How did that feel? How long did it take you to find a new “normal”? When did your concentration on your daily activities, such as work, return?
Every day I think about children who have lost a parent and wonder how they can possibly manage school. Recently, my daughters had a chance to attend Comfort Zone Camp which was an amazing opportunity for them to meet other kids like them. At the end of the weekend, we had the opportunity to hear from the social workers regarding the unique challenges students in each age group were facing. One key takeaway for me was the need to normalize loss within our school system. Our schools don’t know how to help grieving children. Many times the policies do not allow kids the time or space to grieve.
Death is a consequence of living, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for those left behind. Many students at the camp were struggling in school – either academically, behaviorally, or both. I cannot imagine being in their shoes. I know how hard it was for me to focus at work – for months – after Steve died. I didn’t have tests, I didn’t have other kids asking me questions or trying to be “normal” at the most awkward time in life. I wasn’t trying to make or keep friendships that can come and go so fast as personalities change. I wasn’t dealing with the overwhelming pressure of social media and the access to instantaneous information.
I have started talking more about grief and helping kids manage through grief while still achieving what they need to in school. Often, I am met with denial that a real problem exists or empathy but no understanding of why action is required. Why add grief to the mix when we already talk about poverty, race, and family structure? Heck, even gender issues get more press than grief – and there are a lot more students struggling with grief than are struggling with gender identity.
Here is why it matters– and it should matter to every single community in the US. The loss of a parent means that these kids now fit the more common focus demographics of single parent households and poverty. Schools and communities focus on these two items when they talk about community support and improvement, but I have not heard one school talk about death as one of the key causes. The last census showed that 27% of widows ages 18-44 live in poverty – this is the prime age for widows to also have dependent children. That is almost double the rate of poverty in the county where I live – which is one of the higher counties in the nation. Widows were 65% more likely to live in poverty than their divorced peers. The problem goes beyond the notion of a single parent household.
I challenge everyone to think about poverty and single parent households, then add in the complete loss of security when a parent is no longer there, grief (remember the feelings you had from the opening questions?), and the loss of income which often results in the loss of the home – their safe place in a world full of change. Can you imagine being the parent whose income is cut it half (or worse)?
Can you imagine being these children?
Poverty and single parent households are not hidden problems in the community. Compounding grief is that hidden x-factor that no one wants to talk about. Because it is hard. And we can’t fix it. But we can do things to help these kids. We can do things to help these parents in an extremely scary and uncertain part of their life.
What can we (every single one of us) do?
Last night at a community talk they highlighted “mobile vaccination units” to make sure kids are able to attend school on the first day because some parents are not capable of making the required appointments for their children. Many groups talk about the need to bring services to the people because they have no vehicle or transportation and that is a significant barrier to get basic life activities accomplished. These services are available to bridge the gap for kids that don’t have parents or caregivers that are responsible enough to complete required tasks for their children. That is a harsh statement, but true. I support these efforts because the kids cannot do it on their own and they deserve the opportunity to have an education. But, what about the kids and parents that have tried to do everything to the best of their ability and had tragedy impact their ability to be successful? What are we doing for them? In almost all cases, we as a society are doing nothing. Because we literally do not see or understand the problem. Or, they are lumped in with traditional single parent, poverty stereotypes with no understanding of the compounding loss that truly shapes their life.
What if we mobilized for children after loss? What if we meet them where they are? How much more could they learn with a focused tutor versus being thrust back in a classroom where everything is the same, yet nothing is the same for them? How do we give these kids the time and space they need throughout the day in school? I know there were times I needed to race to the bathroom or my car just to have a few moments to manage a breakdown – and I am an adult with years of experiencing managing my emotions. How do we allow the same space for kids? What “bereavement time” or bereavement options can we give to kids that have to meet requirements for state mandated days in school each year? What do kids at different age levels need so they still have the opportunity to still be successful after the loss of a parent or caregiver?
How can we support these kids in our communities? It is more than food and gift cards. It is time spent reading. Time spent helping with math. Time given to the remaining parent so they don’t have the stress of ensuring their kids don’t fall behind with their education when they can barely find the energy to take a shower. Time allowed for grief and the frustration that comes with it. There may be extra time needed on tests, and potentially a prioritization of work knowing that the focus just won’t be there to get everything done. I know I accomplished much less for months. I can only imagine the challenges these children feel as they try to keep up and even make up assignments and tests that were missed while they were out for a funeral.
Every age is different. For elementary school kids it is likely help with reading, math, and possibly some fun STEM projects to help them learn. Middle school may be focused help with core subjects, likely STEM, and possibly writing or drawing as that can be an outlet for grief. Identifying solid friends as well as individuals that can be consistent support network also benefits these kids. High school students may need more time with trusted friends – time just to be themselves. Identifying those friends or peers that can understand what they are going through as well as being a positive role model is critical. These students also need help setting goals as many feel they don’t have the same opportunities they may have had before. A consistent mentor helping with career planning and support in meeting their educational requirements would increase their chances of success exponentially.
This is a post full of questions and only a few ideas for answers. It’s a complex and hidden problem that has no single solution. The first step is awareness…then comes action. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you have lost a parent or a spouse and would like to share your experience I’d love to read what worked or didn’t work for you and your family.