Experts with the Military Child Education Coalition are working to help military children deal with the death of a parent through a new initiative: "Living in the New Normal; Supporting Children through Trauma and Loss."
"In the schools, the children are able to enjoy a predictable environment. The educators are certainly able to assist children in very compassionate and caring ways," Patty Shinseki, a member of the coalition's Board of Directors, said.
The primary loss military children experience when a parent dies is often compounded by secondary losses, such as the need to relocate, the loss of the familiar military community and culture, and changes to their support network and friends, Shinseki wrote in a recent article. Shinseki chairs the committee working on the initiative. She said MCEC is grateful for the volunteers working on the project.
"The bottom line is that death is such a tough topic," committee member Marlene Lee said. "It makes people uncomfortable. It's difficult to talk about. It's something a lot of people avoid. ... How do you take this really tough, really uncomfortable topic that needs to be discussed and break that communications down in a way that helps educate people?"
Lee is an expert in "thanatology," the study of death, dying and grieving. Her book, "The Hero in My Pocket," is aimed at children affected by the loss of a member of the armed forces. "Whether we like it or not, we have to talk about issues related to death, dying and, as importantly, positive recovery," Lee said.
Karla Shinners, a counselor and expert in risk prevention for children, said the project will provide guidance to people around children who experience such a loss. "How do you explain it to the whole class if this child has experienced a loss?" Shinners said. "How long should the child be away from school? Should you send them right back to the classroom, or should they stay home for a little while? Should the child attend the memorial service?
"We have to look at the factors as to how to make that best decision to help a child," she said.
The initiative promotes "an environment of resilience and non-victimization of the military child," said Army Maj. Jeff Bergmann, who teaches psychology at the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, N.Y. He is also a member of the program's committee.
"Since I'm in the military, I ... educate the officers, noncommissioned officers and the future leadership about resources available from MCEC and specifically this initiative, 'Living in the New Normal,' because it's going to become increasingly important based on the global war on terrorism," he said.
The death of a military members leads to transition and dramatic change in families' and children's lives, retired Army Dr. (Col.) Stephen J. Cozza said. Also a member of the committee, Corza is associate director for child and family programs at the Center for Traumatic Stress, a part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md.
"During that change, there are certain vulnerabilities that families and children may be exposed to," Cozza said. "They have to figure out how to tolerate and reestablish their families in new places or new situations with the loss of a loved one."
Cozza said MCEC wants to support such children and families so they come out on the other end healthy, happy and adapted. "Part of what we want to do is to help rally the resources around children," he said. "MCEC is naturally well-suited for that because the educational setting is the setting of kids. The teachers will be the ones that kids spend most of their days with."
Cozza said he'd like to develop a transition packet that parents, children and schools can complete that transfers information from one school to the next. "The worse-case situation would be that a child goes to a new school and no one is aware of the special challenges or changes that have that have occurred in that family," he said.
He said some educators don't recognize that a child's behaviors, difficulty in learning or emotional state may be related to adverse events in their life.
Shinseki said the program will lead to a system of resources for educators and parents. "Some of the themes we're following acknowledge the wonderful positive attributes of our children."