NASP Communiqué, Vol. 39, #1
In the Presence of Heartbreak: An Intern’s Personal Reflections on Crisis Response
By Angela M. Aiello
When my site supervisor called at 5:50 a.m. on a Thursday morning, I immediately knew something was wrong. My suspicions were confirmed: A student had died on campus after school and my supervisor asked me to come in and assist with crisis response. As I rushed to my site, I tried to brace myself for the challenges the day would surely bring, frantically trying to recall everything I had learned from my counseling courses at Chapman University and from my PREPaRE training. However, I would quickly discover that nothing could have prepared me for the sorrow I would encounter and the powerful effect it would have on me. The truth is, no matter how well we’ve been trained, nothing can quite prepare us for actual crisis counseling; experience is the ultimate teacher. However, having been part of a crisis response team, perhaps my own first-hand experience can offer interns a glimpse into what it is like to carry out large-scale grief counseling for the first time.
Walking into the school psychologist’s office, I was immediately thrust into an emotional minefield. Every available space was occupied with counselors and upset students. The air was thick with grief and the sound of children crying reverberated off the walls, sending an emotional shockwave straight through my heart. The details of the accident would slowly unfold as the morning went on. A group of students were playing handball after school, as they had on most other days, when Robert, a well-liked eighth grader hit his head on a set of parallel bars while coming up from retrieving the ball. He immediately collapsed and began to convulse. An older student attempted CPR while another student ran to the street to flag down an ambulance. Paramedics would unsuccessfully attempt to revive him.
HELPING STUDENTS COPE WITH HEARTBREAK
As I listened to the sobbing students and looked into their confused, sad eyes while they tried to make sense of a senseless tragedy, I assured them that whatever they were feeling was okay. Having learned in my PREPaRE training that children need help recognizing their emotions and understanding that their reactions are normal after a crisis event, I knew this was essential to the healing process. For the students who were present at the time of the accident, we talked about what it was like seeing their friend die. One student, who sat behind Robert in second period, described how eerie it was seeing the empty chair in front of him that morning. We shared stories about their favorite memories of Robert: how he was always smiling and how he loved to play handball. They called him the Gentle Giant due to his height and extraordinarily sweet nature and they each had a story to tell about how he had shown them kindness. I agreed with the students when they said it wasn’t fair and that he didn’t deserve to die. I wondered with them if perhaps away to honor their friend’s short life would be to be a good friend themselves or to smile at a stranger, carrying on Robert’s memory in love and compassion for others.
Some students sobbed openly, others just sat and listened, their heads quietly bowed with silent tears escaping their downcast eyes as thoughts of Robert filled the empty space, the air heavy with pain. I often found myself at a loss as to what I should say or do, wanting to fill the silence with something profound and meaningful; something that would make everything okay. But then I remembered how a professor in one of my counseling courses described the essence of crisis counseling as being able to sit in the presence of heartbreak without flinching. With this thought in mind, I joined the students in their reflection and gathered whatever strength and love I could find and wished it outward. Their pain was soft and aching, the kind only childhood innocence and despair can produce.
CARING FOR YOURSELF
As the day went on and the news spread, students kept pouring in, eventually flooding our office and overwhelming our resources. We had no time to eat or to escape what would begin to feel like an onslaught. By the end of the day, I was so exhausted, physically and mentally, I could hardly move. In the next few days, my own reaction would surprise me. I felt irritable. I cried—a lot. I found it difficult to separate myself from the pain I had absorbed. Because school psychologists by nature are sensitive, empathic, and intuitive, it is nearly impossible for us not to take on the pain of others even if we show the pain in a different way. I learned that in order to restore your well-being, you have to be able to recognize and separate your sadness from that of the people you have helped. Having patience and understanding that it will take some time to work through the emotions is important. In order to facilitate this process, remember to take time for yourself and to do the things that work for you in relieving stress. Get as much rest as you need, and don’t feel guilty about it because enduring heartbreak can feel more exhausting than physical exertion. Let out your emotions in a safe way, and remember that it is okay because these emotions need to come out. Call an understanding colleague and talk about what you’re feeling. After all, school psychologists need emotional support, too. Expressing gratitude for the people you love, and for yourself, is an important aspect of self care in the wake of a crisis and has benefits that extend far beyond yourself. As reported by Reivich (2009), individuals who maintain a sense of gratitude are not only less likely to experience adverse emotional reactions, they are also better positioned to offer support and are described as more helpful by others.
PREPARING FOR THE UNEXPECTED
Walking into a crisis environment where you will be called upon to withstand intense sadness, you ideally want to be well rested, fed, and as free as possible of personal issues and stress. However, the unexpected nature of crises does not always make this possible. As such, be sure to make allowances for the fact that you did not have time to prepare by being kind to yourself and by recognizing the difficult work you have done. In addition, not all crisis response teams will be adequately prepared or coordinated, and you would be surprised how quickly your emotional reserves are depleted when your most basic needs are not met. Due to this fact, be sure that food and water are easily accessible throughout the day, and whenever possible, give yourself a break from the situation. For me, this meant escaping to the bathroom to give myself a reprieve and take some deep breaths. Caregivers who do not take these precautions risk experiencing “psychological burnout” which impedes their ability to provide emotional support and to recover emotionally themselves (NASP, 2003).
HONORING THE EXPERIENCE
In my first experience with crisis response, I learned that while nothing could have completely prepared me for what I would experience, the strong background I received from my graduate program in counseling techniques combined with my training in NASP’s PREPaRE curriculum gave me the foundation I needed in order to become a positive source of caring, support, and understanding for the students in their time of need. But perhaps the most important thing I learned was that in our multifaceted role as school psychologists, crisis response is one of the most vital services we can offer, giving us the opportunity to not only grow professionally, but also to make a profound difference in the lives of the students and families we serve. If this is to be accomplished effectively, we must be able to bear witness to heartbreak while also knowing when and how to excuse ourselves from its presence.
Angela M. Aiello graduated from Chapman University in May 2010. Her research and practice interests include home–school collaboration, response to intervention and its application to students with autism spectrum disorders, and emotional disturbance assessment.
National Association of School Psychologists. Helping children cope with crisis: Care for caregivers. (2003). Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/caregiver_war.aspx
Reivich, K. (2009). Fishful Thinking: Cultivating Gratitude in Youth. Communiqué, 38(3). Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/ publications/cq/mocq383gratitude.aspx
Bolnick, L., & Brock, S. E. (2005). The self-reported effects of crisis intervention work on school psychologists. The California School Psychologist, 7, 117–124.
Brock, S. E., Lazarus, P. J., & Jimerson, S. R. (Eds.). (2002). Best practices in school crisis prevention and intervention. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
NASP School Safety and Crisis Resources http://www.nasponline.org/resources/crisis_safety/index.aspx
PREPaRE: School Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Curriculum http://www.nasponline.org/prepare/index.aspx