Schools prepared to support students after unexpected death

Hull High School Principal Michael Devine posted the following message to parents tonight to tell them how the schools are prepared to support students after the unexpected death of sophomore Emma Ryan. 

October 30, 2016

Dear Parents and Guardians:

We learned yesterday that a tenth grade student, Emma Ryan, died unexpectedly early Saturday morning. We would like to share with you what we are doing in school to support students as they experience the normal sense of loss and grief that follows the death of a close friend. We would also like to offer some suggestions for talking with your child and some resources for additional support.

On Saturday, many high school and middle school students and their parents gathered in the high school cafeteria to be with each other and support one another. Tonight at 7 PM, many will gather at L Street for a candlelight vigil in memory of Emma. On Monday morning, each school will have multiple counselors available to help students deal with the myriad of emotions that they will be feeling. Students will be encouraged to maintain their normal routines as much as possible, because keeping typical structure in place is best for children. However, any student who wants to speak with a counselor will have the opportunity to do so.

All of us, in our own way, try to make sense of death, particularly the death of a child. Children want to understand, but are often unsure and awkward at expressing their concern. The following normal developmental responses are taken from the Good Grief Program’s description of psychological tasks for children when a friend dies.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5): These youngsters see death as temporary and reversible. They believe the dead live on under changed circumstances - either on a cloud, in a city called Heaven, in a box under the ground and connected to other boxes by tunnels. Preschoolers ask many questions, often gross and grubby, about how one lives on. No matter how well death is explained, many will persist in their beliefs about its reversibility. These children are likely to be literal and concrete in their thinking.

Latency (ages 6-8): Children in this developmental stage see death as a person or spirit that comes to get you if you aren’t fast or clever enough to escape. From their perspective, three groups of people die: the elderly, the handicapped (because I can't run fast enough) and the klutzes. Klutzes are people who die that are neither elderly nor handicapped. In an effort to make themselves feel different and therefore safe, children will often find some specific way, frequently negatively, to differentiate themselves from people who die.

Preadolescents (ages 9-11): These youngsters have a more adult understanding of death, seeing it as final, universal and irreversible. They are interested in rituals and concerned how the world will change because of the death of a particular person. This age group is frequently described as having the easiest time dealing with death and dying because they tend to intellectualize as a way of coping with the experience. They can sometimes sound crass and uncaring.

Adolescents (age 12+): Adolescents work hard to make sense of their own eventual death and the death of others. Just when they are being asked to take responsibility for their own lives, they are confronted by experiences that challenge their own lives; they are confronted by experiences that challenge their belief in their own immortality. They privately worry about the consequences of their own risk-taking behaviors while publically proclaiming their invulnerability. They are emotionally vulnerable when a death occurs and often sob or hug each other. They are concerned about what is worth living for and what is worth dying for. They want to understand adult rituals at the time of death, but often prefer to develop their own. Their grief at times of death tends to be expressed with peers rather than family members, often causing adults to believe the adolescent is not grieving.

Normal grief includes both sadness and anger. It is often easier to tolerate children's sadness than it is to provide opportunities for them to express the anger. A child’s style of grieving will differ depending on the age of the child, relationship to the person who died, suddenness of death, etc. It is important to validate all of the feelings a child experiences associated with the death of a friend and to provide a psychologically safe environment for doing so.

When a friend dies, children, particularly adolescents, must find some way to formally or informally remember the person who died. Such activity confirms the reality of the death and the value of human life. It is important that students be included with the faculty in planning school commemoration. Commemoration activities may take place several weeks or months after the death and should not be rushed.

When children have accomplished the tasks of understanding, grieving, and commemorating, they often need a kind of verbal permission to go on. They wonder when it is all right to laugh again, to have fun, and to not be sad all the time. We can help them understand that going on does not mean forgetting.

When speaking to adolescents about death, the skills of active listening are helpful. Without pressuring, let your child know you are available to talk. Listen and accept what is said. Encourage your child to express his/her feelings, but let him/her know that we all have different ways of expressing our grief. Some of us are more demonstrative than others. Just because they are not crying doesn't mean they don't care. Acting withdrawn or distracted are also signs that they are concerned about what happened. Intense feelings are characteristic of adolescents, though they do not mean that the feelings will persist beyond the appropriate time.

Below are the names of the counselors that work in each of our schools. If you would like additional information or support please do not hesitate to call or email them, or call or email the school’s principal with your questions or concerns.

I know that this small, close and wonderful community will pull together to help the Ryan family deal with their tragedy. I also know that we will provide the support and comfort that our students need to deal with the loss of someone held so dear by so many.

Very truly yours,

Michael F. Devine
Principal, Hull High School

Jacobs Elementary School
Juanita Reppucci, Interim School Psychologist
Maureen Rosenplanter, Adjustment Counselor

Memorial Middle School
Rebecca MacDonald, Adjustment Counselor
Alison Simons, School Psychologist

Hull High School
Michelle Burke, Guidance Counselor
Andrea Centerinno, Adjustment Counselor
Meghan Preble, Guidance Counselor
Ann Sullivan, Social Worker