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Unique program teaches schoolchildren how to grieve the loss of a loved one

Inside Mote Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, licensed professional counselor Katie Koontz is leading a session with students who have all lost someone close to them recently: a parent, guardian or sibling.
The school's program comes from the Delaware nonprofit “Supporting Kidds,” which helps families who are bereaved.
Children need a way to process that grief, but may not always know how. Supporting Kidds specializes in that at their center in northern Delaware, but they wanted to be able to reach more kids who could not get there in person.
Posted at 10:10 AM, Nov 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-22 13:43:49-05

WILMINGTON, Del. — Inside this elementary school are lessons in life and loss.

“Adults grieve, children grieve,” said Katie Koontz, a school bereavement therapist.

The children there all lost someone close to them recently: a parent, guardian or sibling.

“A lot of them are just so happy that they, first off, found another person that is going through the same thing that they're going through,” said Koontz, who is a licensed professional counselor, who leads these sessions at Mote Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. “Right now, we're trying to live towards this new normal, you know, and try to figure out different ways and different coping skills.”

It's part of a program from the Delaware nonprofit Supporting Kidds.

“Essentially, we help families that are bereaved,” said Louise Cummings, executive director of Supporting Kidds.

Cummings understands this on a personal level: several years ago, she lost her husband, who was a Delaware state trooper.

“My husband was killed in the line of duty,” she said. “My daughter was 5 years old.”

Cummings said children need a way to process that grief, but may not always know how. Supporting Kidds specializes in that at their center, but they wanted to be able to reach more kids.

“We've adapted it for schools because we recognize that not all children can come to our center,” Cummings said.

So, Mote Elementary School opened its doors to them for their students.

“Providing them a time to come out of the classroom to process that grief, to learn those strategies and then go back to their classroom, they're actually more engaged with the learning,” said school principal Lauren Young.

That’s important, experts say, because grief can impact a child’s time in school.

“They can become very distracted by the thoughts, and that's one of the things we offer them is a chance to just take breaks,” said Matthew Kupelian, the school’s psychologist. “So, if they need to step out of math class because they're overwhelmed by the thoughts of the loved one, they can do that any time.”

While small reminders can trigger a child’s grief, holidays can be a tough time.

“The holidays are a time that do magnify this because a lot of people have, you know, family gatherings and they're having support from their family and visiting with different people,” Cummings said. “So, when you have that loved one gone from that picture, it's kind of the grief, that is the ongoing grief, that we talk about and it reminds you that you're still living without that person.”

There’s something everyone can do, though, to help children navigate that.

“The best thing to do is to listen. It's something that we, as adults, don't do very well,” Cummings said. “So, listening actually helps a lot.”

It’s all part of helping children feel heard in their most vulnerable hours.