POTTSTOWN – While it affects us all, few are willing to confront the ramifications of death.
Children are the least prepared.
And that’s where Susan Trace Lawrence and the Traces of Love Association come to the rescue.
In addition to being a member of the Pottstown School Board, Lawrence is the founder of a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children who have lost a loved one.
Traces of Love has two main purposes; Provide bereavement groups for children in schools and train teachers on how to help grieving students. And she does it for free.
“It’s hard for the little ones. They need support and a safe place to talk if they want to,” said Lawrence, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology and school counseling and teaches psychology at Ursinus, Chestnut Hill, LaSalle and Montgomery County Community Colleges . She and her students at Ursinus have even done some clinical research on the subject and interviewed other students who have suffered losses.
The primary method of helping is through age-appropriate child support groups.
A group consists of four to eight participants who meet once a week for several weeks. Most sessions take place during or immediately after school for 30 to 60 minutes depending on the age of the children. The staff uses a published curriculum and incorporates art, music and physical activity and conversation into the sessions. The goal is to help students build strong relationships in a safe environment. Connecting with others who understand and empathize helps in the healing process.
It helps, Lawrence said, when kids of the same age group are together in a place where “everyone is in the same situation. We talk when they want to talk, and when they don’t want to talk, I have a curriculum that includes activities to help them process their grief in ways other than talking.” One example, she gave, was that a middle school support group wove bracelets embedded with the name of the person they lost.
“I had a teenager who never spoke, never said a word, but he wore that bracelet for years,” she said.
Lawrence is passionate about this topic because she has experienced it herself. “I lost a brother when I was in kindergarten, but it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how much it affected me,” she said.
Lawrence, who has lived in Pottstown all her life, was a student at Lincoln Elementary School when she was dealing with her grief, “and it was the 1960s. There were no careers advisers there. The teachers were nice but they didn’t know what kind of support I needed. There was no significant support in the schools.”
Young people grieve differently than adults, and often adults fail to recognize the signs that indicate a struggle to cope. “We’ve all gone through grief on some level and we tend to believe what worked for us will work for children. But most people don’t understand how kids deal with it,” she said.
Lawrence wants to change that.
She describes the four main tasks or stages in bereavement as “the 4 Rs – recognizing, responding, reliving and readjusting”.
The Traces of Love website describes it this way:
• Acknowledgment: The bereaved needs to acknowledge the loss and this process involves understanding. What exactly is death? Children may need specific information to face reality and understand what happened in their life. Many people deny a loss, but recognizing and defining events is the crucial first step in bereavement.
• Response: Grief triggers a variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, and guilt. Bereaved families need a safe place to express these feelings. Children may need help identifying their conflicting reactions. Many young people are overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings and are reluctant to express them for various reasons. The need for catharsis is real and critical to the healing process.
• Reliving: This process can take different forms depending on the person. Lots of reliving means remembering and mourning the lost loved one. Memories of time spent together, especially positive memories, can give a young person the assurance that their memory will thrive on their personality. Sometimes, when a child is emotionally dissociated after a loss, the child naturally tries to repeat the trauma of experiencing the death of a loved one. Children may need to process the loss to move forward.
• Adjustment: The bereaved must eventually rebuild life without the loved one. This process is very individual and depends on the circumstances of the damage; At this point, however, the grieving person will have a degree of acceptance and set out on a journey of reinvesting in life. This is not the end of the grieving process, but it is the first step in understanding that life goes on despite pain and loss.
Not only does she see a need to help children process their grief, Lawrence sees an increase in that need.
In recent years, the COVID pandemic has increased the death rate — nearly 2,400 adults died from the virus in Montgomery County, luckily none of them were children, but it means children have lost parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Several Pottstown students and young people have also been killed and affected by gun violence in the past two years. And of course the five people who were killed, four of them children, when a house exploded on Hale Street in May. All of these factors combined have increased the number of children in need of support.
That’s where Traces of Love’s second mission comes in, teaching teachers how to support grieving students. Given that there are not nearly enough counselors available to help all children in need, supporting teachers in dealing with these issues is beneficial for both teachers and students.
“We help teachers understand how to deal with loss, what grief feels like for children; what’s healthy and what might be warning signs,” Lawrence explained.
Sessions provide background on psychological, cognitive and behavioral development related to bereavement, as well as practical tips on how young people can cope with loss.
And Lawrence’s classes can be taken as a continuing education credit for teachers as part of a teacher training course, although in this case that’s the only circumstance Lawrence is asking for a donation from the school district to help cover the cost of materials she’s providing to the teachers.
Most recently, part-time classes were offered at the Owen J. Roberts School District and at the Wyndcroft School in Pottstown.
To contact Traces of Love or Lawrence to obtain the organization’s services, email [email protected]