A key component of crisis recovery and renewal is sharing stories, constructing individual and collective coherent narratives, and resourcing ourselves. This page shares stories (one kind of resource) and guidance (another kind of resource) that help us lead ourselves and each other through crises towards recovery and renewal.
[Note: this page will soon become a blog; right now, we’re posting stories and resources-voices from the field- that we’ve published in newsletters to our network to help increase access. Stay tuned for the real blog! Also- want to write a piece about your school crisis recovery & renewal leadership? Email Livia at lrojas [at] cars-rp [dot] .org.
As always, you can access our team and coaches network by filling out a form and we’ll get in connection to see how we can support you. We’re here to talk through any of the resources we offer, questions that might come up, or more.
Supporting Grief Awareness
November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month and November 18th is recognized as Children’s Grief Awareness Day (and we know that the work continues before and after November!).
Here, we offer different ways and approaches to deepen our school culture’s comfort with grief, grieving, and so much more. From personal stories from staff, resources we’re curated, and more, we hope all of us as school crisis leaders feel more efficacious in embracing grief so that we can hold all the emotional realities and possibilities for the children and students we serve.
- “A Book List to Help Navigate Grief with Young People” by Brianna Young, SCRR Field Coach
- “Honest Reflections from an Educator about Holding Circles after Loss” by SCRR Field Coach, Oriana Ides
- “Shared bereavement, from my daughter’s perspective” by Angela Castellanos, SCRR Adjunct faculty
- “5 Things I wish my teachers knew when I lost my dad” by Yesmina Luchsinger, SCRR Adjunct Faculty
by Brianna Young, SCRR Field Coach
Narratives and storytelling are universally a part of the healing process after a major loss or crisis. Children’s picture books serve a valuable purpose in giving voice to big things little ones may not be able to explain, validating their thoughts and reactions and equipping them with ideas to cope and move toward healing. We don’t have to underestimate the power of storytelling for older children (young people, students) as well – even junior high or high school students can see the poetry and narrative elements in books designed for young readers and use them as a mold or template to tell their own stories.
After you read, consider engaging in a discussion to process the story and make connections, opening the door to ongoing communication using the language and framing of the story. Specifically when stories use analogies or metaphors, it is helpful to make things concrete and clear for young people and adolescents alike.
A few questions that you can offer students to consider while reading together or when processing the story:
- What did you connect with in this story?
- How are you and the main character similar? Different?
- Which part of the story felt like something you have felt recently?
- What questions do you want to ask after reading this story?
- How are you feeling after reading this story?
- What are you learning about yourself from this story?
Here are a few recommended picture books.
The Rabbit Listened (Cori Doerrfeld, 2015)
The emotions and reactions children feel in sadness and loss vary and change. One book, The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, follows Taylor, a young child processing the loss of something beautiful. Each animal comes to visit the child and offer advice or support in one specific way, until Rabbit comes along and let’s Taylor just sit, until Taylor is ready to feel what they need to feel. This book moves through a range of emotional responses to loss, from anger, revenge, sadness, remembering, and more. Order the book or watch a virtual read-aloud.
One Wave at A Time (Holly Thompson, 2018)
Using an extended metaphor, the book One Wave at A Time by Holly Thompson explores the cycle of grief in a way accessible to young children by comparing it to a wave. Sometimes the water is flat and feels dull, other times it is turbulent and crashes, just like our feelings and energy relating to loss. While this book deals explicitly with Kai and the loss of Kai’s dad, the themes can transcend through experiences. Order the book and check out this classroom guide from the author.
A Land Called Grief (Maddie Janes, 2020)
This book tracks the journey of the stages of grief, and readers walk through each stage of emotion and response as the main character journeys through a new strange land. This story does not linger on grief, however, but opens the door to hope and possibility, even within and after something sad. The main character, Jack, tries to adapt and respond to this new land, and readers will be able to connect and relate to each of his actions and decisions. Order the book and access a companion guide.
The Memory Tree (Britta Teckentrup, 2013)
The tree becomes a central figure in this story as a symbol for what can grow after a difficult loss. This story follows Fox, who becomes tired and falls into a forever sleep: death. His other animal friends begin to gather in his favorite spot, retelling memories and special stories of their friend Fox. As they share, the tree begins to grow bigger and fuller with each memory that is shared. This addresses themes of memorialization and remembering, and how something new can grow from sadness and loss. Check out the video telling of the story and / or order the book.
A Kid’s Book About Death (Taryn Schuelke, 2020)
This popular series of books covers a wide range of topics, and has been critically acclaimed. This iteration engages practically and carefully around the topic of death in clear and straightforward ways, and would make a great companion to read along with any of the books listed above. While many use analogy or metaphor, this book explains concepts in a nonfictional way, addressing emotions and facts clearly and sympathetically. Order this book.
Vacío (Anna Llenas Serra, 2015) en español
Vacio is a beautiful story narrating the process of grieving, connecting the emotional experience to a physical one. The main character has an unexpected loss, and feels a deep emptiness within herself, and she is unsure how to understand it. She experiences a range of emotions that cause her to search out possibilities to fill that emptiness, only to discover that she can learn to live with that emptiness, and complete herself in other beautiful ways. Order a copy of this book.
La balada del Rey y la muerte (Various Authors, 2012) en español
Featuring short illustrated stories from a variety of authors, this book follows the journey of a king who is looking to understand death. His advisors can explain how, but not always what or why, so the king decides to try to catch death herself. He looks to defeat her, living on for ages and ages, only to realize that without death, life is not life. Order a copy.
Native Stories on Grief and Loss (Various Authors)
Explore this book list from Strong Nations Publishing featuring books from Indigenous authors and storytellers around grieving and loss. Books offered range across ages and topics, offering beautiful storytelling, illustrations, and biographical stories.
Looking for more?
- Check out this downloadable list of recommended books for a variety of ages from the National Association of School Psychologists.
- The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards has lesson plans, publications, and video resources to help open up discussions with students about death, dying, and grief by engaging their curiosity and creativity: Classroom Resources on Grief and Loss (Abdulhadi, 2021).
It’s never too young to talk to children about grief
These stories focus on grief and loss in a variety of ways, from analogy, storytelling, and nonfictional accounts.
Coupling these texts with conversation is important to help young people process what they read, and we are encouraged to use direct and concrete language: “this person died; their body stopped working” versus “they are no longer here or with us” which can create confusion.
Through storytelling, we build conversational bridges, finding ways to connect and create shared language.
Holding circles in schools after loss: Honest Reflections from an Educator about Holding Circles after Loss
by SCRR Field Coach, Oriana Ides
Engaging in conversation about grief, bereavement and loss with young people always surfaces a multitude of considerations and feelings for me as an educator, youth advocate, and therapist. Over the course of my tenure in education, I have seen the beautiful growth beyond trauma that is possible when structural opportunities for our humanity are created; spaces such as circles that allow for our students to be seen and felt within the school day. And still: regardless of the number of circles I’ve held after the loss of a community member, I worry about my ability to show up at the right time, in the right ways.
Depending on my proximity to the loss a school has experienced and my proximity to the time of that experience, I wade through varying degrees of fear at the thought of creating an experience for young people that doesn’t induce even more harm. Along with fear and a deep sense of responsibility, being a part of my school community’s collective and individual healing journey brings me incredible gratitude. Facilitating a what some call a talking circle for young people as a means towards healing through bereavement requires an artful balance of hard skill (e.g., the choreography, design, script, facilitation methods) and ways of being (e.g., presence, response, intuition, discernment).
With that said, in my experience, facilitating a circle well and with integrity means that one must be able to navigate firmness and boundaries, a commitment to safety on a micro level, and steadiness, all while leading with a soft heart and tongue. It requires diligence to detail (firm!) and trusting the process (soft!). With this being said, the only way to embody this tension is through holding it with attunement and reflection in regards to the many needs of the circle. These needs include what arises for me as an educator personally and professionally (even if I’m leading the circle, I might be grieving, too).
The following are guideposts I’ve learned along the way as an educator when supporting students processing loss in schools through circles:
- Establish and Maintain Safety. Safety is a precursor to any authentic, honest and transformative sharing. As the primary facilitator of a talking circle after loss, and possibly, as the only adult in the room, I see it as my responsibility to protect the emotional and physical safety of our circle members at all times. Creating group agreements, discussing what will happen if those agreements aren’t upheld and being transparent and instructional when I see safety breaches within the circle is critical to establishing and maintaining trust and safety.
- Ensure Consent. There is so much within a young person’s day that they don’t have control over; being a part of a circle after experiencing loss should definitely not be one of those times (meaning, the circle should be an offering, not a demand). Allowing students to choose to be a part of something as intimate and personal as a talking circle that processes loss is integral to creating meaningful partnership and participation in the circle; indeed voice and choice is a living practice of trauma informed principles. Watching for signs of verbal and non-verbal resistance throughout the circle is important as is allowing for an honorable out at any point within the duration of the circle.
- Allow for multiple entry points and ways of engagement. The use of song, poetry, quotes, journaling and art have served as powerful tools that encourage reflective thinking as well as support youth in accessing language that is authentic to what they might be experiencing. Not all students or young people want to talk (or can talk) about the bereavement they are holding; as a facilitator, I think about creating other ways of expression beyond the verbal to process bereavement. Sometimes it’s sitting in silence.
- Intentional Self-Disclosure. Knowing when and how much of my own grieving and grief journey to share has taken me some time to figure out; it has been a journey of trial and error. Personal sharing can be invaluable in building rapport, exposing my own humanity, communicating care and modeling possible ways of contributing to a circle. It is important to give some attention to why you are sharing before determining what and when to share. Practicing discernment, in what way of personal experience, you share is necessary. As much as it is always my intention to communicate the many ways I stand in solidarity with my students, as facilitator of the circle, the circle is not for me, it is for them. Though I benefit immensely from being in and holding the space, I have to center the young people in my circle over my own need to share and find spaces within my community where I am able to tend to my wounds.
Here are reflective questions I offer myself and you as colleagues in this bereavement work, questions to ask myself and yourself prior to holding space of others:
- Do I have the internal and external resources to hold space for others now?
- Who might I lean on for support if needed (e.g., do I have peers and adults in the school community to ensure I have a space to prepare or debrief my experience)?
- Who might I refer students to if their need is beyond my capacity?
- Who within the circle I am leading might need my physical and/or emotional proximity? Who do I need to keep a closer eye out for during the circle process?
- What community agreements do I already have within my practice, school community, school culture, or already existing circles that I can call into and/or re-establish in this specific space to support the processing of our loss?
Resources on facilitating Circles, “holding space” and other resources I’ve found that help me help my students processing loss:
- Virtual Grief Circles: A Hosting Guide from The Circle Way (The Circle Way, 2020)
- Circle process, 5 ways to effective processing of grief & trauma. (Miner, 2012)
- Holding liminal space (Plett, 2016)
- The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership (Plett, 2020)
- In the Circle: Shared Grief is Half the Grief (van Woerkom, 2016)
- Venet, Alex Shevrin (2019) “Role-Clarity and Boundaries for Trauma-Informed Teachers,” Educational Considerations: Vol. 44: No. 2. https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2175
- Curriculum: Introducing Talking Circles in the Classroom (Ides, 2010)
I am forever grateful for the deep love, grief, honesty, affirmation and celebration of life I have been allowed to witness and feel as a part of talking circles after loss with my students in our bereavement. These beautiful opportunities to honor life and share our truths have undoubtedly shaped who I am, in every realm of my life.
What did and does bereavement mean to you? A conversation between a school social worker and her daughter
By Angela Castellanos, SCRR adjunct faculty
Angela interviews her daughter Jamee about the loss experience of Angela’s partner and Jamee’s father. Angela asked Jamee: What did bereavement mean to you then? How did school support you? Not support you? How do you understand bereavement today?
I was honored to be asked to write my story about bereavement and its connection to my role as a social worker of 25 years, a partner and a mother. It has been a special journey to learn from my experiences through the lens of each role. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have supported hundreds of individuals during their grief journeys. It was easier to be an outsider joining their pain and struggle instead of looking internally at my personal experiences with bereavement.
That’s because the internal takes work and intention. Personally, the internal work was difficult, exhausting and long. As a professional, I knew what to do, I knew the work it took, and I was very fortunate to have the resources to help me through this journey. But the exploration took me further. As I thought about the questions, “What did bereavement mean to me?”, my curiosity led me to wonder how my perspective was different or the same from my daughter. Afterall, we experienced these losses-these crises- together. I invited her in to tell me her story, give me insight on what her experience was like losing her dad at eight years old, experiencing a major crisis at 16, and now as a 28-year-old, losing her grandmother, and how she made meaning of bereavement years later.
Here’s a capture of our conversation:
Angela: What does bereavement mean to you, then?
Jamee: When my dad died, I wasn’t aware of what bereavement meant. I was confused. But I do remember feeling nauseous and I knew something was wrong. As an 8-year-old, this meant that my body was telling me that I was experiencing something, but I couldn’t figure out what that was. After the crisis, I remember every single detail. Although I was only 8, I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew what was happening. I didn’t feel things right away, there was a pause for a moment. When my aunt came to pick me up at my uncle’s house where the homicide occurred after the crisis, I then felt sad. Bereavement didn’t make sense to me as a child. But at that time, it felt like I was going through a process my body was telling me and I knew I was sad.
Angela: How did school support you and not support you?
Jamee: Each death related crisis I experienced was at different ages and times. When my dad died, my 3rd grade teacher really helped me. She always checked in with me and gave me my space when I didn’t want to talk about it. The school also allowed me to add a memory tile to the “Wall of Honor”. This was a nice process. I didn’t really need the school support because I had the support from home (note from Angela: Jamee may not remember, but educators and the school partnered with our family to create seamless support; the fact that it was so seamless that she didn’t notice in itself is positive). But those that don’t have the same support, I encourage to seek it. It is helpful to talk to someone about the experience. It helps to set some normalcy for all of the feelings that come during the grief process. Especially as a child, I just needed to understand the death part because my situation at that time was very tragic. The adults at school can be supportive by being comfortable with bereavement, checking in with students is important, and open the space when the child is ready to talk about it.
Angela: How do you understand bereavement today?
Jamee: Now that I am older, I understand that bereavement is a part of life, a process and it can impact you in different ways at various phases in life. The hardest part for me was that each event happened at different times and were all very tragic. I don’t want to lessen someone else’s experience just because they were not traumatic or tragic as mentioned everyone has a different experience. After my grandmother died, I lost my faith for a moment. After three years, I have been able to rebuild that faith, to understand that this is a continual process and I’ve learned to be kind to myself as I experience each step.
My dad died 19 years ago, and there are seasons that he comes up for me. For instance, I would have wanted him to see how great I was in sports, he would have been joyful about that because he was competitive and athletic. At times other emotions come up, and I ask myself “Why are you still upset about this?” My awareness has helped me to understand these emotions, that they may creep up at times, and that I may not want to work through them at the moment. But I go back to being kind and compassionate knowing “that this too shall pass” and it’s a process. It has been helpful to stay focused on the present, work with what’s in front of you, and let it take its course. This is how the process works, there are ups and downs and the grief stages do not happen in order.
I continue to seek support when I need it. I am more comfortable with sharing my story with others and happy that I have the support I need in my life to feel safe, secure and loved.
Listening to my daughter’s story provided insight into my devotion as a parent to wanting her to be safe and just be okay as she processed grief as a child and now as a young adult. Balancing my roles as a social worker and mother was definitely a process when her dad died. However, here are some helpful tips that can guide your journey.
As a parent and a caregiver:
- Be curious: learn ways on how children work through grief and connect to how your own child is working through their own grief
- Be patient: sometimes children may not be ready to share or they may not know how to share their grief
- Connect: support that is helpful such as friends, family and/or spirituality
- Learn: Explore resources that support growth such as counseling, support groups.
- Teach: share the cultural ways to celebrate your loved ones, find a way that is comfortable for your child to celebrate together
- Allow: Let the process happen when it needs to, once children learn to verbalize their grief they will share and you can provide the space to listen.
As a school based social worker:
- Get your own support: As professionals, we will all experience some form of loss personally and professionally. When this happens, it is important to create a space that is safe for you to discuss your own personal journey. The intention behind this is that we want to be available to embrace the stories that children are sharing without personally becoming activated.
- Create work boundaries: Curate attunement that allows the freedom to let your team and supervisor know when a crisis is too close to home and say “ I can’t respond to this crisis”. When children experience community grief, they will appreciate that the adults supporting them are attune to their needs at the moment. It is okay to take care of yourself when a situation arises that can activate any feelings for you. It is also okay to participate in supporting children but make sure that here is a space to debrief your experience.
- Be a grief sensitive school leader: Schools can support their school mental health leaders by offering support, creating opportunities to share their experiences, and allowing them to take the time to recharge when needed.
SCRR community: Thank you for allowing both my daughter and I to share our perspectives of our experiences. We both celebrate and honor both of your own processes as you support childrens’ bereavement this month and always.
With love and admiration,
Angela and Jamee
by Yesmina Luchsinger, SCRR Adjunct Faculty
This is a picture of me and my dad, known to family as Zuzu and friends as Joe, shortly before he was murdered. I was five years old.
Losing a parent or caregiver is something most people don’t experience until adulthood. Most of the adults in my life, but especially my teachers, were unsure how to act, what to say, or how to support me.
In honor of Children’s Bereavement Month, and in honor of all the educatorYL s who want to support their grieving students – here are 5 things I wish my teachers knew about what it was like to lose a parent and go to school, written to educators in my life past and present.
- It’s ok to ask questions if I share about my loss: It’s okay to ask his name. It’s okay to ask if certain times of the year are hard for me. It’s okay to ask me if I want to share any memories or stories about my dad.
Now as a school mental health professional, I know that it’s not the death of a parent alone that translates to trauma or unresolved grief; it’s the absence of supportive, meaning making adults (in this case, educators in my life) to notice something major happened and hold space for me as I grappled with a new identity, a new family, and new routines. At times, it felt like my dad had never existed outside a box of photographs and conversations with my mom. Instead, I believed the discomfort and avoidance by my teachers was my fault and I made other people feel sad when I talked about it. I did not understand that many adults are uncomfortable with death and grief. As a child, it felt like my fault that no one wanted to talk about my dad anymore. My experience isn’t only mine: children will interpret our adult discomfort with death as their responsibility. We as educators can be traumatic grief buffers.
- Acknowledge me and my loss: It’s okay to acknowledge my loss and ask me, or my caregiver, what types of support I might need at school. Please resist the temptation to ask a young child how their parent died or “what happened?”.
I lost a parent tragically and unexpectedly due to homicide; when pressed to share at school, adults and peers would be so shocked by what happened that I would end up comforting them and they would often apologize for asking and never talk about my dad again.
- Grief stays with me always, even if you weren’t my teacher when my dad died:
Time passed and my new teachers did not know about my loss. In my new blended family, I did not look like my siblings or my ‘bonus’ dad. I found myself constantly explaining: why I looked different than the rest of my family, am I in touch with my “real” dad, and eventually I would be forced to disclose the most painful moments of my life to a complete stranger. Everyone else in the world was allowed to forget and move forward, but I was required to remember and relieve my experience for educators trying to navigate routine school activities like field trip permission slips, parent teacher conferences, or who to call if I was sick.
- Please be grief aware when you assign projects or use language in class that may be activating: like me, not every one of your students will be able to trace lineage. Please say “caregiver” instead of “mom” or “dad.”
Some class assignments, like family ancestry projects, led to frustration – and tears. I wanted to be a good student but lacked information, language to connect with my relatives overseas, and could not participate the same way as my peers. I called the people in my life what they were to me; as a student, what I called my people is what I needed my teachers to call my people.
- Loss at a young age changes but does not end: It’s always with me. Sometimes it’s more painful than other moments. Milestones (e.g., graduation, dance or music performances) will bring up a lot for me.
As I grew and changed, so did my experience with his death and my loss. My five year old mind and my fifteen year old mind were able to process and think about death in a different way.
At milestones and major life events there is a sense of longing for what might have been, but I was not able to talk to my teachers because I did not have the language to talk about what I was feeling. I’m still not sure how to put it into words, I think it looks a little bit like this image of mine to the left: sometimes smooth, sometimes prickly, sometimes just a dot or a blip, but will always be a part of me because my dad and his love are part of me.
It took me a long time to find a feeling of safety and support to process my grief. Like many young people, I did not experience support from educators or school based therapists until I was in college. My university health center was also unable to assist and was so challenging to navigate that so I found a private therapist with my health insurance. I’m aware of the privilege that allowed that to happen in a time where it was common to be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions. Unlike when I was a teen and young adult there are many more resources, online communities, and spaces to find informal communities of support like Inner Harbor (18+) and the Dinner Party (20+.
So, what can you do for students in your class like me? Tips from me as an adult to you as an adult thinking about the child-griever inside me:
- Remind students that you are there to listen if they DO want to talk. Knowing that my teachers were there to listen was comforting, even if I rarely wanted to talk. It feels humanizing to be witnessed by another.
- If you invite a young person to talk, be prepared to listen. Kids and young adults are innocent to the cultural taboos around death and grief. You might hear information that feels shocking or that most adults in Western culture don’t talk about. Just like learning to speak or read, it takes time to develop language around loss as a child. I have spent my entire life learning how to talk about what it was like to lose my dad. Even today, multiple supportive colleagues in my life helped to organize my thoughts for this letter.
- Be honest. It’s ok to not know what to say or do. When comforting grieving students, I used to say something like this, you can borrow it for your classroom: “I am learning how to support you and your grief. I might not always get it right because your grief is unique to you, just like my grief is unique to me. But I hope you will let me know if I get it wrong, so that I can adjust. I might not know exactly what you are feeling right now, but I’m here if you need someone to listen or just someplace to be in silence.”
- Communicate proactively as a school community: Use your student information systems to flag that a student has lost a caregiver; find ways to coordinate the transfer of this information to new teachers in ways that are trauma-informed and appropriate.
- Communicate with caregivers: If you notice changes in academic performance or behavior that are otherwise unexplained see if an anniversary or other important event is approaching.
- Create teachable moments in your pedagogy: Identify developmentally appropriate moments to talk about grief and loss in already existing lesson plans, reading assignments, and classroom dialogue. Offer opportunities to ritualize or commemorate loved ones that have died and provide space for sharing with peers.
- Connect to resources and support: The most obvious type of support a grieving child might need is mental health care. But, did you know there are scholarships available for survivors of gun violence and victims of crime? I wish my school counselor was equipped with my complete history and was able to talk to me about different financial aid options as I explored what to do after high school.
Dear educators, thank you for walking with me and my family during the hardest years of our lives, for being open to listening and learning from the child I was and the in-progress healing educator I am today, recovering and renewing, still.