I’m posting Superintendent Holland’s letter to parents on Saturday’s heartbreaking tragedy at Winn Brook School. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Goulding family.
Dear Parents and Community Members:
I am saddened to inform you of the death of Maeve Goulding, first grade student at the Burbank School. Maeve was playing soccer at the Winn Brook field when she collapsed and never gained consciousness. Maeve has siblings and cousins in Belmont and in the school system. Her family is a member of St. Joseph’s Church. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time, but will be listed in the newspapers.
Dr. Rob Evans, a psychologist who works extensively with school districts in Boston and across the country, spoke with me last evening. He sent the following comments which can be used by adults to help students cope with the sudden and seemingly inexplicable death of a classmate and teammate. Parents, teachers, and school psychologists play an important role in speaking with students about an incident such as this, since these are adults who are well known and trusted by the children. Students may ask some questions but most will want to return to their regular school and family routines which they find reassuring. I encourage you to read Dr. Evans’ very thoughtful comments which are printed below.
Thank you for your support as we work through this tragic loss to the Goulding family and to our community.
Peter Holland, Ed.D.
Belmont Public Schools
644 Pleasant Street
Belmont, MA 02478
Helping Students Cope with A Tragic Death
Robert Evans, Ed.D.
The death of a student reverberates throughout a community. People feel shock and disbelief, as well as concern for the student’s family and friends. Adults want to be helpful to students but often have trouble themselves understanding how such a thing could happen. They may find themselves reminded of major losses in their own lives. People worry about saying too much or too little, about not having enough information, about saying the wrong thing. Though there is no perfect way to respond, there are five guidelines that can often make a positive difference in talking with young people.
1. Don’t over-assume what the death means to them. They react differently depending on their closeness to the situation, their own personalities, and so on. Some may be deeply moved, others less so. Some may have many questions, others fewer. Not all will be intensely affected. Showing little reaction does not automatically mean a student is hiding or denying his or her feelings. At the same time, some students who have little immediate reaction may become upset later on, even in a way that doesn’t make sense to them. There is no universal timetable.
2. Children are remarkably resilient. A few may become quite upset, but given a chance to express what they feel, most usually resume their normal lives—and often do so more rapidly than older adults. There is reason to worry about students who show sustained—not temporary—changes in their mood and behavior. In such cases, it is good to consult a school counselor or other professional. But most students do not benefit from extensive, probing questioning about their reactions. They do profit from simple, direct information and from faculty and parents being available to respond to their questions and to listen when they themselves want to talk.
3. If you receive difficult questions it can be useful to understand these before answering them. Often a question is spurred by a feeling. Rather than plunging into an immediate answer, it can be helpful to learn what motivates the question by asking, “What made you think of that?” or “Can you tell me what you were thinking about?” Once you know the source of the question, it is easier to answer effectively.
4. There may be questions you cannot answer, which can make you feel inadequate. But all of us are typically more comforted by straight talk than by false assurances. Rather than to invent a response, it can be much more helpful to say, “I don’t know,” and to ask, “Did you have an idea about that?” And don’t worry if, in responding, you become emotional a time or two. It is alright for children to know that adults are moved by tragic losses.
5. Above all, coping with a death is not primarily a matter of technique, not something best handled by a particular set of tactics that deviate sharply from one’s familiar patterns of communication. The regular routines of school and of family life, for example, are, all by themselves, a source of comforting continuity and assurance. Adults will rarely go wrong by relying on what is most basic between them and students—caring and connection. At these times, your presence—your simply being with students, their knowing that you are available—can be very reassuring.
Dr. Evans is a psychologist and the Director of The Human Relations Service, in Wellesley, Mass.