SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Returning to school can come with mixed emotions for students, especially those processing the death of a loved one from the pandemic.
Districts are investing in grief support to assist grieving students.
“You may have a classroom of students that, a cousin passed away, a parent passed away, a grandparent passed away,” said Sharon Rubalcava. “If you turn on the news, if you turn on any social media, the death count is there.”
Rubalcava is the program manager for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) counseling and guidance department.
Rubalcava said, “What do we try to do? We try to figure what the best plan is for that student.”
Loss is one of the many traumas that students have experienced, and educators face many new challenges in supporting them.
Rubalcava said that school counselors have had to face the challenge of not knowing what the future holds.
The counselors are better equipped to deal with the emotional waves of grief.
To help students cope with loss, the district developed an evidence-based grief support program.
They are also expanding their district-wide support staff by hiring counselors with COVID funds.
“Walk a student through an eight-week session, six-week session of a support group once a week, with students that are experiencing similar experiences,” said Rubalcava.
These activities are meant to build trust and help students adjust to change.
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has resources and educational materials to help schools support grieving students.
Rubalcava said, “Maybe it is writing a letter.” “Because this’s probably my biggest advice as a school counselor, it’s ‘I wish that I would have. I wish that I could. It’s as if you could. Let’s do it.’ It is extremely helpful to write down something and release it. This will allow you to let go of any guilt or regrets.”
A natural response to loss, experts say grief support is different from mental health support.
“Grief happens at any given moment to anyone, and there’s not a lot, any say within it,” said Rubalcava.
Rubalcava says there are instances of grief that can lead to behavior change.
According to the Mayo Clinic: In some cases, loss feels debilitating and doesn’t go away even after time passes. Known as complicated grief, painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe that you have trouble recovering from the loss and resuming your own life.
“Getting my son therapy during this time was challenging because the mental health systems are stressed to the limit,” said Guthe, a Los Angeles Unified School District father.
Guthe’s 14-year-old son is coping with the loss of his mother. Her post-COVID symptoms were so severe that she took her own lives.
“I think he understands she was in a great deal of pain, excruciating daily, physical pain, and that’s why she made the decision she made. But it’s still his mother, and she’s not coming back,” said Guthe.
His son is one of many students who might need more personalized grief support.
SDUSD partners with outside organizations to address the need.
“What we’ll do is assess the situation, and figure out, can the school counselors handle it or do we need more support? And that’s ok. Rubalcava stated that sometimes we require more support and so we turn to outside agencies.
In the U.S., more than 152,000 children are estimated to have lost a parent or caregiver.
And loss isn’t the only source of grief.
“There’s plenty of kids whose parents didn’t die of COVID but suffering with long COVID, and they’re watching their parents completely debilitated,” said Guthe.
He’s grateful districts are using emergency relief funds to hire more counselors and school psychologists.
“It’s very frightening for kids because they don’t have an end in sight,” said Guthe. “This is a generation of kids that’s going to be affected by this if we don’t step up and take it very seriously soon.”