What Does Support for Grief and Trauma Look Like?

What Does Support for Grief and Trauma Look Like?
By Christine Hazard, Ph.D.
District School Psychologist, Los Alamos Public Schools

This week, in the wake of a tragic death by suicide of one of our high school students, Los Alamos High School marshaled all its’ resources to help support students and adults in their shock and grief. Not just counselors, but teachers and other staff, nurses, secretaries, receptionists, security guards, custodians, administrators and our community. You may wonder at the long list after counselors: aren’t they the experts? The ones who know how to help? Certainly trained professionals are important and they were kept very busy but here’s what else we saw happen.

The high school receptionists and secretaries fielded a huge volume of visitors and calls – all with quiet efficiency, warm smiles, and good humor. Students and parents were addressed by name and hugged when they needed it. Teachers continued to teach, some through their own immense grief, but they also talked to their students, offered hugs or smiles, shared tears and certainly recognized when a student needed more support and made sure they found their way to help. Culinary arts teachers helped students make cookies and other snacks which were delivered to the main office, where staff  were working throughout the long days with little time to stop for food.

Nursing staff saw an extra large number of students with illness or pain – not all caused by physical reasons. As always, they gave excellent medical attention along with a healthy dose of TLC.

The library was open for studying and materials check out but also for small groups of kids to gather, or for one of the many counselors to sit quietly with a student and talk. We have always known that students find their own places to get together regardless of what’s offered officially. Clearly the library was one of those places this week. Library staff made sure rules were relaxed enough to keep students safe but comfortable.

Security personnel carried out their usual duties but also went on untold numbers of foot journeys to find students who might be in distress and make sure they found their way to a safe place. They too offered smiles, hugs, and a strong shoulder to lean on when needed.

Our custodians kept up with the more than usual numbers of students gathering in common spaces and at times usually open for them to get their cleaning done before the next onslaught of not always tidy young people eating and drinking! When students spontaneously organized a lunchtime gathering in the school’s main lobby, maintenance staff helped with set up as well as clean up. And yes – that lunchtime event happened yesterday, planned and carried out by students with the help of teachers and staff. Tea and other hot drinks were donated, cookies and the makings of toasted sandwiches, too. Posters were made and hung, with expressions not just of grief and sympathy for the student we lost but with positive statements of hope, compassion and mutual caring and coping.

Administrators not only made all this possible but cleared their calendars to be available for students, parents and staff in need. They enforced the letter of the law in school routine but in a spirit of understanding and compassion.

Finally, the response of the wider community of Los Alamos was amazing. We were so grateful for the quick mobilization of support at the Teen Center. Extra counselors came to the High School from other district sites, from area churches and youth groups, and from the county’s crisis response team. Community businesses donated food and other items. One of our county councilors came up with a creative way we can all contribute to the well being of our young people.

This response we saw at Los Alamos High School offers guidance for all adults in our community who may be wondering how they can help. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of tragedy and trauma but it doesn’t take any training or particular expertise to smile and acknowledge each other – particularly our young people. While they may appear preoccupied by their phones, music, games or each other, they truly do notice when caring adults recognize them. Parents – you don’t need specialized grief training to know where your kids are, to keep them close to home, to hug and kiss them even if they seem too big for affection, to rub a back, to listen and see – to witness their experience without any action necessary. It doesn’t take an expert to make and offer your young person’s favorite comfort food or warm cookies and hot chocolate.

Supporting young people and each other in the wake of tragedy does not have to be complicated. It’s often the simple things that count most.