Nine-year-old Ava Quezada talks about grief during a Nov. 18, 2022, press conference on a bill by Sens. Joe Cryan (D-Union) and Jon Bramnick (R-Union) that would require schools to teach students the symptoms of grief and coping skills. Ava’s 5-year-old brother died about five months ago. (Photo courtesy of Imagine)
New Jersey legislators are making a bipartisan push to teach teenagers how to cope with grief.
Sens. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Joe Cryan (D-Union) joined advocates and bereaved parents and children Friday to urge support for a bill that would require high school and certain middle school students to be taught how to spot and handle grief.
“There are 142,000 young people in this state that have lost a parent. Digest that for a moment — 142,000,” Cryan said during a press conference in Mountainside. “The extraordinary things they go through and the grief that they go through, the emotions they encounter, how they handle it, what reactions they have … all those things matter. The educational process in our schools can make a difference.”
The bill leaves specifics on the high school grief curriculum to districts and the state commissioner of education, who would be responsible for providing sample learning activities and other resources to districts. Bramnick said any materials would be drafted with input from stakeholders, including the bereaved.
At minimum, the grief curriculum must teach students about symptoms of grief, coping mechanisms to handle it, and resources like in-school counseling and therapy.
Under the current system, children and teenagers may find little assistance in dealing with a lost loved one.
That was the case for Diana Creaser, a senior at Montclair High School whose mother died in May after a years-long fight with colon cancer. When she returned to school after her mother’s death, Creaser was still in the throes of grief, but no one at school seemed concerned.
“I never felt more alone,” she said. “Not a single counselor or teacher met with me after this troubling time, and on my first day of classes, instead of being showered with condolences, I was ignored and told to immediately create a plan for how I would make up my missed work.”
School counselors already help students process grief in some districts, as they did for 9-year-old Ava Quezada, whose 5-year-old brother died roughly five months ago.
Elizabeth King-Quezada, her mother and a social worker, said a school counselor helped her daughter while she struggled with her own grief — but counselors are few in number relative to the student body, King-Quezada noted.
“Whoever I’m trusting my grieving child with, I want them to be able to know how to deal with her, how to deal with her emotions, how to know when something might have triggered, as her teacher is on top of and able to do,” King-Quezada said. “But this should not be just her teacher. This should be all teachers all across the state.”
Ava and her mother said they believe grief should be part of school curricula from kindergarten on. Ava’s younger cousins don’t even know what grief is, she said.
“They could think it’s a tree or a plant or some kind of flower. They wouldn’t know what it was because they don’t learn about it in school,” she said.
Bramnick said the bill’s initial draft would have required grief instruction for students from first grade onward, but said he ultimately left out the lower grades to limit opposition the bill could receive. As written, it would require lessons on grief for students in health classes from eighth through 12th grades.
“I felt as if I better crawl before I walk,” Bramnick said, adding he aims to fast-track the legislation.
Mental health issues among youth soared during the pandemic and have yet to fall back to pre-COVID levels. The American Psychological Association raised alarms over youth mental health in January, noting rises in emergency department visits for mental health involving children and teens in 2020.
Bramnick said the pandemic may have played a role in the bill’s drafting but credited Mountainside nonprofit Imagine for its introduction. Imagine helps bereaved children and families process grief and hosted Friday’s press conference at its office.
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