ago Lesley Schroeder-McLean lost her second-born son, Mark, in a plane crash.
He was just 17 years old.
The loss inspired the grieving mom to further her studies and do research,
the results of which are now being used to assist young people.
“One can never be prepared for something like
that. I was shattered to the core,” Lesley Schroeder-McLean says.
same time, I realised I had to be there for my other sons. Before long, I
realised that all teens’ lives are heavily disrupted by the death of a sibling,
yet schools do not always have the resources to help them.”
completing a degree in Psychology through UNISA, she enrolled for an MPhil in
Social Science Methods at Stellenbosch University, and in March this year, she
graduated Cum Laude.
to Schroeder-McLean, bereaved teenage siblings find themselves in two almost
opposing environments. One is an unstructured family environment, torn apart by
grief, where they do not know what is going to happen from one moment to the
next. Their escape from that is to be at school, their other well-known
important thing that schools should offer the child at this time is a familiar
place where bereaved teens can feel comfortable and hang out with their friends,”
At the same
time, however, the school experience can also underline the bereaved teenager’s
feeling of being different from their peers and of no longer fitting in, says Schroeder-McLean,
who interviewed 25 children from 20 different high schools for her
hated it when they were singled out for attention during assembly. Some felt
that their sibling’s death was announced simply as a news item without true
empathy. They wanted to be consulted before any announcement.”
discussions with 76 schools in Cape Town’s Central Metro Education
District, it emerged that while they want to provide appropriate support, most
schools lack personnel who are trained to deal with bereaved teens.
children spend so much of their waking hours at school, it is important that
educators are empowered to provide teenagers with age-appropriate support. This
helps them to feel that there is hope for the future,” Schroeder-McLean says.
also found that a school’s response to a child’s death is sometimes influenced
by how they died. If it is “stigmatised” – like a death resulting from gang
violence or suicide – the memory of the child who died may not be honoured as
much, and there may also be less support for those left behind.
'Sense of accomplishment'
strength of her research, Schroeder-McLean was invited to deliver a paper at
the International Death, Grief and Bereavement Conference at La Crosse
University, Wisconsin, US, in June.
generally suspicious of counselling, but they welcome structured support where
they can chat with a teacher of their choice once a week,” says
“As part of
my research I formed focus groups where teens in similar situations could talk
amongst themselves. Most of them experienced this as cathartic. It helped
normalise their loss and their reactions – particularly as most of them had
never talked openly about this before.”
they would like their schools to facilitate more of this type of sharing, which
makes intuitive sense, given teenagers’ increased reliance on their peers.”
to Schroeder-McLean bereaved teenagers’ need for information is especially
acute in the first few weeks after the loss of a sibling.
do not understand what is happening, it can lead to depression and self-harm.
One lad who had lost his brother said he would hit the punching bag at gym with
bare knuckles until they bled. For him, inflicting physical pain on himself was
a way of momentarily escaping from his intense emotional pain.”
to Schroeder-McLean bereaved teenagers want to be part of a peer group.
“One of the
most important findings of my research was that a sense of accomplishment –
whether academically, or through sport or culture – helps grieving teenagers to
feel that they are ‘normal’.
16-year-old brother said, ‘I find that sport helps. You do it for yourself but
at the same time you feel a connection with your brother because he can’t do it
participants in Schroeder-McLean’s 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
they got along with their sibling or not, all respondents spoke of disruption
and said that their lives had been turned upside down.
is now working closely with the team of educational psychologists in Western
Cape Education Department to help teachers and principals develop a deeper
understanding of the issues, and to put in place interventions to support
teenager who suffer the loss of a sibling.