ELKHART — Three students at Elkhart Community Schools died in 2013, as did three former Elkhart coaches.
Caleb Black, 11; Eunice Peña, 18; and Sarah Crane, 15; all departed from the Elkhart school community this year, leaving teachers and fellow students who must continue the school year without them.
Larry Forrest, who coached basketball at West Side Middle School; Steve Johnson, who coached basketball at Elkhart Memorial; and John Alley, who was a longtime wrestling coach and teacher for the corporation, also died in 2013.
How does a school adjust in situations like this, when a classmate or a beloved coach isn’t at school anymore?
Memorial principal Mark Tobolski said that after a death, students just want normalcy.
“All of the young kids kept saying (after Crane died on Dec. 7), we need to put things back into normal and get back to life,” Tobolski said.
He added that in Memorial’s case, students had been involved in Crane’s cancer fight almost from the beginning. Many of them participated in Sarahstrong events and fundraisers, and that helped, he said.
“We just need to realize that people grieve in different ways, and we are just going to have to understand that,” he said. “We will all have that grief in a little way, whether it’s an anniversary or a track sectional that will trigger that.”
Grief counselors from nonprofit center Ryan’s Place visited Elkhart schools a few times this year to support students and staff, according to executive director Aileac Deegan.
She said that elementary students sometimes need the most support after a death, because they may not believe that death is permanent. To help, Ryan’s Place staff uses some specific language when talking to young children.
“We never say that a person has passed away or passed on, even though as adults that sounds better to us because it’s not as stark,” Deegan explained. “We say, the person is dead and they are not coming back. If you say to a child that a person is lost — well, if you lose something you can find it.”
Young children also may worry that what happened to another child will happen to them, Deegan said.
“We never say ‘this won’t happen to you’ because we don’t know that, but we do our best to reassure them,” Deegan said. “We talk about the majority of people, who are healthy and fine.”
Counselors also encourage elementary students to write letters or draw pictures for the person who died. The feeling of “doing something” can help a lot, Deegan said.
“Younger children can’t stay in their grief for a long time,” she added. “It’s kind of a cyclical thing. The hope is that the times they are sad gets shorter and the times they are happy and can play get longer. We want them to know that it’s okay to form new relationships.”
Grieving teenagers are more likely to want to talk about the person who died.
“Teens a lot of times don’t want to do activities, they want to talk and be close to their peers,” Deegan said. “One thing that can really help young people is being with others who have been through the same experience.”
Adults at the school may need to be reassured that it’s OK to cry or to feel sadness.
“Adults are having to be strong for the children in the class ... and that can be very difficult,” Deegan said. “After the first few crisis days or weeks, they may find it is really hard for them to deal with.”
Spending time with counselors can provide a “safe space” for adults at the school to feel vulnerable, she added.
If you are a parent and your child’s classmate died this year, Deegan said it’s a good idea to talk to your children about any fears they may have.
“Let them know there will always be someone there to take care of them, even though their world may be turned upside down at the moment,” she advised.