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Counselors reach out to grieving students

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Classmates of three Franklin students who were killed or seriously injured in a swimming accident don’t want to talk, they’re instead finding ways to help however they can.

Counselors from Franklin Community Schools have been available for students since Friday, when five high school students went over a dam while swimming in the Big Blue River near Edinburgh. High school guidance counselor Kacee Murphy hasn’t sat down with a single student yet. They’re just not ready to talk, she said.

Instead, those students are doing.

They’re making and hanging blue ribbons around the city to show support for the teens and their families. They’re posting photos of 17-year-old Jason Moran, who died of drowning, and 16-year-old Michael Chadbourne, who is on life support until his organs are donated. Sarah McLevish, 16, remains in critical condition. Friends are sharing memories in small groups and on social media, putting together photo collages and planning a banner that people can sign for the families.

Two girls who aren’t in Moran’s grade stopped by the high school this week, not to talk, but just to see if there was any way they could help with projects to support the families, Murphy said.

A public calling and memorial service for Moran today might help students, but they’re still waiting to find out what will happen with Chadbourne and McLevish, Murphy said. So they could be waiting to seek out help from adults, she said.

“The kids really need something positive right now and need something to be hopeful for,” she said. “(Wednesday) is going to be a pretty tough day, but I think it will be good for the kids,” she said.

The three teens and two other friends, Trent Crabb and Mark Nally, went swimming near the dam off State Road 252 Friday. McLevish went over the dam wall and all four boys followed to try to save her. Moran drowned and rescuers searched until they found his body Sunday. Chadbourne and McLevish were pulled out of the water unconscious and have been hospitalized since.

The tragedy is still too raw to talk about, counselor Wendy Ralston said. Classmates just found out Monday that Chadbourne wouldn’t survive and they’re still hoping McLevish will recover. Meeting with friends in small groups and keeping busy is how they’re coping right now, Ralston said.

“They are always wanting to know how they can help,” she said.

Keeping busy after an unexpected loss of a friend or family member is common for teens or any age group, said John Shafer, director of the counseling center at Franklin College. The activities students have been taking part in this week can help them work through the loss at their own pace, he said.

“They want to make a difference and cutting out ribbons and hanging ribbons is a very good way of coping, especially if they’re doing it with their friends,” Shafer said.

If school were in session, counselors expect they’d have lines of people wanting to talk. But since it’s summer break, groups of friends are meeting at houses, around town or at the Indianapolis hospital to support each other, Murphy said.

Counselors don’t expect students to seek out help yet. That may not happen until after the memorial services, or maybe not even until school starts again in the fall. Once students are back in class and feel Moran’s absence or attend that first football game where he’s not on the field, then they might want to start talking with counselors, Ralston said.

Grief isn’t a process that takes a month or two to go through, Shafer said. So students, staff, faculty and families may need help throughout next school year, he said.

“They’ll need to go through their friend’s birthday, or the first football game or the first Christmas without their son,” Shafer said. “Returning to Franklin Community High School will be very difficult, especially for the senior class.”

Counselors are available and ready to listen, since students will have different needs. Some will just want somebody to cry with, some will want to share some memories and others will need some encouraging words to help process the loss of their classmates, Murphy said. Counselors and parents can remind kids that life is short and can change quickly, so make the most of the time you have with friends and family, she said.

“There’s nothing perfect we can say to make them feel better,” she said.

Teenagers typically prefer to seek out their peers rather than adults to work through problems, so it will be important to let them spend time with their friends throughout the summer, Shafer said. Parents likely won’t make much progress by trying to sit their child down and ask about his or her feelings, he said.

Parents instead should make sure their son or daughter knows that they’re available and let them approach on their own terms. Or parents can try asking how their child is doing in a situation that’s not so direct, such as while riding in the car where a teen doesn’t have to make eye contact while talking, he said.

“They need to know you’re willing to listen when they’re ready,” Shafer said.

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