Updated 28 June 2013

Sibling death: schools can help kids

Children's lives are heavily disrupted by the death of a sibling, yet schools do not always have the resources to help them, a bereavement counsellor says.

Eight years 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.

"At the 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."

After 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.

'No longer fitting in'

According 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 environment.

"The most 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," she says.

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 research.

"The teens 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."

Age-appropriate support

From 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.

"Because 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.

Schroeder-McLean 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.

On the 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 2013.

Need for information

"Teens are generally suspicious of counselling, but they welcome structured support where they can chat with a teacher of their choice once a week,” says Schroeder-McLean.

"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 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 teenagers' need for information is especially acute in the first few weeks after the loss of a sibling.

"When they 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."

Sense of accomplishment

According 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'.

"As a 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 anymore'."

A few 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 rivalry.

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

Schroeder-McLean 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.

- (Stellenbosch University press release)


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