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Importance of Grief and Loss Work in Schools

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udents experience some type of loss in their lives. Loss is often associated with the death of a loved one, but ambiguous loss is just as prevalent. Ambiguous loss is a type of loss that my not be recognized (Guidry, Simpson, Test, & Bloomfield, 2013; Mauk, 2011). Loss can be tangible or intangible and both types can cause physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional problems for the child who experiences loss (Guidry et al., 2013; Mauk, 2011). A child can experience loss through parental separation, divorce, illness of a loved one, relocation to a new home or school, break-up with a romantic partner, or the loss of a friendship or pet (Guidry et al., 2013; Mauk, 2011). Furthermore, the effects of grief can manifest through academic failure, acting out due to displaced anger, aggression, inappropriate risk-taking, runaway behaviors, sexualized behaviors, and/or substance abuse (Mauk, 2011). Grieving can disrupt a child’s normal functioning, but helping the child work through their emotions can foster emotional healing and restoration of the child’s overall health (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2008). The purpose of grief work in schools is to help children work through acceptance of the loss, experience the associated pain and emotion involved with the loss, adjust to life without the loved one, and find ways to remember their special someone in everyday life (Guidry et al., 2013). It is important to recognize that children do not grieve in the same way as adults (Massat, Moses, & Ornstein, 2008). Some do not follow a stage model of grief. Once such model is as follows (Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA, 2008): 1) Shock is the first reaction to the event where the person feels numb, physical pain, and/or withdrawal. 2) Denial happens when the grieving person acts as if nothing has happened and refuses to accept that his loved one is no longer with him. 3) Depression occurs through a prolonged period of painful feelings, despair, and emptiness. 4) Guilt occurs as the grieving person blames herself for the loss of her loved one. 5) Anxiety can manifest in a panic attack, which often happens when reality finally sinks in that their loved one is gone. 6) Aggression can be directed towards the person who might have prevented the loss or the lost object. 7) Reintegration is when the grieving person has accepted the loss as reality. But children oftentimes experience grief much differently. Similarly, Worden (2009) developed the Tasks of Mourning Model, which integrates four different tasks to successfully complete the work of mourning. The tasks are as follows: Task 1–To accept the reality of the loss on an intellectual and emotional level. Task 2–To process the pain and grief, which depends on the type of pain that is being experienced and the nature of the relationship with the deceased. Task 3–To adjust to a world without the deceased, which can be external (daily living), internal (finding oneself or redefining oneself), and spiritual (developing a new worldview). Task 4–To find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. The Tasks of Mourning Model encourages one to accept the loss, find a unique way to remain connected with the deceased, and learn to move forward (Worden, 2009). For children, grief is integrated in everyday tasks such as attending school, playing, and in other school-related activities (Guidry et al., 2013; Mauk, 2011). To some, it can seem like the child is even happy and unaffected by the event, but through play and other avenues, a child typically will express their pain and other emotions (Guidry, 2013). It is important for adults to have the ability to recognize when a child is Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2015 3 grieving. Some examples might include a child who has trouble sleeping at night or has nightmares, a child who often frequents the nurse’s office at school for a headache or stomachache, a child who is often easily distracted in class and daydreams, or a child that completely withdraws from peers and other adults in his/her life (Guidry, 2013; Massat et al., 2008). If we can learn to recognize that a child is grieving, we can learn how to best help the child cope with their feelings associated with grief and loss. If we advertently or inadvertently dismiss the child’s feelings, unresolved grief can lead to emotional and behavioral problems, in turn, impacting academic achievement (Mauk, 2011; Pérusse, 2009). According to Mauk (2011), a student can create emotional blocks to learning that can affect attention span and memory capacity, which can negatively affect overall academic performance.


It is for the aforementioned reasons that there is a great need for grief and loss groups in the school environment. According to the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (2006), schools must be well prepared to deal with and handle crises of all magnitudes. The school counselor’s role is essential in providing needed support for grieving students. One benefit of offering grief/loss groups within the school setting is to reach out to several young people in their time of need. Professional school counselors are in the ideal position to promote and support mental and emotional health while identifying the children that are dealing with grief/loss. Additionally, professional school counselors should adhere to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model (2012), which promotes academic, career, and social/emotional development of all students (ASCA, 2012; Pérusse, 2009). In the delivery section of the ASCA National Model, there is an emphasis on providing direct student services. Direct services are to be delivered throughout the schools’ overall curriculum, including: guidance lessons within the classroom, individual student planning, and responsive services (ASCA, 2012). Within each counseling service provided, students are given information, knowledge, mindsets, behaviors and skills that are appropriate for the child’s individual developmental level. Services can range from individual counseling, small and large group counseling, family counseling, and classroom guidance lessons. These direct approaches are also utilized when counselors respond to a crisis situation in which the counselor meets the student’s immediate needs and concerns. These services are put in place to help students overcome issues that impede their academic achievement and overall school success. According the ASCA National Model (2012), the counseling process in a school setting is designed to help a student identify problems, causes, alternatives, and possible consequences so they can make decisions and take appropriate actions. Professional school counselors do not provide extensive therapy; rather, they provide brief treatment to assist the student back to wellness and healthy functioning (ASCA, 2012). It is for these reasons that a group counseling approach in a school setting is an appropriate intervention for grieving students. Despite the well-documented and supported benefits of group counseling for children and adolescents in the research, along with the recommendations from the ASCA National Model (2012), group interventions in schools are oftentimes underutilized. According to Williams, McMahon, McLeod, and Rice (2013), there are many reasons why group counseling sessions are not facilitated regularly within the school setting. Professional school counselors’ graduate level skills are underutilized due Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2015 4 largely in part to the role confusion inherent within the school counseling profession. Historically, the stigma attached to school ‘guidance’ counselors is that they are responsible for class scheduling, testing, paperwork, and several other inappropriate and non-counseling duties. Professional school counselors are trained at the master’s level to provide mental health counseling, but they are often not provided the time and support to offer such services to students. Additionally, there is sometimes a lack of administrative support when it comes to counselors being afforded the time and opportunity to provide actual counseling services during the school day. Many administrators believe that highstakes testing is of the utmost importance; thus, the mental health of the child not the focus. Another challenge for professional school counselors presents when teachers are reluctant to allow a student out of class, because they feel the need to protect every minute of instructional time. In an intensely academic climate (Williams et al., 2013), there is not much room to work on the social/emotional needs of students who may actually need that one-on-one individual time due to a family crisis, or group counseling sessions that holistically address children’s needs. There are many struggles that a professional school counselor could face that could potentially hinder the counseling process from occurring in the school setting, including the lack of understanding of the group process combined with a lack of confidence in the school counselor’s ability to lead groups effectively (Williams et al., 2013).

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