SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Returning to school can come with mixed emotions for students, especially those processing the death of a loved one from the pandemic.
The ongoing crisis is prompting districts to invest in more resources to help grieving students cope.
“You may have a classroom of students that, a cousin passed away, a parent passed away, a grandparent passed away," said Sharon Rubalcava. "If you turn on the news, if you turn on any social media, the death count is there.”
Rubalcava is the program manager for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) counseling and guidance department.
"What we try to do is figure out what is the best plan for that student," said Rubalcava.
Loss is among the many traumas students have endured, and supporting them is among the many new challenges for educators.
"Not necessarily knowing what tomorrow brings has been a challenge for the school counselors," said Rubalcava.
But counselors in the district are more equipped now to respond to the waves of grief.
The district adopted an evidence-based grief support program to help students navigate loss.
And with COVID relief funds, they're hiring more counselors to support students districtwide.
“Walk a student through an eight-week session, six-week session of a support group once a week, with students that are experiencing similar experiences," said Rubalcava.
Activities are designed to build trust, help students adapt to change, and memorialize their loved one.
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has resources and educational materials to help schools support grieving students.
"Maybe it's writing a letter," said Rubalcava. "Because that's probably the biggest I've heard as a school counselor is, 'I wish I would of. I wish I could have.' And so it's like, 'Well you can. Let's do it.' By putting something on paper and releasing that, and allowing yourself to release what guilt or what you wish you would have done, is immensely helpful.”
A natural response to loss, experts say grief support is different from mental health support.
“Grief happens at any given moment to anyone, and there’s not a lot, any say within it," said Rubalcava.
However, she says there can be episodes of grief and behavior change associated with grief.
In some cases, feelings of loss are debilitating and don't improve even after time passes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Known as complicated grief, painful emotions are so long-lasting and severe that you have trouble recovering from the loss and resuming your own life.
“Getting my son therapy during this time was challenging because the mental health systems are stressed to the limit," said Guthe, a Los Angeles Unified School District father.
Guthe’s 14-year-old son is coping with the loss of his mother. She suffered debilitating post COVID symptoms for over a year, ultimately taking her own life.
“I think he understands she was in a great deal of pain, excruciating daily, physical pain, and that’s why she made the decision she made. But it’s still his mother, and she’s not coming back," said Guthe.
His son is among students who may need more individualized grief support.
SDUSD works with outside organizations to help fill the gap.
“What we'll do is assess the situation, and figure out, can the school counselors handle it or do we need more support? And that’s ok. Sometimes we need more support, and so we utilize our outside agencies," said Rubalcava.
In the U.S., more than 152,000 children are estimated to have lost a parent or caregiver.
And loss isn’t the only source of grief.
“There’s plenty of kids whose parents didn’t die of COVID but suffering with long COVID, and they’re watching their parents completely debilitated," said Guthe.
He’s grateful districts are using emergency relief funds to hire more counselors and school psychologists.
"It’s very frightening for kids because they don’t have an end in sight," said Guthe. "This is a generation of kids that’s going to be affected by this if we don’t step up and take it very seriously soon.”