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Identifying with their pain, a teacher made a club for students who've lost a parent

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If there is one thing we all have in common, it's grief. At one point or another, everyone has to deal with the death of a loved one. And when this happens to children, psychologists will tell you that the pain and the isolation of grieving can have a profound impact on their lives. Just in the last two years, a recent study estimates that more than 200,000 children in the U.S. experienced the death of a parent or a primary caregiver from COVID-19, and yet there is very little support for kids dealing with this loss. But as NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, a high school in Florida has been trying to change that.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth George grew up in a tight-knit family. So when her parents got COVID last August, she stepped up to take care of them.

ELIZABETH GEORGE: So I was, like, running the house, sort of. I was giving them medicine, seeing if, like, everyone was OK.

CHATTERJEE: Elizabeth's mother recovered, but her father didn't.

ELIZABETH: He was taken to the hospital, and he was there for, like, almost a month.

CHATTERJEE: He died due to complications from COVID-19. Elizabeth's entire world was turned upside-down. Her father had been the central pillar of the family.

ELIZABETH: He was a very outgoing person, you know? In any, like, activity with our family and our church, he was always, like, the person that you can rely on.

CHATTERJEE: Unlike her father, Elizabeth is shy. She's always preferred staying at home than going to school. But after her father died, she didn't want to leave her house at all, and returning to school felt especially hard.

ELIZABETH: It felt surreal 'cause, like, a few weeks ago, my father passed away, and here I am back to normal at school. Like, what? Like, how, even?

CHATTERJEE: Elizabeth is a student at Atlantic Community High in Palm Beach County. She'd always been really good at school. But after her father died, she just couldn't focus anymore, and she found herself feeling alone and isolated in the middle of a crisis.

ELIZABETH: A few weeks into, like, me going back to school, I had, like, a meltdown at school. I was having a bad day.

CHATTERJEE: She was supposed to meet with the school counselor that day, but she was so flustered, she ended up in the wrong room, and that's where she bumped into a teacher named Cori Walls.

ELIZABETH: She was like, hey, how are you doing? And I'm like, I'm OK. She was like, are you sure? And then, I don't know. All of a sudden, like, I started crying. And so we went to a room, and we, like, talked things out.

CHATTERJEE: Cori told Elizabeth she understood because she too had lost her father when she was young - a loss that haunted her her entire childhood. And when she was a teenager, her pain became more pronounced.

CORI WALLS: I remember, at my eighth-grade graduation, it was significant that my father wasn't there. The same feelings happened again when I was a senior in high school. I went back to visit his grave, and that's when grief, like, smacked me in the face.

CHATTERJEE: Cori felt alone in her agony. Neither her family nor anyone at school could help her process her grief. So when she became a teacher years later, she paid attention when a student told her they'd lost a parent.

WALLS: When I first walked into the classroom in my first-period class, I had four students that I met that had lost a parent, and I immediately could identify and understand what they've gone through and what they were dealing with.

CHATTERJEE: She began keeping track of these students. She had an open-door policy with them. They could come talk to her about anything. But in 2019, she had 10 students grieving the loss of a parent, and she realized she had to do more. So she launched an after-school grief support program and named it Steve's Club, after her father.

WALLS: What I envisioned? I envisioned kids just getting together and sharing their story and being there for each other and knowing that somebody else understands how they feel.

CHATTERJEE: It's exactly the kind of place that Elizabeth needed after her father died.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And this year...

CHATTERJEE: On this day, she's among a dozen students from across the school meeting in a classroom - students whose parents died due to everything from COVID to stroke to even suicide. As they walk in, they head for the pizza in the back of the room, then chit-chat, joking with each other between bites.

WALLS: All right, guys. We'll get started in, like, a few minutes.

CHATTERJEE: But as Cori Walls starts the meeting, everyone becomes quiet.

WALLS: I want you to say who you are and who you're here to remember, and let us know how you feel.

MARTINA: My name's Martina. I'm here to remember my dad, and I'm OK.

LUKA PEACE: I'm Luka, and I'm here to remember my mom, and I'm doing pretty good.

ELIZABETH: I'm Elizabeth. I'm here to remember my dad, and I'm doing good.

CHATTERJEE: Also in the room is Filise Jules, a family therapist with Palm Beach Youth Services. She's here to provide grief counseling.

FILISE JULES: So denial is the first stage of grief, right?

CHATTERJEE: Filise, too, lost her mother when she was 12, but she says she remained in denial for nearly a decade.

JULES: But it took me that long to accept this is a reality that I needed to live with.

CHATTERJEE: Filise then opens the door for the students to reflect on their own experiences. Sitting right next to her is a tall, lanky, 16-year-old. He talks about the depths of his depression after his mother died four years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: And what went through my head during that period of time was, like, I want to see my mom again. So, like, the only option was, like, suicide, if I can say it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow.

CHATTERJEE: Suicide - not an easy thing to talk about. But it's clear that, with her warm smile and no-nonsense manner, Cori Walls has created a space where students feel comfortable sharing their darkest moments. Elizabeth George doesn't say much at the meeting, but the club has made her feel less isolated.

ELIZABETH: Now I know, like, there's someone I can talk to that can understand.

CHATTERJEE: That understanding helps these kids start to heal. And when they do, they want to see their family heal as well. On this particular day, one of the students, Luka Peace, has brought her father with her.

LUKA: I wanted him to see what it was like to get some sort of help and, you know, some therapeutic experience to make you, like, feel better and more understood.

CHATTERJEE: Luka is 14. Her mother died by suicide back in 2016. Her father, Eric - a tall, broad-shouldered man - sits quietly in the back of the room. After the meeting, he tells me he worries about the stigma of mental illness and has tried to cope with his wife's death by staying busy.

ERIC: Taking care of three kids is pretty demanding - and trying to work full-time.

CHATTERJEE: How are you doing?

ERIC: (Crying) I'm good.

CHATTERJEE: Even after all these years, his grief is raw. His daughter sits next to him, holding his hand, comforting him as he breaks down. Eric says he doesn't talk about his grief with anyone.

ERIC: I'm not a huge fan, personally - you know, talking about your feelings, but...

CHATTERJEE: He's happy to see his daughter's generation opening up.

ERIC: Just absolutely wonderful for the kids just to, you know, sit down and talk about their feelings. I know if I was to do that in my school, I would've got beat up (laughter), so it's really, really nice.

CHATTERJEE: And he sees how much it's helped Luka, how much happier she is.

Later, Cori Walls tells me how the other students reacted to watching Luka and her father.

WALLS: Instead of being immature and - you know, look at him crying and stuff - they were like, our hearts are breaking right now. I was really proud of them because they were like, Luka's so strong. Look at Luka holding her dad's hand. And her dad was melting.

CHATTERJEE: Walls says it was a defining moment for her.

WALLS: That moment yesterday was like, yes, I'm doing the right thing because I know that these kids are getting it, that my kids understand the grief, they understand it's real, and they respect other people's situations.

CHATTERJEE: And they now have a special group of friends that they know will always have their back.

WALLS: And it's all based on their loss.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.