School counselors offer advice on helping children deal with grief

Tragedy of Evansdale cousins could linger through winter months

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April 1, 2014 | 3:16 am

The anguish began on a hot Friday in July when two cousins vanished while on a bike ride in Evansdale.

For many, the grieving of their recently discovered deaths will continue through the cold months of winter.

School counselors in both Waterloo and Cedar Falls said that is normal, especially for young children. The Waterloo Community School District had extra counselors and crisis response teams at the ready last week when students returned to school the day after local law enforcement said hunters had found two bodies they believed could have a connection to the disappearance of Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins. The bodies were identified in ensuing days as those of the missing cousins. The girls were students at Kingsley Elementary and Poyner Elementary, respectively.

However, Melissa Hardman, counselor at Orange Elementary, said most students at Kingsley already were aware of the discovery when classroom teachers read the age-appropriate announcements in the classroom.

From there students, and staff, were offered the opportunity to speak with counselors or simply take a break if needed.

But what happens when those students go home?

The girls’ disappearance has touched families far beyond the Waterloo border. Jennifer Alexander, a school counselor at Hansen Elementary in Cedar Falls, has had parents and children contact her regarding the girls’ death. Her best advice: “Tell the truth in very concrete and short terms.”

“They were found and they had died. Or when they were found, they found out that they had died,” she said. “Then let the kids ask questions about it. It is important to answer honestly but only tell as much as they ask. You don’t have to tell any more.”

Alexander said if children ask questions you can’t answer, like how the girls died or were they outside the whole time, tell them you don’t know.

“They should also know that the police are working to find those answers,” she said.

Hardman said there is a “wide range” of normal when it comes to grieving, especially for children. Parents can expect some of the questions, especially in younger children, to come out during play.

“One thing to remember is that they take little bites at a time. Your child might come to you with a question and you think you are starting a good conversation and then they want to go play,” Alexander said. “That’s what they do. It is a healthy approach.”

Some children, as they talk about their fear, may regress. They may have difficulty sleeping or become exceptionally clingy. That’s normal too, said Melissa Knight, a counselor at Irving Elementary. Other children might be mad, sad or even use humor to cope with their grief and questions.

Alexander warned that older children may ask questions that some adults would consider “gory,” but that too is normal.

What isn’t normal is when young children stop playing altogether or if their sleeping and eating problems get worse or persist for several weeks or months.

“Any significant changes in behavior, it might be worth it to contact a school counselor or someone about it,” Alexander said.

Families who choose to attend a memorial service or funeral for either one of the girls should prepare their youngster for what they might see and how they should act, Hardman said.

“There are certain social skills they will need to be made aware of,” she said. “They should know that this is a sad time and that they may see adults who are sad too. That can be scary to them.”

They should also know that even if people are sad that it is OK to share their happy memories, Knight added.

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