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How a high school grief club is helping teens cope after losing a parent

The loss of a parent can alter the course of a child's life, placing them at risk of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How a high school grief club is helping teens cope after losing a parent
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/SDI Productions

The death of a parent is the kind of trauma that can alter the course of a child's life, placing them at risk of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and almost certainly creating challenges at school. Yet, very few educational institutions have resources in place to help and support kids carrying such emotional baggage. According to NPR, the issue was brought to light during the pandemic, which reportedly left more than 200,000 children without a parent or primary grandparent caregiver.

"That's like two kids for every public school," said Susan Hillis, co-chair for the Global Reference Group on Children Affected by COVID-19, and the author of several studies estimating the number of kids orphaned by the pandemic.


"Honestly, it makes me sick to my stomach to think of the hurt so many kids are experiencing," said Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist at Harvard University who has studied the developmental impacts of separation from caregivers. "We could have done better to protect these kids." According to Hillis, schools are an ideal place to help children grieving the loss of a parental figure given they spent most of their time there and teachers and counselors can identify the children who have lost a parent or caregiver.

"The pandemic has helped raise awareness in schools about this," said psychologist Julie Kaplow, the executive vice president of trauma and grief programs at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. Very often, she says, "schools don't know what it is they should be doing."


One teacher at Atlantic Community High in Palm Beach County, Florida, knows exactly what her grieving students need. Having lost her own father when she was young, Cori Walls is well aware of how it haunted her entire childhood. "I can remember being jealous of seeing girls with their fathers when I was little," she shared.

Her grief became more pronounced when was a teenager as she was gutted over not having her dad see her graduate from junior high and high school. "I went back to visit his grave, and that's when grief smacked me in the face," Walls recalled. Unfortunately, neither her family nor anyone at school knew how to support her in her sorrow.


So when Walls became a high school teacher, she kept an eye out for students who were grieving a parent. "When I first walked into the classroom—my first-period class—I had four students that I met that had lost a parent," she said. "And I immediately could identify and understand what they've gone through and what they were dealing with."

Walls kept a close eye on these students every year, offering them an open-door policy and always making herself available to listen to them and provide additional academic support. She decided to take her efforts a notch higher in 2019 when had 10 such students in a single class.


"After that happened, I just couldn't sit down and not do anything about it," said Walls. "So I asked my principal at the time if I could start a group to get the kids together." The group—named "Steve's Club" after Walls' late father—is open to any student grieving the loss of a loved one and meets twice a month to talk about what they are going through.

Over the past couple of years, Steve's Club has grown to become more than a peer support group. Aside from bringing in local mental health professionals to provide grief counseling to the students, Walls also refers students who need additional care to school mental health care providers.


"I help them find volunteer hours, I help them find part-time jobs," Walls revealed. "I obviously have communication with their teachers. But at the end of the day, it's so that they just know that they're not alone... "There [are] children from all backgrounds—socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, religious, sexual orientation, whatever it is. They forge these bonds with each other and respect each other."

She believes schools are the right place to invest in helping kids. "There's plenty of grief support out there, but they're not getting connected to all the kids that actually need it," she said. "I would love to see a position created within the school districts that will allow a person to connect to all the support outside the school district and within the school district and then connect them to the kids."

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