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Proposed legislation in NJ would require schools to respond to student grief

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In the aftermath of the pandemic’s lockdowns and losses, schools in New Jersey may soon be required to teach children to express the most unspoken emotion: grief.

According to mental health experts, grief and not knowing how to deal with it properly can confuse children and teens and derail their learning and behavior in and out of school.

Invoice S3330 would require public schools to discuss grief and coping with loss during health classes for eighth through 12th graders. It was presented last week by sponsors Sens. Jon Bramnick, R.Union, and Joe Cryan, D-Union.

Bereavement instruction would be part of the state’s comprehensive physical and health education student learning standards, if lawmakers pass the bill and the governor signs it into law. The senators said they aim for the requirement to come into effect in the 2023-2024 school year.

The state Department of Education would create sample age-appropriate learning activities and resources that schools could use in teaching about grief. Schools would teach students how to recognize the physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of grief and inform them of therapy and other resources available.

The bill is timely, coinciding with the aftermath of the pandemic and an increase in school shootings nationwide.

Whether it’s due to isolation from COVID or the loss of a loved one to the pandemic, “having the opportunity to express grief” is key to this bipartisan bill, said cryan.

Bramnick said he originally drafted the bill to include first graders and up, but decided it would be easier for him to pass and become law if he limited it, for the time, to the upper classes.

The concept was born from the work of Imagine, a non-profit center for coping with losswhich provides free grief counseling to children and families who have experienced bereavement, Bramnick said.

“Seeing the work they do and the importance of the work, that was the motivation for writing and submitting the bill,” Bramnick said at the center’s Mountainside location.

Bill’s Inspiration

It’s easy to miss the Imagine Center, tucked away in an industrial complex, but for Montclair High School senior Diana Creaser’s family, it was irreplaceable sustenance after losing her mother to cancer. Creaser’s late mother was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer years ago. As a result, her treatment, a clinical trial, hospice care, and her death this year overshadowed her daughter’s high school life. Creaser said she was “a very different person” after caring for her mother in her final days. The high school did not offer to help her cope when she returned to school after her mother’s death.

“Not a single counselor or teacher met with me after this troubling time. On my first day of class, I was ignored and told to immediately create a plan to make up for my missed work,” a- she declared.

During the pandemic in the United States, one in 500 children lost a caregiver to COVID-19, according to the National Institutes of Health. This made the orphanage a secondary tragedy in the United States and around the world. Children from racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 65% of those deaths. Worldwide, more than 1.5 million children are estimated to have lost a caregiver to COVID in the summer of 2021.

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Children and adolescents experience and process grief differently from adults. Children’s reactions to loss do not exactly resemble adult reactions, “neither in their specific manifestations nor in their duration,” shows a 1984 National Institutes of Health study. Traumatic experiences, such as the loss of a parent or caregiver, are associated with increased substance use, mental health problems and poor outcomes, and loss and lack of coping skills effective can make children particularly vulnerable to bereavement, the effects of which can continue into adulthood.

For many black and Latino children, grief has simply become a way of life after the pandemic, said Newark resident and parent advocacy leader Altorice Frazier, though children from all walks of life have been affected.

The loss came early and once too often in Frazier’s life, and there were simply no words for it, he said.

He entered foster care at age 2, was adopted at age 6, and lost his adoptive mother to drug addiction during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early of the 1990s. From the age of 9, he says, he rose until he dropped out of high school. He went to prison for five years for selling drugs. He was released in 2004 to a halfway house, where he worked to rebuild his life, and later received a full pardon from Governor Chris Christie for his volunteer work and organization as a parent advocate.

“No one was able to give me a name for how I felt. Never knowing my parents, having a deep and lasting connection with people was always a failure…if someone like a teacher or a mentor had mentioned my loss and told me what I was crying, this I was grieving, it could have been a different outcome,” Frazier said.

The Imagine Center has its roots in another deep loss. The center’s late founder, Gerald Glasser, established it after the death of his son, Thomas, in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Executive director Lindsay Schambach said she took over a few years after stepping down as principal of a KIPP charter school in Newark, following the death of her husband from cancer in 2018. Schambach said that she had visited Imagine for help. She also introduced Frazier to the center when he lost his birth mother in Newark, after they were reunited years later. The two became friends when Frazier’s children attended his charter school.

As a teacher and principal, Schambach had seen many of her younger students cry.

“I saw all their losses, but didn’t realize all the more I should do until my own husband died. I watched the long-term impacts of the loss and I says we should do more.

Schambach had a 4-year-old and a 4-week-old child when her husband died. Watching his son explain his father’s death over and over again to friends and teachers when he changed schools was a turning point that strengthened his commitment to the work.

She quit her job at the charter school, joined Imagine as a staff member, and wrote a 10-year plan for the center that included educational advocacy for bereavement support and the creation of “grievance-informed districts.” grief”.

When Schambach joined Imagine in Newark, she contacted Frazier and asked him to be on her advisory board.

The group also provides paid bereavement support services at schools and community centers, but at its centers all counseling is free.

Families visit the center every two weeks for about 2.5 hours and continue to visit for three to five years. The center’s biggest supporter is the South Ward Promise neighborhood in Newark, which brings together partners through a federal grant, a foundation created by the Imagine founder, and several individual donors.

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