NKSD grieves the loss of two students

NORTH END — She pulled three drawings in elementary student shape and form from a desk drawer, and laid them on top of her desk.

The white sheets were filled with a sunny sky and clouds, and a few children on their knees in front of a grave, which reads “Ethan died 2008.”

One of the pictures has a smiling angel above the grave.

“I think (Ethan’s) the angel,” said Jeannette Wolfe, principal of Poulsbo Elementary.

Finding a safe place to grieve

The pictures reflect death as perceived by first-graders at Poulsbo Elementary. They drew the pictures the day after learning their classmate, Ethan Smith, died in a tragic accident Oct. 7.

The drawings resulted from time spent in a safe room — filled with stuffed animals, markers, crayons, paper, cookies and juice — that was set up as the students’ haven.

Within the confines of the room’s walls, the 7-year-olds talked with counselors and the school’s psychologist, Jenny Sage.

Sage said they asked the questions: “What happens when you die?” and “When will he come back?”

At such a young age they’re still trying to figure out what it all means.

“They brought up a lot of things about cats or dogs or grandmas dying and tried to figure out how it was related,” Sage said. “A lot were pretty matter of fact and talked about it, drew pictures, told about other things that happened and then moved on.”

Discussing and accepting death at any age is incredibly difficult, let alone trying to come to terms with the death of a classmate and friend.

When a student death occurs, it impacts the entire school district. Meticulous, careful steps are taken to help staff and students through the grieving process.

The North Kitsap School District was recently struck with the death of two students: one unexpected, Ethan, 7; and the other expected, as Arielle Hellwig, 17, a senior at Spectrum Community School, lost a battle with cancer on Oct. 3.

NKSD has an emergency response system in place. The detailed steps are in a binder about five inches thick, with check lists and back up plans, which Director of Communications Chris Case has on hand in her desk.

The response steps all happen simultaneously, Case said — obtaining factual information, determining the level of support and long-term needs, communicating with pertinent individuals and organizing the staff for an emergency meeting.

Staff need support, too

On scene at the affected schools, NKSD calls in backup support from other districts, counselors and substitute teachers, to relieve staff who need a break.

“We say ‘Hey, you may not teach at all today, but we want you available in case somebody needs a break,’” Case said. “It (emergency response) has been a real priority around here for a long time. We’re in the best possible shape if there’s an emergency.”

Hospice bereavement groups are available to come and speak with staff and students, as is a volunteer crisis team.

The entire NKSD staff undergoes emergency response training. The most recent training was in August 2007.

Each school deals in a manner that’s best for its niche community. Both Poulsbo Elementary and Spectrum still feel the void of loss and are learning to cope, accept and continue on.

Wolfe learned of Ethan’s accident on a Wednesday. She was very thankful for district support, as she said in times of shock it’s helpful to have people who can help make good decisions.

It was decided not to tell any students that day, and two substitutes were brought in to relieve staff. Wolfe personally called the 21 families with students in Ethan’s class. By the end of the day she’d reached them all. The school drafted a letter to parents of kindergarten through second grade students explaining the tragedy. The letter was placed in a sealed envelope and sent home. The envelopes were sealed to prevent “big kids” from reading them aloud on the bus.

“We wanted the families to deal with it in their own way and break the news in their own way,” Wolfe said.

On Thursday when the youngest students returned, this time knowing what happened to Ethan, Wolfe said it was a sad morning in all the first grade classes. A counselor was placed in every room. Wolfe said there were tears and a few kids who were fine one minute would be sobbing the next, which is why the safe room was set up.

“We had quite a group in the safe room,” Wolfe said. “They talked to the counselors and each other. It’s such an abstract concept for them and they’re at a stage where everything is concrete.”

By late morning, after all the questions had been answered, the students got back to their routine. That was very helpful, Wolfe said.

“That seemed really comforting to the kids,” she said. “But it was a sad day.”

A letter was sent home with the third- through fifth-graders. All of Ethan’s school work and pictures were collected to give to his family and set out on a table, which Wolfe said started the healing process. Staff at Wolfle Elementary brought over a magnolia tree.

A few weeks later, Ethan’s picture still hangs with his classmates around the window at Mrs. Hawkins first grade room. The students are moving forward.

Sage said things are quieting down, but there’s definitely kids still impacted. She said school counselors will individually follow up with students who’re having more difficulties, and teachers have been given a list of behaviors to look out for.

“It’s been a sad few weeks,” Wolfe said. “The teachers are handling it (in class). It’s what they do.”

Remembering Arielle

While the circumstances at Spectrum were different, the grief over losing a classmate is universal. Arielle was first diagnosed with cancer in middle school. She was in remission, but last spring the cancer returned.

“I remember that day really well,” said Spectrum’s Principal Jackie Finckler, her eyes welling with tears. “It was with a sense of shock and sadness and hope that it would all be OK again.”

The re-diagnoisis brought up loss issues, so a Hospice grief counselor was brought in to host a group.

Finckler said when it became obvious Arielle wasn’t going to recover, her mother let staff know and her close friends were told. She said the entire Spectrum community was very sensitive to the issue, they talked about it openly, and offered Arielle and her family moral support. They made cards and sent them to Arielle.

Staff and students visited her regularly on weekends. When Arielle moved home from the hospital, a steady stream of visitors followed.

“At Spectrum, because we are so small, it impacts the school in a very dramatic way,” Finckler said. There are about 54 students at Spectrum. “It permeates the whole school.”

Being a small group they continued working together to process the emotions after Arielle died. If a student wasn’t able to focus or if he or she wasn’t able to handle being at school, the staff was supportive. The hopsice counselor, along with the school’s counselor and drug and alcohol counselor were on hand for the students. A safe room was set up, and once again they openly discussed death and what they felt.

Death impacts teenagers differently than adults or the little ones at Poulsbo Elementary.

Janis Nixon, Spectrum’s counselor, said loss of a classmate is very hard to accept, as it busts teenagers’ myth of invincibility.

“Kids don’t know how to deal with that — ‘We shouldn’t have to lose someone our age. I don’t know what to do, we’re young and people shouldn’t have to die,’” Nixon said, relaying the nagging questions. “There’s confusion about life and death and how to perceive life and death. This is the first time a lot have confronted that.”

Nixon said because teens are still in their formative years, it’s difficult for them to deal with emotional difficulties and say, “I hate this but I’ll get through it, I’ll survive.”

Finckler, a former school counselor, said teens live in the moment and when facing the death of a classmate that can be “an extremely intense place to be.”

Similar to Poulsbo Elementary, things at Spectrum have calmed down, and help is still available. Nixon said her door is always open.

In a few weeks, the school will plant a willow tree in honor of Arielle, as a willow was one of her favorites.

The hospice counselor will return to the school in November to start another grief group, and help will be on an individual basis, as all grieve differently.

“There is no right or wrong way to grieve, we just have to be thoughtful and supportive as we identify needs,” Finckler said.

Arielle was given an honorary diploma in September. Her closest friends were by her side when she died.

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