After the homicide of a Peterson Elementary School teacher on Sept. 16, the Merced City School District (MCSD) had the task of helping students grieve -- a group so young that many haven't fully grasped the concept.
The day of the incident, students were sent home with letters addressed to parents about Diane Romero's death. The note offered tips to parents on how to let their child grieve.
Some of the suggestions included being honest, listening and validating their child's feelings.
Many families share specific beliefs surrounding death, so MCSD didn't want to be the first ones to talk to children about the subject, said Greg Spicer, associate superintendent for the Merced City School District.
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The note also explained that there would be a crisis intervention team, a group of school counselors, psychologists and Merced County Mental Health workers, available over the next few days to support grieving students.
The next day, school officials announced the third-grade teacher's death, though some had already heard rumors, said Alokita Kumar, a counselor at Peterson Elementary School.
Students in Romero's class couldn't believe it, she said. "They would ask, 'Are you sure?' They couldn't comprehend the fact that she was here yesterday," she recalled. "There were kids that said, 'I can't believe that that happened.' For some kids, they didn't understand what death was. Some don't yet understand that death is permanent."
Chris Bruening, a school psychologist for MCSD, said the best way to talk to kids about death is to tell them what happened.
Today's culture tends to sugar-coat death by using terms such as "sleeping with the angels" or "passed away" to soften the finality of death. This can be confusing for some children, he added.
"The big thing with working with children is being honest and using clear language," he said. "Explain the basic facts. You don't have to go into the gory details."
Based on their age and development, some students may grasp the concept better than other students, he said. "Students who are 2 to 6 years old don't understand the concept of death," he said. "They don't see it as permanent. They may see it as reversible, like if they pray hard enough or wish, they may come back."
First- through third-grade students have more of a hold on the subject, but they may think they could have prevented it or that maybe somehow a dead person can come back. They may feel more anxieties or guilt about the situation.
Fourth- and fifth-graders understand death better and are able to have more adult conversations, he added.
People need to realize that children grieve differently from adults, he stressed. "Adults process it more immediately and intensely," he said. "Children, depending on their age, have different understandings of death. They may not see it as a permanent thing. They tend to grieve for a longer period of time and it comes on slower."
To deal with the situation, the school set up a crisis center in the school's multipurpose room where students could talk to professionals. Some 30 to 40 students visited the crisis center last Friday and Monday. Students who were able to communicate their feelings did so, and others wrote letters to Romero or remembered her through pictures they drew.
"Some are going to cry and some aren't," Bruening said. "You need to reassure them that it doesn't mean they are not emotionally moved by this."
In terms of moving forward, Kumar said the best thing for children is to return to their regular schedule. "For kids it's better to get into everyday routine," she said. "They adapt to changes quickly. That's why we tried to integrate them into regular activities."
Romero's funeral was held Thursday. The school continued to have counselors and psychologists on hand to offer support.
Many children went home after the funeral, so there wasn't a high demand for counselors. Counselors and pyschologists will be made available to students who need someone to talk to.
Romero was found dead in her backyard pool Sept. 16 with stab wounds. Her husband was arrested Saturday in connection with the crime.
Details of the crime weren't disclosed to children.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209)385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.