Monday, October 28, 2013

Processing and Grieving

I walked into school this morning right as the sun was rising, just before 7:30am. I saw one of the SPED teachers with the assistant principal and they had looks like I'd never seen before. A look that I immediately recognized as grief and confusion and hurt. I doubted it was a student, but thought maybe it was a student's parent. For reasons x, y, and z (I do have my actual reasons), I chose not to engage or ask or stop and say hi. I walked past, went into my office and shut the door, drank my coffee, and ate my breakfast.

I was planning out my day, put in a call slip for one of my kids, and decided to check in with my supervisor before our 8:45am meeting. Just as I was getting to her office, I saw her about to disappear  with that SPED teacher. She saw me just before she turned the corner and came over to me. And then she briefly filled me in.

She told me I should probably clear my day, just as she had done. Explained why. And that I can go with her.

We went into the classroom. Where the SPED teacher broke the news to the students.
One of their paras died in a car accident last night.

Let me tell you about this classroom and this specific teacher before I go on.
This classroom isn't just a special education classroom. This teacher is actually our SESC teacher and this is our SESC room. Severely emotional support classroom if I remember correctly...I don't remember the exact acronym, but these are the students who are SED--severely emotionally disturbed (that I do remember). These are students with emotional disorders and some with behavioral disorders. These are students who I do group therapy with. Who have individual counseling twice a week and group therapy three times a week, provided by the school, and outside counseling and support. These are students who can hardly function in a classroom due to their SED.

It's one of their paras who was killed.

Let me now tell you more about this para.
-He was 23. He grew up in this school district, so super connected in his community. And Lawrence is not that big. He was also a baseball coach at a high school.
-Three of the other paras were super close to hime, went to MS, HS, and worked with him. One of them coached with him. All are paras in this ED room.
-His mom is one of the cafeteria lunch ladies at the school.
-His girlfriend's mom is the learning coach at the school.

That's the impact. That kind of gives one an idea.

The district has a crisis response team (by the way, do all districts have this? Because it's freaking awesome) and they came. Each school has a mental health team, which I'm technically part of (as a student...).

At first, I wasn't really sure what to do. I've never had to respond to a crisis. Scratch that. I have, when I was an RA. I have done so many suicide assessments as an RA, it's unreal. But no suicide actually happened during my time as an RA. No actual "tragedy" in the community actually happened. This was my first "crisis".

And I actually did pretty well. In the beginning, I hadn't a clue of what to do, what to say. And I still don't, exactly. Here's the gist of the day...

The other paras, the students, the kid's psychologist (doctoral student), myself, my supervisor, and the school psychologist were gathered in the room. Immediately, one of the kids said "who died". The teacher calmly responded, telling that kid that that was inappropriate, and may be offensive. And then went on to break the news to them. The paras already knew, and it was clear they had been crying. The kids immediately started crying. Most of them. A few of them sat in silence. They were given the option of staying in the room or going to class, but couldn't just wander the halls. My supervisor (LMSW) explained that there are different ways to grieve, not a right or a wrong way. She explained that some people find it helpful to go back to their normal routine, and some people need to step away. That some people cry, some people don't. Some people talk about it, some people need to be physically active. She reminded them that not everyone may know the situation and to not be mad at other kids in the school if they are laughing or seemingly having a normal day. She went and got them butcher paper and had them make a banner for the family.

One of the girls decided she wanted to try to go to class. Within a few minutes, she was back and just sat. My supervisor and another person kind of approached her, but she wasn't having it. I went up to her and told her we could go for a walk whenever she wanted, assuming she wouldn't want to at the moment and maybe in like an hour. She looked at me and nodded, got up, and we walked around. I was debating if it would be helpful to walk in silence or more helpful to talk. And if talking, to talk specifically about this, or about random things. I settled on silence. She seemed to appreciate that. As we were walking, some people from the CRT stopped us to ask a question. I felt like they unintentionally interrupted us, as though we were in deep conversation, even though we were silent. Then, one of them asked us to get out of the halls. I know it was well intentioned, and it was important, because other kids could see us. But there was nowhere to go. I decided to go to the auditorium, thought that'd be perfect and she agreed. But, there were people in there doing vision tests. So she just decided to go back to the classroom. Regardless, I think the walk around the school seemed to be helpful.

Back in the classroom, I noticed my supervisor engaging with the students, talking about random things. Hair cuts. Art. Superficial, surface level things. And I realized--this is it. This is a huge part of crisis and grieving. It doesn't have to be, nor should it be, all serious, all deep, all the time. It doesn't have to be intense conversation directly related to the tragedy. I thought, I can do this. I slowly started talking to the kids about random things. And then got into the groove. And then I got them laughing. I engaged with one of our students who is on the spectrum and his fixation is dinosaurs. I talked to him for a long time about dinosaurs. I asked him questions. I had him help me pronounce things. I related it to other animals. I told nonsensical stories. I had him laughing, I had him explaining, I had him seemingly happy and doing well.

And then I switched to the girls who were drawing the banner. And I encouraged them. I made positive comments. And they invited me in. They invited me to draw and color on their banner. They started complimenting my coloring abilities.

And then we decided to bake some goodies for the family. After a discussion and voting, we decided to bake a red velvet cake and chocolate chip cookies. At first, I assumed I'd just hang out in the room. We were going to split them up, half go to the store and get ingredients for the cake, come back, bake it, and then the other half go to the store, get the ingredients for the cookies, come back, bake it. So I figured I'd just be at the school for the half that was there each time.

The SESC teacher asked the psychologist to go with them. And a member of the CRT went with them. And one of the paras (so, not really a "trained support specialist", rather someone grieving, but an adult). And then she looked at me and told me she thought it'd be a good idea if I went. That actually meant a lot. She trusted me enough to go and be a support outside of the school. We got the ingredients, came back and on the way to the kitchen, I see one of the paras.

I stop and check in. But as those of you who know me, I have a "special way of checking in". This I am aware of, the one time I actually claim a "gift" that I have. The ability, often times, to ask the right questions at the right time to get people to share. Not always, but often. And this was one of those times. The psychologist had the kids, so I sat with the para and talked with them. That was my first crisis conversation directly relating to the tragedy in my life. And it went well.

I got up and checked in on the kids making the cake. I teased them, goofed off with them, laughed with them, and settled a small disagreement on who got to lick what.

We went back into the classroom and for the first time, instead of asking permission or waiting for someone to tell me if it's okay or not or offering a suggestion, I decided to ask one of the kids if they wanted to play basketball. This kid has behavior issues, although never with me. But I knew he was getting restless. I started spittin' game, and he said it's on. To my surprise, he asked if other kids wanted to come. Even more to my surprise, they said yes. So I took 6 grieving kids to the gym by myself to play basketball. A few of them decided to play tag, a few stood, a few played basketball. Me and this kid goofed off a lot and spat a lot of game. He had sick moves. I told him, "You got a lot of style, but not as much skill. This isn't space jam, fool, you don't get points for style!" Because he had moves, but as far as the scoreboard went, we were tied, or I was ahead by one point for part of the game. It was a lot of fun.

I checked in with the para again and talked with her some more.

The SESC teacher then had me take pizza orders for everyone--all 20 of us, decided to do that for lunch. They each had the option of having lunch in the room or go eat with their friends. They all chose the room. In the middle of me taking orders, I finally saw my supervisor (during this whole time except for the morning, the only three of us who had any training in mental health were me, the kid psychologist, and the CRT member. Except then, the CRT member went to the guidance office where one of the girls went with her friends to hang out on their own). So just me and the psychologist, really.

I then remembered I had put in a call slip for a student, so I went to the office to remove it and then saw the para again, and she waited for me to talk some more.

After lunch, the same boy I had played ball with earlier asked to go play basketball with me again. I said maybe later, because then, I was the only adult in the room. And one of the paras, but the paras were 1-grieving and 2-not trained for crisis. So I said later. But then, everyone wanted to come again. So cool. So we went back to the gym and played more, for a long time. Then, we all went outside (the child psychologist was with us again) and went out on the track and walked around. I messed around with the kids and teased them some more. Another gift I'm okay to claim is my ability to tease without demeaning people and without pushing people or crossing lines. That worked out well in my favor. I raced the kids (lost, obviously). But then the gym class came out, so went in.

And then the SESC teacher asked me to deliver a call slip to the student in guidance, because she needed to get her vision checked. I went in there and after sending her off, talked to the child psychologist and a member of the CRT. (Who was actually my field liaison last year, so it's kind of weird/super cool that now we are "working together" and sort of "on the same level"). And the CRT member said:

"You fit in really well, you seem to be doing a great job. You're good at this."
And the Child psyc said, "Yeah, you are really good. You connect really well with the kids. And it seems like you and (the boy student) bonded really well, and it's like you two have a special connection."

That meant so much. I hope I remember that conversation forever. I wrote it down, typed it here, bolded it.

The child pscy and I went back into the room and played uno attack with them. On the way back we saw my supervisor and she told us about a meeting and told me I should be there. I played for 5 minutes and then had to go to a MHT/CRT meeting. The child psych didn't go because she's not technically pat of the mental health team.

As I was going back to the room, I saw one of my kids I see individually. I walked up to her to check in, unrelated to this crisis. I was pretty sure she wasn't really aware or didn't care about this para (doubt she knew him). I "checked in". Read: I asked the right question. She responded with something along the lines of telling me she's fine, good, whatever. I said, "that means you're not good." She questioned how I knew that. I told her I was just that good. Turned out, she was supposed to be taking a math pre test, and her para couldn't get her to do any of the work. I talked with the student. I walked away. She yelled after me telling me she still wouldn't do it. I smiled and said that's your deal. I'm not backing away from my deal. If you decide to go back into the deal (she does 2 of the 4 problems, she gets candy), that's her choice and she can come find me in the room.

I knew she'd do it. Okay, I didn't, but I really hoped. And she did. Just before the bell rang, she walked in, proudly showed me she did the test. I said okay, we walked to my office, I gave her her candy. That was awesome. Unrelated to the crisis, but getting a student to do work that they refuse to do and no one can get them do it (also, I have so much more to say about this student, last week I was going to write something, but haven't yet).

And then we had a faculty meeting right after school about the tragedy.

And then it was time to go home.

That's primarily what happened today. There wasn't a lot of direct talk yet. And I don't think a lot of them know how. And it might also be too soon. With the one para, I kept checking in on her and talked with her, I listened mainly. She talked about not being able to cry and I reminded her that that's okay.

I asked other members on the CRT how to respond if and when (as they had brought up this point) a student asks why they need to do math, because, what's the point in doing it if we're just going to die, etc. They had a good response, and it was there are many more chances that they'll live than not. And to keep living as best as you can to the fullest, as the para certainly did. He didn't live as if he would die soon.

I'm exhausted. Grieving is exhausting. Even though I didn't personally know him. And even though it seems like I just played games and hung out with middle schoolers. And even though it sounds like no one needs to be trained to do those things.

You really do. Because it's so, so, so evident that there is grieving in all the activities. It's so evident that there is hurt and it's such a good reminder that not everyone grieves in the same way. And it is okay to not have direct and intense conversations, those are important, but so is laughing, playing ball, goofing off. And both are just as exhausting. Both are just as wearing. Both are just as hurting.

I got home and had to sit for a few hours. And then I took a super long shower. I'm exhausted. I needed to process, so I wrote this super long thing. And I feel better. And my roommate is on her way home now to talk with me.

Crisis intervention is hard. But it was such a great experience and I truly loved it. It served as a great reminder of why I chose this field. This is what I want to learn how to perfect. 

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