mental health rehabilitation process include a focus on improving competencies and behaviors at home and / or school via skill and resource development (Anthony Cohen, & Farkas, 1992). The above scenario illustrates Ben's skill and/or resource deficits regarding his ability to grieve, which, in turn, affect his ability to function in his dual role as student and classmate in school.

Children do not often develop the skills and resources with which to grieve because they are routinely left out of the grief process. According to Ross (1969), this occurs because culturally, death is treated as a topic of discussion to ignore and from which to protect children. Children are often kept away from funerals, out of family discussions, and separate from grieving adults. Thus, they are isolated from the support and guidance with which to grieve the losses that have devastated their lives. Other contributing factors include the surviving adult family members' preoccupation with personal grief (McCornack, 1990; Ross, 1992); adult failures in recognizing the way in which children grieve (Fitzgerald, 1992; Giblin & Ryan, 1989); and the fact that children lack a grief vocabulary (Lagorio, 1991).

Although much of the literature regarding the grief process for children is targeted toward their surviving adult family members, schools must join families as equal partners in this endeavor and reflect the real lives of the children (Casper, Schultz, & Wickens, 1992; Lightfoot, 1978). This is especially so concerning the grief process, since children and their families may turn to teachers and other school personnel for comfort, information, and help. School personnel comprise the adult network with whom the children spend most of the waking day and, in addition, are not grieving the family loss (Osterweis & Townsend, 1988).

Ross (1969) describes how the topic of death is silenced, especially at the family level. …

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