Teens need structured help from school after a sibling’s death

Eight years ago Lesley Schroeder-McLean’s second son, Mark, died in a plane crash. He was 17 years old.

Lesley Schroeder-McLean

Lesley Schroeder-McLean

For her as parent it was a devastating experience, but she also witnessed how the other adolescents in her extended family struggled to come to terms with this death.

This experience was the trigger for her to continue her studies and after completing a degree in Psychology (UNISA) she enrolled for an MPhil in Social Science Methods at Stellenbosch University. In March she graduated Cum Laude.

“You can never be prepared for your child to die. I was shattered to the core,” says Schroeder-McLean. “At the same time I realised I had to be there for the many other teens and my own sons whose lives were horribly disrupted after Mark’s sudden death. Soon I realised that schools don’t always have the resources to help bereaved teens.”

According to Schroeder-McLean bereaved teenage siblings find themselves in two almost opposing environments. One is a totally unstructured family environment, torn apart by grief where they don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next. Their escape from that is to be at school.

“The most important thing that high schools have to offer the child at this time is a familiar place where bereaved teens can feel comfortable and hang out with their friends. But while school is often a relief from the grief and chaos at home, being at school also underlines their feeling of being different from their peers and no longer fitting in.”

Schroeder-McLean interviewed 25 children from 20 different high schools during her research.

“It was clear that the teens hated it when they were singled out for attention during assembly. Some felt that the news of the sibling’s death was announced as a news item without true empathy. Bereaved siblings felt strongly about being consulted beforehand on such an announcement.”

Schroeder-McLean says a number of schools told her telephonically there were no bereaved siblings despite her knowledge that there were indeed children who had lost their siblings.

“This is because they are often not informed of deaths by the parents so they are not aware that bereaved siblings in their school need support.”

She also found that if the sibling who died was a learner in the school, the way schools respond to the death can be influenced by how they died. If it is stigmatised (like a death resulting from gang violence or suicide) there may be less memorialisation for the learner who died and less support for those left behind. From discussions with 76 schools in the Central Metro Education District, it seems that while they want to provide appropriate support, most schools lack personnel who are trained to deal with bereaved teens.

“Because teenagers spend so much of their waking hours at school, it is very important that educators are empowered to give them age-appropriate support and help foster their accomplishment. This helps them to feel that they can have hope for the future.”

Schroeder-McLean works closely with the team of educational psychologists at the Metro Central Education district (Cape Town) to help teachers and principals develop a deeper understanding of the issues and put in place interventions to support teenage learners who are affected by the deaths of their siblings.

On the strength of her research, she was invited to deliver a paper at the International Death Grief and Bereavement Conference at La Crosse University, Wisconsin in America in June.

So what do the bereaved teens say they need?

“They want the death and the fact that they are going through a tough time to be acknowledged. However, they do not want to be singled out. They also need structured support, but they hate it when teachers speak to them in front of their classmates. Most are wary of counselling, but they welcomed structured support where they can meet with a teacher of their choice once a week to discuss how they are coping at school and whether they need any extra tutoring and extended time for assignments,” says Schroeder-McLean.

They also need to know that counselling is available and where to access it but the majority of participants said they preferred to confide in people they already know and trust.

“Perhaps what was most helpful to the participants, was how cathartic focus groups were for them personally during the research process,” says Schroeder-McLean. “It helped normalise their loss and their reactions – particularly as most of them had never talked openly about this before.”

The teenagers said they would like their schools to facilitate more of this type of sharing which makes intuitive sense, given teenagers’ increased reliance on their peers.

According to Schroeder-McLean bereaved brothers and sisters also wish someone had given them information in the early weeks. It would have helped them to understand recurring nightmares where either they or someone they loved died; and paranormal sensory experiences that frightened them – like seeing or smelling their brother. Many talked about traumatic responses like flashbacks and constantly scanning their surroundings for danger. They had panic attacks and most reported dramatic weight loss or weight gain. A number developed phobias after the death – like not being able to go into tunnels, lifts, be in big crowds, take a shower with the door closed, or go into shopping malls.

“When they do not understand what is happening, it can lead to depression and self-harm. Some of the teenagers in my study discussed self-hurting – cutting and picking sores. One of the surviving brothers said he would punch the punching bag at gym with his bare hands until they dripped with blood. For him, inflicting physical pain was a way of escaping from the emotional pain for a while.”

Bereaved teens want factual information. Why does my body feel different? Why is adrenalin surging through me continuously? Will I ever be the same again?

They also often experience a loss of self-esteem. It is important to make the child feel worthy – teachers can help by encouraging them to become involved in activities like a school play. This is especially important in the early weeks when parents are often immobilised by grief and do not do the things they would normally be able to do.

Many found they were able to honour their sibling through some of their accomplishments, particularly sporting and academic success and they drew on the memory of their sibling for inspiration.

As a 16-year-old brother said: “I find it a lot with sport. It helps. You do it for yourself but you feel a connection with your brother because they can’t do it anymore.”

However, a minority of participants in the study did not express a need to actively nurture a continued relationship with the sibling who died. Sibling relationships are ambivalent and are often characterised by conflict and rivalry.

The participants who said they did not really grieve their sibling gave as reasons for this: not getting on well together; having very different personalities and interests; not being close emotionally, geographically or in age or being step-siblings who lived with different parents.

But whether they got along with their sibling or not, all respondents spoke of disruption and said that their lives were turned upside down.