For many students, the challenges of the pandemic have included coping with unexpected grief.
“What we’re seeing, especially since COVID-19, are a lot of families going through separations and divorce, and families who are experiencing the loss of family members,” McKenzie Bergman says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Richfield, Minn.
Blessed Trinity is a small school, with 215 students, where the loss of a loved one and even a handful of divorces can ripple through the school community.
“For so many of our families, everything is set up like a house of cards, just stacked perfectly. Pull out any one card, though, and it all falls apart. That’s what we’re seeing when families go through these changes.”
For students, loss and grief can trigger larger challenges like depression, social withdrawal, and eating disorders. Grades and attendance can drop. Some students act out. A newly single parent may need support in finding a job.
Bergman’s response as a coordinator is to help children and support families. A key first step, she says, is listening.
“Everyone’s an expert on their own lives,” Bergman explains. That’s why it’s crucial to help children find their voice as they grieve. “You really have to give students the opportunity to tell their story. You can’t help them if you don’t know what they’re experiencing.”
Given that many students in her school live in households with their extended family, Bergman knows that having a grandparent die can mean losing a daily caretaker or, in some cases, a de facto parent.
When parents are divorcing, Bergman pays attention to circumstances, whether a child is living in two homes or whether divorcing parents have to remain in the same household. Bergman is also alert to the emotional and economic challenges.
To address all these situations, Bergman keeps talking to families about what they need. She engages local community partners, referring students who have lost a family member to Camp Erin, a program for students, ages 6 to 17, who are grieving.
“The camp brings students and families together who have experienced loss, so they don’t feel alone, and they can share their memories and learn strategies about how to cope with loss.”
To provide therapeutic support and co-parenting classes in cases of divorce, Bergman engages two other community partners, Headway Emotional Health and David Hoy and Associates, which sends therapists to school to meet with students and families.
Aware of the stigma around mental health, Bergman says, “I emphasize that added support helps everyone have a healthy family. I explain that transitions can be difficult and can impact a student’s desire to be at school and their feeling of belonging both at home and at school. Our community partners are great people who can help navigate these challenges.”
Another tool Bergman uses is “Riding the Wave of Divorce,” a student workbook.
“I fill it out with the students and with their permission, I share pages of their story with their grownups. It is really impactful for them to feel heard. ”
“I also think it’s helpful for parents to understand because the common theme that I’ve experienced is that kids aren’t really talking to their parents about divorce at home.”
Over time, students’ outcomes are inspiring. They adjust to their losses. They form new and stronger friendships. They re-engage with school. They benefit from the support their parents receive. And they learn one of life’s crucial lessons, that in the face of loss and tragedy, they can be resilient, they can heal, and they can reinvest in their lives.