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Grieving over Classmate's Death

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My granddaughter is in kindergarten, doing real well. Last week, my son and her mom had a meeting with the teacher. At that meeting, she was saying that Danielle doesn't listen to what she is told, and do you have the same problem at home. She is the only child and the only grandchild, so you could say she is spoiled a little.

The teacher wants to have her tested and maybe put her on some medicine to calm her or something. Why do they always want to put them on drugs? The teacher said that she has been like this for about 3 weeks. Well 3 weeks ago a little girl from her school died, and the school made a lot out of it. Please don't misunderstand me, we all felt very sorry for the whole family and friends that knew her. Danielle had seen her on the play ground, but didn't really know her. There was a little boy in her class that did, and was crying a lot over it, and Danielle said "Nana I wish I had been her friend." Her mother thought she should go to the funeral, my son said "no!"

He spent the day with her, doing happy things. She never said anything about it the whole day, until her mother brought it up. Then not a week later a little 8yr old girl in Austin was hit by a car and killed, so her school told all the children about it Help us, please.

A: Your little Danielle is in need of some empathy, kindness and understanding -- not drugs. I am disappointed and distressed that her kindergarten teacher cannot make the connection between this schoolmate's recent death and the death of the 8 year-old in Austin with your granddaughter's lack of attentiveness in class. You report that she has been doing well academically throughout the school year and has only recently exhibited abnormal behavior.

From your account, it appears to me that Danielle wishes that she was closer to this schoolmate who died, that somehow if she had been her friend that she could have made the little girl's life happier. I know that this reasoning may sound unusual to you but kids often personalize another's death and even feel somehow guilty about it. When she saw that little boy in her class crying, because he had known the deceased girl, she wished that she had known (maybe thought should have known) her that well too so she could feel that sad (like she thought she was supposed to feel).

I certainly can understand her father's desire not to subject her to this girl's funeral but her mom's idea of including her in the rituals of grieving were well-founded. First, Danielle wanted to attend these rituals because she needed a connection to this death in a more real manner, She wanted some involvement and closure and had a curiosity that could have been satisfied. This event also could have been used to have age-appropriate discussions with her about death, dying and grief. She probably has some fears, confusion and questions that deserve addressing.

Please read "Healing the Bereaved Child," by Alan Wolfelt and "Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child," by Earl Grollman. After reading these books, you will feel better equipped to talk with Danielle about the inner turmoil that she is in over these recent troubling events. Having her tested and drugged is out of the question and this teacher should be ashamed for ever suggesting either. Maybe you could suggest to the school's guidance counselor that she could work with this teacher in helping her understand what is really going on with Danielle. Danielle does not need to be punished for trying to deal with these intense emotions. She can be thinking about whether she or her family will die next -- that's too much for a little child to cope with on her own. Thanks for writing.

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


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