Helping children cope with death and other forms of grief

Councelors guide students through tragedy

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - It’s been a tragic week for Brentwood Elementary students and staff. On Monday, they received news a fellow third grader had been hit and killed by a truck while biking to school.

It is evident that 9-year-old Roman Miller was so loved. A memorial for him on Webber Street at Nodosa Drive only continues to grow. Some of the sentiments on posters from students say, “You will be missed so much Roman, thank you for being so kind to the school.”

Crisis response counselors are on campus to help them get through the hard time, but how do you explain death to a child?

“From Monday morning on the way to school, the timing of this was incredibly shocking for people,” said Rex Ingerick, crisis response personnel for the Sarasota County School District.

The loss of life is hard on anyone, but it hits the community a little harder when it’s a young life taken so soon.

“For them to be able to integrate this event into their processing is really, really difficult," Ingerick said.

Telling Roman Miller’s classmates about their lost friend was a tough conversation for crisis response personnel to have.

“We were trying to encourage them to talk about it so we were asking them questions [like] what do you remember about this student," Ingerick explained. "Which brought some tears and brought a couple of smiles, but mostly tears to think about their friend not being around anymore.”

Painful - but counselors say talking about it is a crucial component of helping children cope with the loss.

They also warn that not every age group will have the same level of understanding. “Some people will be stoic and not look like they have anything going on because they’re trying to process that," Ingerick said. "A couple of kids have a smile on their face and that’s just out of nervous anxiety.”

Though many adults don’t even understand how to deal with grief in a healthy way, the experts have several tips on how to process the emotions with your child.

“Be honest. Tell them the truth. You don’t try to sugarcoat it, would be one way of saying it, you wouldn’t do that," said Ingerick. "To be frank with them. To let them know that whatever feeling they have is appropriate and validate that. To let them know that there are times when they will be sad and then sometimes their life will go on and then they’ll be okay and then something will happen and they’ll be sad again.”

Acceptance. Letting your kids know you’re there for them and letting them know it’s okay to be hurting right now.

The following is a list of additional tips from the Sarasota County School District on how parents can help their children cope with loss and grief:

  • Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences: Give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.
  • Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings; children are different, and their view of the world is unique and shaped by different experiences. (Developmental information is provided below.)
  • Grieving is a process, not an event: Parents and schools need to allow adequate time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child. Pressing children to resume “normal” activities without the chance to deal with their emotional pain may prompt additional problems or negative reactions.
  • Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about the tragic event: Children are often bright and sensitive. They will see through false information and wonder why you do not trust them with the truth. Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for life’s future tragedies or losses.
  • Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death: Give the child information at the level that he/she can understand. Allow the child to guide adults as to the need for more information or clarification of the information presented. Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
  • Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death: Adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.
  • Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way: We all grieve in different ways and there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.
  • Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need: Sometimes children are upset but they cannot tell you what will be helpful. Giving them the time and encouragement to share their feelings with you may enable them to sort out their feelings.
  • Children will need long-lasting support: The more losses the child or adolescent suffers, the more difficult it will be to recover. This is especially true if they have lost a parent who was their major source of support. Try to develop multiple supports for children who suffer significant losses.
  • Keep in mind that grief work is hard: It is hard work for adults and hard for children as well.
  • Understand that grief work is complicated: Deaths that result from a terrorist act or war can brings forth many issues that are difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend. Grieving may also be complicated by a need for vengeance or justice and by the lack of resolution of the current situation: the conflict may continue and the nation may still feel at risk. The sudden or violent nature of the death or the fact that some individuals may be considered missing rather than dead can further complicate the grieving process.
  • Be aware of your own need to grieve: Focusing on the children in your care is important, but not at the expense of your emotional needs. Adults who have lost a loved one will be far more able to help children work through their grief if they get help themselves. For some families, it may be important to seek family grief counseling, as well as individual sources of support.

The Crisis Support Team is at Brentwood Elementary and will be there on Thursday and through the week.

On Wednesday Miller’s family released a statement through the Sarasota County School District:

"We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of our son, Roman Miller. He was a kind, loving, polite, energetic, generous and caring little boy who loved his family, friends and animals very much.

"We would like to thank everyone at Brentwood Elementary and the community for their outpouring of support. We also want to acknowledge the first responders, firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses who treated our son with respect and care.

"We are holding a vigil this Thursday, May 23 at 6 p.m. at Brentwood Elementary. Roman loved going to school and we are grateful to hold a service for his school and community. Attendees are encouraged to wear green as we say a few words and honor our son.

"For those who contributed to the memorial along Webber, thank you. We ask that you use caution when visiting the site – we are concerned for your safety and ask that you not stand in the middle of Webber Street. Also, for those who have contributed to the GoFundMe and Meal Train accounts, thank you. Friends are hosting a fundraiser at Big Top Brewery on June 2 for anyone wanting to attend. Brentwood Elementary is also accepting donations at the school. We feel so blessed for everyone’s generosity and support.

“Official services for Roman have not been finalized. We thank you for your continued good wishes and prayers and appreciate your respect for our privacy during this difficult time.”

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