A significant proportion of our children have to deal with grief at an early age. Their experience can range from the natural, anticipated passing of a grandparent to the sudden death of a parent or sibling, or even the tragic and shocking aftermath of a school shooting.
Losing a loved one can be devastating for a child, creating profound stress, adversity and trauma. There is no “easy fix” as grief is long-lasting and, when support is not provided, it can interfere with children’s social, emotional, and academic development over the long term.
As trusted, consistent adults in students’ lives, educators and school community members have a tremendous opportunity to extend support and care. But most are under-prepared to do so.
According to New York Life Foundation partner, Judi’s House/ JAG Institute, one in 14 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18, and nearly 70 percent of teachers have at least one grieving child in their class. But only 7 percent of classroom teachers receive bereavement training.
That why the New York Life Foundation set up the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative (GSSI), a national program serving to direct schools and school districts to accessible grief resources.
Participation in the GSSI has not only resulted in tangible changes for many schools but has also been rewarding for New York Life’s GSSI ambassadors.
“When I heard about the program, I just felt connected and committed to do it,” said New York Life agent Lina Trujillo, who has given 29 GSSI presentations in schools even though she’s only been at the company for a year.
“I did not have any contacts in the school district, but my true desire to bring the resources to the schools brought me to the right people. There was not a single school that was not grateful with the resources provided. All of them had kids grieving at the same time as the presentation, or in recent years, and that helped me realize how important our program is.”
Agents like Lina see the intrinsic value in the program but many more are drawn to it by events in their own lives. Janice Coleman, who has given 37 presentations, saw the emotional toll suffered by her brother’s four young children when her sister-in-law died aged 37. “One son, who was nine at the time of the death, is still trying to find his way at the age of 30 and has never really gotten over it,” she says.
“I’ve seen the impact if someone doesn’t intervene when a child is grieving, it affects them for the rest of their lives.” - Lina Trujillo, New York Life agent
“I share this story at every presentation I do,” she says. “I’ve seen the impact if someone doesn’t intervene when a child is grieving, it affects them for the rest of their lives.”
She’s also seen the impact that GSSI has made on the schools she’s worked with. One of them created a safe space for children, while another has made the resources of the initiative available to parents. And at least two of the schools have created bereavement processes for teachers following the presentation.
Janice adds that she uses the techniques she has learned from the resources in her personal life, such as “what to say and what not to say” in situations where friends and adult family members are confronting death.
Jessica Pesantez, who has given six presentations in her two years at New York Life, echoes these sentiments. When he was just 16, her own father lost his 13-year-old brother in a freak accident. The entire family has dealt with that shock and grief throughout her life. “I was born a few weeks after the fifth anniversary of my uncle's untimely death. He should have been a senior in high school when I arrived. Instead, I was born into a deeply grieving family,” she says.
“My uncle wasn't discussed much when I was growing up except for the occasional conversation with my grandmother. However, as an adult I have learned how important it is to talk about my Uncle Cline and ask questions about him.”
New York Life ambassador and former lacrosse coach Tom Boyle, has given almost 30 grieving student presentations in hopes of making people’s lives better. Tom is a Charlotte based father of four and runs a nonprofit that donates lacrosse equipment to armed forces families. Tom’s passion for Grieving Students School Initiative (GSSI) was motivated by his experience of 9/11, which, he says, taught him that “many people don’t understand the ripple effect of grief - and how it impacts the whole community.”
Tom explains that GSSI is grief ‘therapy’ provided within the school community... an opportunity to help students, teachers and staff to effectively share and talk about loss. “Trauma and loss are natural occurrences and we need an opportunity to help people feel safe to process it.” Tom recently spoke at a small school where a young teacher had been murdered a few years earlier. “In the room it felt like it had happened yesterday. There were a lot of tears and emotions.” The positive feedback he received from the school reinforced the impact of this program, which he believes has ‘spectacular value’. “I just want more people to know this service is here for them,” he says.
Tom, Lina and Jessica have all seen the benefits the GSSI program brings and feel passionately that as many agents as possible should get involved.
“I have had some tear-jerking moments, as I have made these presentations and in conversations with school staff after the presentations. The impact is apparent and I think childhood bereavement needs to be spoken about more so more agents do their part,” says Jessica.
“I feel that there is a huge need for these resources across the country. If we as agents all play our part in our communities, just imagine the difference we can make with how we deal with grief in our country.”
Go back to our newsroom to read more stories.