March 15, 2017
How the RMHC Toronto School helps students cope when a child passes
“If my brother dies, am I still a sister?”
This is the type of sensitive question sometimes asked by students at the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Toronto School. Given the unique student population the School serves – seriously ill children and their siblings – students are often confronted with life and death in a way most children never are.
In her 14 years as head of the School, coupled with her studies in children’s grief and bereavement, School principal Katie Doering has learned how to effectively manage these situations. Being open and honest about tough subjects is important, she says.
“I believe that if a child has the courage to ask a question, we shouldn’t brush it off,” says Katie. “We’re not afraid to say if we don’t know the answer, and we’ll put them in touch with their parents and the resources they need. What’s important is assuring children that their question is valid and we’re happy to wonder about it together.”
During their enrolment at the School, students often deal with the death of a classmate, a classmate’s sibling or other children they know in the House.
“Kids often think they shouldn’t talk about dying. We try to make school a safe space to ask whatever is on your mind,” says Katie.
Katie and her fellow teachers often use lessons about plants and animals to help demystify the life cycle. They also use innovative art exercises to help students express their sadness. Part of the challenge for students is learning how to interact with someone who is grieving.
“When someone’s brother dies and then we see them running around and laughing at recess, does that mean they’re not sad? We’ve been discussing how everyone deals with grief differently. It’s hard to know what to say to a friend who lost a sibling, but it’s still okay to say ‘Hi’ to them and ask them to play."
Following the death of a peer, students are always eager to let the family know they are thinking of them. The teachers let students take the lead as much as possible in those discussions, encouraging them to decide how to help that specific friend or parent. It could be making cards or a memory book, or it could be something as simple as a hug.
“To help us feel prepared for these situations, we recently made a ‘Helping Hands’ poster. Everyone traced their hand and wrote down five things they could do to help someone feel better. Kids wrote everything from ‘Give them a cupcake’ to ‘Remind them that I am their friend.’”
From great sadness can come real positivity, and Katie sees that every day in her work at RMHC Toronto.
“Students at our school become so close and are really great at supporting one another. This really is a special place.”