Westport grief forum: Community’s healing starts by focusing on life
Diana Coyne’s daughter is in pain, so the concerned parent came to a community grief counseling talk at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church Thursday night for help.
A young, beloved Staples High School teacher died suddenly and Coyne didn’t know how to make it better.
“I need to support her in any way I can,” Coyne said. “There are days where I want to give her every love and cushion in the world, and there are other days when I feel we have to move on, get back on schedule, and that is not happening.”
Less than a week after the suicide of Cody Thomas, a Staples English teacher and a month after a Staples freshman also took his life, the community came together to start the healing process.
That both deaths were by suicide was not the focus of the program, Kim Freudigman, a local psychologist and one of the event organizers, made clear.
“A loss is a loss,” she said. “We don’t want to glorify suicide for kids in this community. The purpose is to provide a forum to begin to heal … Basically, we have seen a lot of kids suffering.”
The event drew close to 200 parents, teachers, practitioners and even a handful of students to hear Lisa Athan, a well-known grief recovery specialist offer tips on how to help their teens and even themselves, cope.
“It’s interesting the way she portrayed things from a parent’s point of view,” said Jaime Bairaktaris, a Staples High senior. “I am one of those kids she was talking about.” Bairaktaris said he was not in a class taught by Thomas. But he had friends who were, and some are just starting to come back to class.
“It’s been rough,” Bairaktaris said.
In a talk punctuated by humor and, at one point, the spilling of dominoes on the church’s wooden floor to make a point about shock, Athan told the crowd it’s OK to not have the words to express every feeling.
“Say I don’t know what to say,” Athan said. Sometimes, she said, kids just need to have an adult in the room with them to listen.
The executive director of an organization called Grief Speaks, Athan is based in New Jersey and deals with different types of loss, including traumatic loss. She visited Jonathan Law High School after the recent death of a student there.
Any loss is hard. A death by suicide brings its own set of challenges, Athan said.
“We want to know why because then we think it won’t happen to our kid,” Athan said. “We never get to know why.”
There is no one thing that is the cause, Athan said. “There may be a last straw, but it is not just that. There are other things going on. It is very complicated.”
Athan told parents the best course of action is to go home, get to know their children, their children’s friends, but also to allow their children to get to know them.
“What do your kids really know about you?” Athan said. “Have they ever seen you cry?”
Grief, Athan said, can make young people tired, angry, forgetful, overwhelmed. When grieving, it is hard to focus.
As for coping mechanisms, Athan suggested everyone identify a handful of people they can go to when they need to talk. Exercise is also a good stress reliever, she said. She likes to run.
She offered tips on what not to say after any kind of loss.
Don’t tell the bereaved you know how they feel. No one feels the exact same way.
Don’t tell them you couldn’t do what they were doing. Telling people they are strong when they are at their most vulnerable doesn’t help.
Instead, Athan said offer words of encouragement or simply your presence.
“I rather people say, ‘I have no idea what to say. There are no words,’ ” Athan said.
Another bad idea is memorials, she said. Usually well intended, memorials become a reminder of how someone died.
That idea stuck with Nancy Lewis, a parent, who attended the program and said she came away with good suggestions. “It is important to remember its not how a person died, it is how they lived,” she said.
Thomas had been an adviser to Lewis’s daughter before she graduated last year. She also is the parent of a freshman touched by the December death of Christopher Lanni, 14.
“I think we’ve been blindsided by this,” Lewis said.