After the unexpected death of a parent in a small rural community school, a teacher found herself searching for ideas on how to manage the wave of grief that had just hit everyone in her tightly knit school community, including herself and all 13 of her students. Finding out there was no plan in place or resources ready to help, the teacher began to develop her own for her school, collecting ideas and items and reading until the middle of the night, how to help support those around her. She then made contact with one of the district inclusive learning coaches who provided a supply of children’s books and resources, and shared the teacher’s concerns about supporting the school community. With the thought “This should be everywhere, all of our teachers should have this within their reach and not have to wonder what to do next.” The teacher collected books, suggestions, practical information, art/writing opportunities, phone numbers, support ideas for the family, the students, as well as for herself for immediate use and for continued family support. This need was the impetus for the forming of the grief box, started in Peace Wapiti School Division 76, which has now spread throughout the entire division. Using the Box the first teacher and coach made as a model, the Inclusive Education Coaches gathered as a team to assemble and finalize the contents for the boxes that would be distributed through the district. Currently, there are two grief boxes in most PWSD 76 schools for staff to access at a moments’ notice.
Sadly, this initial incident was not the last tragedy to strike a classroom, school, or broader district community. As many of the district schools are located in smaller towns, hamlets, or colonies, the larger portion of the broader community often experiences the pain of grief. Large schools can feel the effects as well and needed the supports. Schools were sometimes dealing directly and indirectly with death/suicides, house fires, illness, divorce, incarcerations or other life situations that cause grief. All of these things can greatly affect the social/emotional fragility of all involved, especially if you are a child or teenager, making academics seem secondary. Our schools needed something concrete to begin to bridge that gap for our grieving school members/students.
Since grief knowledge, resources and materials was a growing area of concern, based on the first teachers’ experience, different partners in the district began to look at creating a thoughtful resource box to provide a teacher some immediate and on-going support for the student(s) as needed. The inclusive education coaches dedicated much time and effort into the creation of the resource. The district school board was behind the effort completely. The boxes were jointly funded by the Comprehensive School Health and Wellness grant, local ATA, and discounts by local Michaels and STAPLES stores. This work was broad and intense but culminated in a beautiful resource, both aesthetically and functionally, for staff to use immediately as a need may arise, for pre-teaching and for on-going grief support.
Each box (purposely described as a box as opposed to a ‘kit’) is in a uniquely attractive box with an attractive but muted design. Inside is an assortment of items specifically chosen to help soothe and comfort students from a variety of chosen resources.
The grief boxes are comprehensively designed, including resources for:
Each box includes:
Although officially launched in December of 2017, during this school year, seven schools previously requested them (even partially finished) as student loss arose within the district. Teachers (and families) were grateful to have such a resource available to them in their own classroom. They could easily sign them out from the library and keep as long as necessary. Local school councils were grateful for this type of support for the students in the school as well.
How has this resource been utilized by teachers in our district this year?
In December before the Christmas break, a grade 2 classroom teacher guided her students through making a memory box to honor someone they grieved or someone who has been important to them. They took them home as part of their Christmas celebration.
Students at another school created a display board based on the Grief Box book “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” in memory of a Grade 3 classmate who died.
One father at Parent Teacher Interviews thanked his son’s teacher for creating a “Memory Book” about his wife. He reported they sat on the couch together, read it and wept together.
The grief boxes are a part of an overall focus on the social and emotional health of children in our schools. We continually strive to find ways to meet the needs of the whole child in order to bring them to a better place in order to succeed in the other facets of student life. As we look to support a child academically, we know that we may need to meet other needs before doing that effectively. By working in partnerships with others, sharing our stories and needs, we all grow both as professionals but also as people sharing life’s joys and struggles. It is in that journey, although sometimes hard and painful, we move together to help develop our students and school communities with understanding and compassion.
*This article appeared in the ATA Council for Inclusive Education journal in 2018.
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Carmen has been published in a variety of online and print articles. Writing is a passion and she strives to grow and share her message.