Grief is an uncomfortable, messy emotion — and when combined with the pressures of high school, the death of a loved one is often catastrophic for young people.
A pilot project at St. Malachy's High School, organized by Pam Pastirik, a Saint John-area registered nurse and instructor at the University of New Brunswick, aims to give teenagers the skills they need both to manage grief and support peers coping with loss.
The project stems from Pastirik's work with the Camp Kerry Society, a non-profit that offers retreats, counselling and support to individuals grieving the death of a loved one or coping with a life-threatening illness.
A little help from friends
One survey Pastirik conducted found "up to 50 per cent of high school students have experienced the death of a close family member, whether a family member, a friend, a teacher, somebody that they're close to," she said.
But when teenagers are grieving, she said, they aren't always comfortable reaching out for help.
"They spend most of their time in the school environment suppressing their grief," she said, "because they feel different and they want to fit in. I want the students to know that it's OK to find healthy avenues for grief, that everyone grieves differently, and that there are resources out there to help them."
The program also emphasizes the practical ways teens can support their peers, since most young people go to their friends before they seek out an adult for support, Pastirik said.
Making grief 'less foreign'
Pastirik is no stranger to the grieving process.
She became involved with the Camp Kerry Society after her own loss of a young son.
After his death, she said, her other two children struggled to process their emotions.
"It hasn't been an easy road," she said, "but being involved in the Camp Kerry Society has really helped us understand. My sons also got involved — it is an opportunity for that age group to find ways to express their grief."
The pilot project at St. Malachy's on April 11, 2017, will include an assembly dealing with terms and concepts related to grief, and an opportunity for students to discuss their experiences and participate in art therapy. The day will close with a moment of silence and reflection on the meaning of loss.
Talking about death with young people might be taboo, she said, but teens need the tools to deal with loss as much as adults.
"We talk about a lot of difficult things in the school system — drunk driving, bullying, all sorts of things — but loss affects us all," Pastirik said.
"Education on the experience of grief makes it less foreign and helps to know how to both cope with it, and support others."