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.
Voices from the SCRR Community
Join us in learning from the deep wisdom of our SCRR community colleagues and partners.
- New! On Backpacks and Baggage: Life After Educator Loss – Reflections from A First Year Teacher
- New! Learning through Loss: Utilizing the Power of Freewriting as a Crisis Recovery Tool for Educators
By Bianca Tolentino, 9th Grade English Teacher & SCRR Life After Loss Tabler
August 11, 2022
I was playing board games with my friends when I got the email that my student from last year passed away. I had to stop and look twice to make sure I was reading right and seeing straight.
Not even two weeks into my first year of teaching and I’ve already been hit by the bowling ball of grief.
This image came to mind when I first started writing this piece:
Yes, the pandemic was happening.
Yes, I would be going in without a clear plan of what teaching will be like.
Yes, it would be hard.
But… but? This? Hard?
My hopeful first year teacher self was thinking that all of this would be okay, that I could push through that hill of grief. If not over, then through. If not through, then under. If not under, then through traveling the circumference of this forsaken hill.
But that hill came with a vengeance.
This is a non-comprehensive list of how grief decided to hit me:
- Trying to find his work but seeing he was removed from the learning management system an hour after we received the email
- Realizing that I don’t even remember his face the one or two times he showed up in Zoom
- His close friends coming to me during homeroom to talk about him
- Hearing the moment of silence announced a week after his passing
- Realizing I never even met him in real life because of COVID-impacted distance learning
- Hearing, right after that moment of silence, an awkward send-off that ended with “rest in peace, wherever you are”
- Laughing with the class right after because wow that was awkward
- Crying again because we realized what preceded that awkwardness
- Realizing that there was no way to create new memories to help me through this one devastating one
- Stumbling across his locker by accident and getting excited with all the fun colors while wondering whose birthday did they decorated for?
- Realizing that the locker was to celebrate his life: this was his locker
- Pouring over the notes and letters from his classmates and feeling every ounce of love that was left stuck on that yellow locker
- Thinking about him during my planning period, unprompted
- Talking about him during SCRR’s Life After Loss table and realizing how much it actually hurt to talk about it
- Unlocking a new fear as an educator and a feeling of helplessness when it comes to supporting my students
- His close friend running up to me to show me a page dedicated to him in the yearbook
- Seeing his mom, first in line, pick up his diploma during graduation
- Feeling her heavy heart from across the field
- Feeling the collective hearts of everyone on that field sink together
On one hand, wow. Too much to feel. All at once and yet it felt like there was nothing there at all. It was so much like a shadow – so solid in its presence and yet it is a nothingness. It felt like a darkness to navigate. I wanted to be able to stop feeling so much at once so that I can feel like I can be present for my students, present for my colleagues, present for all the moments in which I want to be in.
So I looked at grief with my SCRR Life After Loss table mates. Talking to people who had so much more experience than me as educators intimidated me at first, but I realized that they have had more time to look over what grief meant to them. To find the perspectives of people across state lines, across time zones, across ages and professions was an invaluable part of my healing. It made me realize that the communities I wanted to be a part of, especially to process everything that has happened during my year, should be made mindfully with people who were both alike and unlike me. The difference in perspectives made me feel like I had half a dozen mentors at my side.
At our Life After Loss table, we held our grief shared from student deaths and talked about it and slowly, grief turned out to be a backpack. I can unpack it all I want, I can inspect all of its parts, I can talk over what makes it heavy and what I can do to ease the load. But at the end of the day it’s still mine to carry. But unpacking makes it easier. The help makes it easier. The consolidation and the organizing of my backpack helped me realize that it wasn’t as much of a weight to carry as I realized.
The immovable object wasn’t immovable at all. It was always moving with me. So, maybe I just have to keep moving too.
By: Brittany R. Collins (SCRR Guest Faculty)
August 11, 2022
“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded,” begins a resonant quote by author Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones. She continues:
This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter… Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are (p.55, 1986).
On a Friday during the summer of 2022, eight practitioners from the education, social service, and mental health fields gathered through Zoom for a grief writing workshop. Freewriting allows us to explore that ‘real truth of who we are,’” I shared with them. Coming together from all corners of the country and world (with one dedicated writer joining at one o’clock in the morning), participants in the School Crisis Recovery & Renewal project’s Learning through Loss Writers Workshop entered and cultivated our online community to engage in an hour and a half of guided freewriting and discussion geared toward exploring, understanding, and sharing stories of personal loss as well as the ways in which grief impacts and orients our various approaches to youth work.
We began our time together by building community through verbal introductions, introducing ourselves; the ways in which we work with young people; one word to describe how we were feeling as we entered the space (an emotional “temperature check” that is also a useful tool to employ when working with youth, normalizing and routinizing metacognitive reflection on internal experience); and, finally, sharing one “community agreement” participants would like the group to keep in mind as we bore witness to one another’s stories and held space for reflection–a collaborative design framework that elicited responses such as, “Be open,” “Honor vulnerability,” and “Respect confidentiality,” a message that I sought to highlight and reinforce through reminders of the SCRR commitment to “contextual confidentiality,” the idea that participants may speak about their experience being in community with fellow writers without sharing details of specific stories heard or read to protect the inherent vulnerability of storytelling.
“Writing,” I shared with participants, “is a vulnerable act. An act of resistance. An act of self-care. An act of connection.”
After grounding ourselves in the space, we discussed the psychological science supporting the holistic benefits of “expressive writing,” or free-writing that utilizes emotion words. For example, James Pennebaker, Ph.D., has uncovered empirical evidence suggesting that engagement in routine expressive writing supports psychological wellbeing as well as improved liver and immune function (for more on this science, see here), especially in times of loss or stress. The Learning through Loss workshop, participants were reminded, was designed for educators to explore their own experiences (a number of participants shared in their introductions that committing to this workshop meant “making time for [themselves]”); the workshop was not necessarily designed to replicate with students, though practices such as expressive writing are easily transferable to work with colleagues and young people.
To warm up their writing muscles, participants engaged in five minutes of unprompted, open-ended freewriting. The point of freewriting, I shared, is to get “as intimate as possible with our inner monologue,” to pay attention to every word as it enters our mind, and to stay with the flow of our thoughts (even if those thoughts are “I’m not sure what to write right now”). Freewriting invites us to dispel our inner editor, to move away from crafted writing, and to tune in, metacognitively, to our thoughts and feelings as they arise. At the close of this introductory warm-up, I shared in five-minute intervals a number of prompts inviting participants to reflect on their own relationships to loss, their own experiences with grief, connection, and support; their relationship to the concept of “safety”; their needs in times of grief; and their thoughts, feelings, and memories in relation to how/in what ways loss has entered their learning spaces or other professional contexts.
At the halfway mark, participants were invited to engage on a “challenge by choice basis” in small-group breakout discussions in which they were invited to spend ten minutes sharing open reflections–a line from a free write, a full prompt response, a summary of their writing experience, a reflection or thought or question that the workshop was bringing up for them–with their peers. Discussions created opportunities to practice active listening and the vulnerable risk-taking of storytelling as writers spoke about their own loss experiences and observations about how individuals, communities, and societies treat the topics of grief and mortality.
At the close of our time together, participants were invited into a space of group-wide open reflection in which they spoke about their writing experiences.
The writing workshop “provided me a space to reflect in a purposeful way, an outlet for my own grief that comes from working with bereaved youth,” one participant shared. Another offered that writing “provided me with complemplative time for self-care,” and a third reflected that by putting “feelings and thoughts freely” onto paper, the process can “bring up things that need attention.”
By writing and workshopping together, we made connections to pedagogical practices, shared resources for grief-responsive teaching and youth work; swapped strategies for using freewriting and emotional “temperature checks” with youth; shared appreciation for, and made connections between, one another’s stories and ideas.
Above all, this community of educator writers expressed motivations to carve out opportunities for continuing their freewriting practice to further continue their crisis recovery – a conversation ignited by our final writing prompt:
“Audre Lorde writes in A Burst of Light: And Other Essays,
‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ What does this quote mean to you? In what ways is self-care subversive and healing in the face of often systemic grief? How do you tend to your wellbeing, and how can you do so more often?”
Now that you, reader, sit with this prompt, we invite you to engage with it, too.
Supporting Our Recovery and Renewal Post School and Community Shootings
In the aftermath and in the wake of community and school- based shootings, we offer two pieces to support our crisis recovery and renewal.
- Partnering with Students to Take Action: School Shooting Recovery after Buffalo and Uvalde
- Up at 3 am: Educator thoughts in the middle of night after Buffalo and Uvalde
By Leora Wolf-Prusan with Darryn Green, Jen Leland, and Oriana Ides, SCRR staff
May 31, 2022
Student voice and crisis leadership is a foundational and often missing element in how we define crisis recovery work.
Mental health resources are a necessary response to help providers work with students to ensure their acute needs (e.g., after a school or community shooting) are met. And: partnering with students to take action is another way we can ensure safety (empowering and restoring a sense of control) & reconnection (re-orienting purpose with what matters).
As school leaders, it is imperative to listen and learn from and with young people to gain a deeper understanding of how adults and systems can create the cultures and conditions that center recovery and renewal (to see an example of how powerful asking former students/young adults what helps and what harms crisis renewal, check out our What Helps & What Harms Students’ Crises Recovery? Young Adult Reflective Listening Sessions).
In the wake of school and community shootings, students and young adults want and need to feel safe, to be seen and heard. We have to name when a crisis is happening; and stop pretending everything is okay if it isn’t. By partnering with students, we can provide students opportunities to lead their own recovery and reclaim a sense of control and connection to others with shared purpose.
Youth Move National defines “youth engagement” as a “strategy in which youth are given a meaningful voice and role and are authentically involved in working towards changing the systems that directly affect their lives” (YMN, 2015 for Healthy Transitions).
Sounds like crisis recovery and renewal to us.
Student engagement voice and activism (e.g., against gun access and violence) is inherently connected to building healing-centered school culture and robust school mental health recovery measures because:
- Self and Collective Determination: trauma can make us feel helpless and powerless because it overwhelms us.
- Voice and Choice: promoting a sense of self-efficacy can help foster resilience and healing.
- Healing through Action: One way to decrease the potentially harmful effects of trauma is to DO something that changes your own situation or the situation of others. This can help with the healing process.
- When we perceive that we have some control over a stressor – this can help reduce the physiological effects of chronic stress and trauma.
- Authentic youth engagement not only helps young people build their self esteem, leadership, advocacy and professional development skills, they also increase young people/s influence and personal state in the community.
- Allying with student action and activism cultivates trust and relational safety.
We know that trauma and violence creates a sense of something happening to us. In order to be trauma informed allies to ensure that we are doing with versus to our students, we offer reflection questions for us adults supporting student action:
- What needs healing and transformation inside me in order to sustain transformation and healing in my classroom, school, organization?
- What does it mean to center the experiences and wisdom of those impacted by crisis in recovery and renewal?
- How might I promote a sense of agency in my students and the young people with whom I work?
- How might we catch ourselves when we are doing something to or for our students instead of with them? Who might hold us accountable?
- What are ways in which the adults in the system or relationship might need to set clear expectations about roles and decision making (power in action)? What are decisions that students can make alone? What might be decisions students and adults might need to construct together? When might there be decisions that only the adults can make, and why?
- How might we train more adults in school systems to be safe spaces and learn how to hold space for youth; allowing space for students to “just feel”?
Unsure or need support for how to have these conversations with students? Check out Nine Ways to Help Students Discuss Guns and Violence (Greater Good, 2018). This article from March 2018 was updated in response to the attack on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; it includes promising practices that can help educators wondering how best to navigate this inspiring, challenging moment of youth activism.
General resources to learn more about youth-adult (or student-educator) partnerships
- A tipsheet: Petrokubi, J., & Janssen, C. (2017). Creating inclusive and effective environments for young people: Exploring youth voice and youth-adult partnership. Portland, OR: Education Northwest, Institute for Youth Success.
- A framework: Annie E. Foundation: A Framework for Effectively Partnering with Young People (2019)
- An online resource directory: Students at the Center helps educators to understand and make use of current research on student-centered approaches to teaching and learning. Students at the Center Hub
- A guide to fostering student voice in schools: SoundOut
Resources related to student mental health activism:
- Mental Health (Youth Leadership Institute (YLI)’s programming for youth to work to destigmatize mental health, address issues that negatively impact mental health, and advocate for culturally appropriate and accessible mental health resources on school campuses, in communities and online.
- Teenager Therapy Primarily a podcast of five teens who talk about the struggles that come with being a teenager.
- Our Story | YTP | Yellow Tulip Project Founded by a middle school student, The Yelow Tulip Project creates a space for determined youth to eradicate stigma, build community, and inspire productive conversations about how to combat the rising rates of suicide.
Resources related to student action against gun violence:
- Team ENOUGH– a youth-led organization whose mission is to educate young voices about gun violence and mobilize them to take meaningful action against it.
- Youth ALIVE! Youth ALIVE! has worked to help violently wounded people heal themselves and their community by preventing violence and creating young leaders. Specifically, their prevention initiative, Teens on Target, supports Oakland (CA) students most affected by violence learn to honor their own stories, to use their experience to make change. They learn to speak to the media and to city leaders.
- Students Demand Action ( Get Involved | Students Demand Action and Summer Leadership Academy | Students Demand Action) Students Demand Action started in 2016, a national initiative within two weeks of the Parkland shooting led by high school and college students across the country coming together to make their voices heard.
- Program Overview — Sandy Hook Promise Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs programs effectively teach youth and adults how to prevent school violence, shootings, and other harmful acts. Students and educators learn how to identify at-risk behaviors and intervene to get help. These early-prevention measures empower everyone to help keep schools and communities safe. Each program offers 30 to 40 minutes of student training that can be delivered in-person or online.
- 10 Questions for the Present: Parkland Student Activism | Facing History In this lesson, students will analyze how a 2018 high-school mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, spurred a group of student survivors to become passionate activists against gun violence. They will examine the tools used by their peers on the front lines of a burgeoning social movement—including their engagement with social media and journalism, their electoral strategies, and their internal organization. Students will put themselves in their peer activists’ shoes and use the 10 Questions Framework to examine in detail how the Parkland students led the way for the nationwide #NeverAgain protest. In the process, they will explore their own feelings toward their Parkland peers and the lessons they can learn from them.
- Gun Violence in Schools | Learning for Justice Use these resources to help navigate conversations about gun violence, school safety, mental health and how to take action after a school shooting.
- Take Action – March For Our Lives: Start A Chapter Form – March For Our Lives Born out of a tragic school shooting, March For Our Lives is a courageous youth-led movement dedicated to promoting civic engagement, education, and direct action by youth to eliminate the epidemic of gun violence.
Lesson Plan: “We’re the Generation That’s Going to End It” from Junior Scholastic, a step-by-step guide to teaching about the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting in classrooms including an examination of school violence.
by Bri Young, SCRR Field Coach
May 25, 2022
[Note to the reader: this was written in the direct wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings. The invitations and affirmations that Bri offers remain pertinent days, months, and years after.]
It seems impossible to metabolize the horrific act that took place in Texas yesterday, 10 days after a horrific act took place in Buffalo, at the end of one of the most difficult school years of our careers. As an educator, this dull ache in the center of my chest never seems to subside as I lament the collective pain these events cause myself and my colleagues. I sit in the joyful memories of past students, in gratitude that this type of crisis has not happened in their journey, yet also sitting in the grief of other crises that have happened to them.
And above all, I wonder what is in the hearts and minds of my colleagues in Uvalde as they wake up (or, like me, remain awake throughout the night) holding such immense loss. This is massive heartbreak I cannot imagine, yet seem to ponder regularly as these events continue to happen.
In moments of crisis, we as adults struggle at times to discern how we feel, and even more challenging is how to communicate what we feel to our students and children. When violence occurs in everyday places like schools and supermarkets, young people’s sense of safety and normalcy is disrupted – and so is ours.
We know that trauma can be experienced directly or indirectly and for many of our young people the care and support from a loving adult relationship can be a key factor in helping them navigate big feelings, fear, and questions.
Here’s what I found myself needing for myself, and offer this to you:
Take a moment to unclench your jaw, breathe deeply, and allow yourself to just be for a moment. Right here, each breath, slowly and fully. Your big feelings, your numbness, your anger, sadness, grief, hope, and longing for peace all have a place here. They are part of what it means to be human, and our humanity is what we need to hold on to. Anchor yourself to something familiar and steady in the space you’re in.
Maybe that’s a photo of a loved one on the wall, a plant you nurtured over the last year, or the familiar pattern of the rug near where you’re sitting. Allow your focus to linger there a moment as you breathe. And just be, noticing the things that come, acknowledging they are part of your process toward responding, and come back to this article as you feel ready.
Here are a few supportive approaches for us adults who work with young people and their families:
Re-establish safety (the primary trauma informed principle). For elementary-aged kiddos, direct and literal correlations often happen in their minds related to a crisis. When something scary happens at a school, to them it seems just like “school,” and they may not immediately distinguish between “that” school and “my” school. Even as students get older, the sense of stability is altered in those environments, especially when adults around them will be on high alert.
When we consider safety, it is a multi-faceted experience affecting not just physical safety, but emotional and social safety as well. In supporting young people’s sense of safety, you may want to:
- Maintain predictability throughout the day (follow routines and normal rituals)*
- Reflect together on safety measures that are already in place at their school
- Make a plan for who to go to for help at school and when it might be a good idea to ask for help
- Reassure them you care about them and are there for them
- Check-in on their emotions regularly
*Note that this does not mean ignoring what is happening. Consider creating spaces for conversation, processing feelings, and time to connect at logical points in the existing routine. In fact, sometimes ignoring creates more unsafety.
Allow them to lead the conversation (this re-establishes the trauma informed principles voice, choice + collaboration and mutuality). If the young person brings this crisis event up to you, following their lead in the conversation can support their sense of agency and help them metabolize their knowledge and feelings. If they don’t bring up this crisis event, but you know they’re hearing the news, invite them into a conversation, honoring their response if they are not yet ready for a conversation, and consider asking them:
- What have you heard? What do you already know?
- What questions do you have?
- What do you need/want to do as you think about this?
- What feelings are coming up for you?
This sense of agency and gentle communication is empowering for young people and is a great way to support them. As you talk, remain factual and clear. For younger children, limiting information may be the most helpful. For older children, exploring straightforward news coverage and discussing it together can help provide information to answer their questions without inundating them with facts and commentary. There may also be an actionable intent that comes from the conversation, such as donating allowance money or writing a letter, that you can support them with. And, it is okay if you do not know the answer to their questions. Simply offering an “I wonder that too!” can be reassuring.
As you talk to them, be mindful of their body language and responses, and be prepared to pause the conversation if needed. Checking in about how they are feeling as the conversation occurs is helpful to keep them from feeling overwhelmed with information.
Create places for them to feel. While the first section appeals to the rational and logical centers, children and students will largely need emotional support and validation. As young people grapple with crisis events, many “survival brain” responses will kick in, which can sometimes lead to tears, hiding, outbursts, or neediness. Validate their emotions as they come up, holding them and then restating them back. Try statements like:
- I notice you said you are feeling __________. When events like this happen, it makes sense you feel that way.
- I hear you. I feel _________ too.
- Here’s what I’m hearing you say…
- I can see that you are very (upset, sad, frightened, scared).
- We are both feeling __________…we are in this together.
There is a complex balance to be had here between being a calming presence for a young person and modeling ways to cope with big feelings. If you are in a dysregulated place yourself, that can negatively impact the young person, and waiting until you have had more time to process is ideal. But, you do not need to be “over” or “move past” your feelings before having a conversation; in fact, being open about your feelings together can normalize and validate what the young person is feeling.
And finally, remember to hold space for yourself. Each of these steps also deserves to be applied to you – create space to talk through (and filter!) what you’re consuming, validate and hold space for your own emotions (with a friend or therapist), and consider your own personal safety needs.
Consider the exercise at the beginning of this piece: take a moment to just be before you begin to do. And as you begin to move throughout the day, notice what is happening in you and around you. Practice deep, quality breaths and treat yourself with gentleness. Savor each sip of coffee and each rush of wind today, know that both feelings and numbness are normal as we grapple with this crisis event. And knowing how beautiful the spirits of young people are, they may also bring you some comfort as you talk with them.
I’m with you. We’re with you.
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.