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Answering the 'Whys'

Understanding death -- especially a sudden death -- is hard for anyone. Grasping the whys can plague a person's well-being for days.

"Why did it happen?"

"Why him? Why not me?"

"Why?" is one of those questions children ask over and over as they're trying to understand a new concept. And if that new concept is death, why is a pretty big topic.

Two elementary children have died in Farmington schools this school year. Those deaths naturally brought out whys from classmates and other students, but there's no one answer to any of those questions.

A big reason there's no fast and easy answer is that elementary school-aged children are just starting to understand the concept of death, itself. A kindergarten student has a far more naive grasp of what death is than a fifth or sixth grade student.

When a death occurs in the schools, the School District 192 Trauma Team -- five school counselors who have been specially trained to help students and staff through a death in the buildings -- is deployed to the building where the death of a student or staff member has occurred. Team members include Boeckman Middle School counselor Nicole McGuire, Farmington Elementary School counselor Jen Venz, Dodge Middle School counselor Jen Hogan, Riverview Elementary School counselor Kathy Willhoite, and Farmington High School counselor Chelsy Newman.

The empty desk

When a death occurs in a school building, a letter is written to the parents. When possible, particularly in the elementary schools, a calling tree goes to work the night before students in the deceased student's classroom go to class to let the parents know what their student will encounter the next day.

When students arrive the day after a student dies, the teachers have already been briefed on what happened. A support structure has been put in place, with counselors from every school building on hand and ready to sit down with students who start to experience the grief. Teachers or members of the trauma team, will talk to the students first thing in the morning.

In elementary school, that death also means an empty desk. It's a visible and sometimes painful symbol of a student death. Willhoite cautions that memorializing a desk -- or a locker, in the middle and high schools -- can only go on for so long. Maybe through the end of the week, or through the day of the funeral if it's the same week, but not any longer. Keeping something like that visible for too long prolongs the grief and hinders the healing process.

But that empty desk can help the deceased student's classmates deal with their grief, too. They're allowed to make cards and write letters sharing memories about the deceased student, and place those items on the desk. It's a temporary memorial to help honor the deceased.

"They can really feel for the family. They like to make those cards and banners. Even the youngest kids understand enough that they feel sorry for the family," Willhoite said.

After the funeral, the desks are rearranged, the extra desk removed from the classroom. The cards and banners are packed up and given to the deceased child's parents. And life moves on.

Members of the trauma team are available for students to talk to for several days after a death in the schools. They work with the students who exhibit the most grief -- good friends, siblings -- but also recognize that sometimes they can't do everything.

In the homes

The trauma team members are there to talk to students and to help teachers through emotional times, but the security of a hug and a good, long talk should happen in the home.

"Let them know they can talk about it," Willhoite said.

For parents, though, talking about death can be a pretty uncomfortable subject. To help that along, the trauma team provides a few pieces of literature. One describes the developmental stages of understanding death. The other gives tips on how to talk to students and help them deal with death.

The paperwork helps to clarify the child's reasoning on the subject. McGuire says parents occasionally have the tendency to over-explain the matter, especially to younger students who understand only that their classmate is gone.

Above all, home should be the place that is safe, and the students should feel secure in talking about their fears -- because a lot of them do experience fear -- and their grief.

"Don't tell them to get over it. It's okay to be sad," Hogan said. "We're firm believers in dealing with emotions."

And if parents are having a hard time talking to their students, or if they notice their students are experiencing prolonged mourning or depression, they should contact their school counselor to ask for assistance. While the school counselors are not trained therapists, they have resources to help the family who needs help.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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