Monday, February 06, 2006 | There is nothing sadder in the world than parents burying their children. The death of a child defies the natural order. We are supposed to die by age – the oldest first. When death occurs out of order, the world turns upside down. Nothing makes sense any more. Our purpose, meaning in life and values are forever altered.

A child’s death makes powerful ripples that flow out in all directions, touching hundreds of lives in ways unforeseen. Some people are swept away by the force of the impact; others are brushed gently like waves lapping at toes.

When teenagers die, the immediate family does not suffer alone. Schools and fellow students are also hit by the loss. Often, the San Diego County Office of Education is asked to provide support services for schools when a student dies.

“We get called in for things the districts can’t handle,” said Jorge Ley, school psychologist coordinator for SDCOE.

Ley, who has been with SDCOE for the past eight years, said his team is called upon four to five times a year, usually by smaller school districts. SDCOE has helped schools affected by the deaths of students from car accidents, suicides, drive-by shootings, drug overdoses and school shootings, as was the case at Santana and Granite Hills high schools in the Grossmont Union High School District in 2001.

Accidents, homicides and suicides account for three out of every four deaths for children ages 15 to 19, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Of accidental deaths, most occur in motor vehicles. One-fourth of teen deaths are from cancer, heart disease and birth defects. In 2002, the total death rate for teens was 68 out of 100,000.

Ley said the SDCOE crisis team first assesses the gravity of the situation and identifies those students most affected. “The closer you are, the more impacted you’re likely to be,” he said. The team is available to other students as well, “because it can trigger many emotions in others.”

Ley said his department provides small group and individual counseling, and helps teachers notice when children appear to need assistance and support. “Kids are resilient, but they need a sense of safety and protection,” he said. “Kids need to know there are adults there for them.”

Besides providing immediate support for acute needs, SDCOE also offers training for districts throughout the year, on how to handle trauma and to ensure that the right tools are in place. “If it affects students, we’re here to help,” Ley said.

More long-term bereavement care can be provided by individual professionals and organizations like the nonprofit Jenna Druck Foundation (www.jennadruck.org), which offers grief therapy and hope for families, friends, schools and workplaces.

Rappaport, who is in private practice in Carmel Valley and volunteers as a staff psychologist specializing in grief therapy with the Jenna Druck Foundation, said being with friends in familiar places like school provides a strong safety net for children affected by the death of a friend. But that, she said, can sometimes mislead adults into thinking the children are not grieving, or are “over it,” because teachers and parents may see the students laughing and joking and talking as if nothing had happened.

But children grieve differently than adults, who tend to mourn intensely after a death, she said. In contrast, kids can go in and out of grief more frequently, giving the appearance of recovery in public while privately they may be besieged by paralyzing misery and sorrow.

“Kids don’t come with instruction manuals,” said Canyon Crest Academy counselor Rik Napora, who accepts the many ways children process death, even though their outward signs of mourning may not be conventional.

In his many years as a counselor, teacher and therapist, Napora said he has observed a distinction in how boys and girls cope with the death of a classmate.

“Girls turn inward, and do things like listen to sad songs,” he said. “A coping strategy for boys is distraction. They throw a basketball around or play video games. Boys tend to bottle things up. On the outside they seem okay, but a lot of it is a façade.”

“That’s our culture,” agreed Rappaport. “Boys and girls grieve differently.”

The Value of Teams

Even those who played a team sport with the child who died, as close as teams are, might not be strongly affected by the loss, Naiman said, if the relationship was one-dimensional – that is, if they only shared the sport together and did nothing else with one another.

But when a team becomes a unit and members regard one another as family, there is a closeness that can make a death particularly devastating for the remaining team members.

I readily admit I’m no sports enthusiast. I can’t figure out, even after 10 years of watching my kids play soccer, what off-sides means. Football confuses me, and baseball puts me to sleep.

And yet … I can see the extraordinary value of sports, especially during adolescence when there is a crucial need to make connections to a school, other adults and a support system of friends who share healthy, common interests.

Phyllis Steinberg, whose 10th-grade son at Canyon Crest Academy lost a good friend and fellow basketball team member to an accidental death on the ski slopes two weeks ago, said one of the goals of the school’s team this year was “to play as a family.” Even though the tragic death was an overwhelming shock and the remaining players are burdened with intense sorrow over the loss of one of their “family members,” she said the experience “pulled them closer together.”

“They can support one another and will be stronger for this,” Steinberg said.

“There is a bond formed between teammates,” said David Jaffe, principal of Canyon Crest Academy in the San Dieguito Union High School District. “They have to fight through so many battles, and they learn to overcome their weaknesses as a team.”

In trying times, the team provides a source of comfort as well as an outlet for escaping the pain, even if temporarily, he said. Being part of a team is “important for the human experience,” Jaffe said. “As time passes, winning or losing won’t be what matters. The bonds formed and memories made will be what lasts.”

Jaffe said there are many things that connect kids to a school, and participation on a team is one of the most important. But it’s not just athletic teams, he said – teams include being part of an orchestra, a theater group, the debate team, group science projects, the journalism staff or any tight-knit club or school-sponsored activity.

Steinberg agreed. “These groups anchor them, and that translates into the classroom,” she said.

“It’s important to belong,” said Ley of the office of education. “On a team, you have an established resource for support.”

For teens, being part of a team means “having a place where they can feel good about themselves and feel confident and connected,” Rappaport said. “It’s a place where they fit in.”

For children, the death of a friend is painful and life-changing, Rappaport said. “The team is forever changed,” she said. “There is shock and traumatic loss. But as tragic as it is, it brings them closer together. A team is a place they can go through this process with other people who understand.”

Team members can also take the lead in organizing activities to honor their lost friend, like retiring a jersey number, collecting donations for a cause important to their friend, creating a display at the school as a tribute, dedicating a performance or game in his or her memory, or making a scrapbook filled with special notes or art to present as a keepsake to the family.

Actions are healing, Rappaport said, both for adults and for children. Adults send cards, bring flowers, make dinners, donate to charities or perform other acts that are soothing both to the bereaved family and the well-wisher.

Children, she said, are no different. They want to do something to help comfort the family as well as lessen their own pain. And children are very good at expressing themselves through writing, poetry, art, music and other creative forms. Schools should encourage this, Rappaport said.

The death of a peer shatters children’s sense of immortality and invincibility. “They learn they’re not bullet-proof any more,” Napora said. They gain an understanding of how precarious life can be, and how easily something tragic could happen to themselves or their own brother or sister, he said.

Although the death of a friend can bring on sadness, depression and anxiety, most professionals say teenagers often recover from tragedy wiser, stronger and more compassionate.

Steinberg said this will be an event her son and his teammates will never forget. “You don’t understand about life until you’re faced with a death,” she said.

A Canyon Crest Academy student expressed it beautifully, in a poem altered slightly from the original by poet Linda Ellis. Dedicated to her 16-year-old classmate who lived 1989-2006, her poem is prefaced with the words, “On tombstones, you see the year the person was born, a dash and the year they died.”

People get caught up in things:

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at

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