Ellen Mae Paris can envision the struggle going on at Southwest Elementary School today.
She can picture the sadness on every single face in the Greenwood school. She can see the tears and hear the waver in the students’ voices.
Having gone through such a terrible situation herself, she knows that the only way to get through it is by supporting each other and giving the children time to heal.
As the head counselor at Northwood Elementary School in Franklin, she helped lead the grieving process when 7-year-old Curtis Smith was killed in a gun accident in 1999. She was in charge of organizing how the school would help grieving students, parents and teachers.
She had all of the students in Curtis’ class make memory boxes, including photos, toys and trinkets, to remind them of their classmate. People approach her to tell her that they still have those boxes and how much it helped them through such a difficult time.
“When Curtis was shot and killed, he was a second-grader. I’m just thinking about those little faces at that age and the things they try to take in and process,” Paris said.
Here are her recommendations for how to help children and adults during this time:
Q What can parents and teachers do to help their children with the grieving process?
A Be honest. Listen. Provide them with an opportunity to do something, such as make cards, draw pictures, send letters and create memories. We adults would think of it as something cathartic we could do. Just giving them a purpose and a way to participate. You have to allow them time to work through it their own way. It’ll just take time.
Q Why is it so important to be honest in a situation like this?
A It is heartbreaking, so why try to mask it and turn it into something that it’s not? It’s horrible, and kids will work through that. But if you truncate it or shut it off and pretend it didn’t happen, that’s not real. It messes up the whole healing process. They want to express themselves, that opportunity to participate and have that opportunity to have feelings.
Q What mistakes do people sometimes make dealing with children and tragedies?
A Sometimes I think that adults just assume if they don’t talk about it around the kids, it will keep them away from it. To me, that causes more damage than just being honest with them and supporting their feelings. Letting them know that, yeah, this is really sad. Give them an opportunity to ask questions and then answering them.
Q Why is it important that they still had school Monday and for the rest of this week?
A You need to try to create structure. They need that structure, and they need routines. That can help with comfort. Trying to provide that similarity to other, better days. You can’t do everything, but you can try to keep it somewhat the same.
Q What did you have to deal with when one of your students was killed?
A When Curtis was killed, I had more trouble with the parents than with the kids. Educating the parents in helping kids process grief is a big thing. This is a tragedy. It’s a traumatic event. It’s not like a relative dying, there are so many other layers to the shock of it all. It’s not like regular grief. Traumatic grief is different.
Q What can parents expect as the process goes on?
A It’ll come in waves. It’s a long process for kids to grieve. They might be fine for a few days, and then that sadness will hit them again. That’s all normal.