N.J. Legislature approves a bill that would require schools to teach a class about grief, loss, and coping

This initiative comes in response to a growing recognition of the importance of addressing mental health issues, including grief, among students.

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An aerial view of the N.J. General Assembly

File photo: The New Jersey State Assembly. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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New Jersey could soon mandate that its schools teach students about coping with grief and loss. The state Legislature has given final approval to a measure that would require school districts to provide lessons on this topic for students in 8th – 12th grades.

The bill now awaits the decision of Governor Phil Murphy on whether it will be signed into law. This initiative comes in response to a growing recognition of the importance of addressing mental health issues, including grief, among students. If approved, it will mark a significant change in the state’s educational curriculum, aiming to better support students in dealing with these challenging experiences.

State Senator Jon Bramnick, the sponsor of the bill, said this is important because we currently have a mental health crisis in our schools “and people who lose a sibling or a parent go through an incredibly difficult time.”

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He said “we have people act out, and many times it’s out of frustration because of a loss they didn’t know how to grieve.”

Diana, a 19-year-old from Essex County who is now a freshman in college, lost her mother in May 2022 after a long battle with cancer.

She said she strongly supports the idea of having schools offer a class about grief and loss because of her own experience. She returned to high school two weeks after her mom died, feeling scared and emotionally distraught.

“I went to my first class of the day and instead of receiving condolences from my teachers and friends,” she said, “I was treated as if nothing was different and told to create a plan on how I would make up my missed work.”

“Grieving children and teens are at risk for poor school performance, absenteeism, mental health issues, addiction and depression, but with the proper support from schools and educators, students can have the resources they need to really make a difference in their lives,” she said.

Lindsay Schambach, the executive director of the group Imagine, a Center for Coping with Loss, said her organization and other grief support groups are looking forward to a collaborative effort with the state Department of Education to develop a program geared to helping students with grief and loss.

She said part of this effort will include dispelling myths that pertain to grief, including the idea that “time heals all wounds,” or that at some point there will be acceptance of loss.

“The exposure to children about the truths, and the true experience of those who are grieving, we believe can help normalize the feelings our children go through when they experience loss,” she said.

How will this work?

Schambach said therapy would not be introduced into the health classes, but rather a review of “the most up-to-date information as it exists on grief, what is loss, what is grief, what are healthy coping mechanisms that exist, and then across the state we also believe it’s really important to teach children how best to support others who are grieving.”

She noted grief is associated with all types of losses, not just death, including divorce, separation, a physical move, or even a loss of normalcy when a serious health diagnosis is given.

Schambach said 1 out of every 13 children in New Jersey will experience the death of a parent or sibling before they turn 18.

“That means in all of our classrooms across the state there are children going through this type of loss,” she said.

Bramnick said “with the mental health crisis in the country, teaching some of this in school, no one should object to it.”

“I don’t think the fact that we’re teaching broad concepts of what people go through during grief and loss is religious in any way or should be unacceptable,” he said, “because what people go through with grief and loss is universal.”

Schambach agreed.

“I don’t think a religious point of view is necessary in a grief curriculum, because people of all cultures, all religions, all ages, all races, all socio-economic statuses, they all grieve,” she said.

According to Schambach, religion and culture play a huge role in how different families experience grief, and research shows “it’s very common for those who are grieving to begin believing, to question their belief system, or to stop believing.”

She said a strong curriculum will “expose children to the fact that those feelings are natural and normal, and some people find support in their cultural beliefs and religious beliefs, and you can turn towards those as a coping strategy.”

Schambach stressed the goal of most parents is “normalizing the scary feelings for children can only better support their mental health, and creating open lines of communication is important.”

She noted some educators and social workers in schools are already helping children coping with loss, but creating this kind of curriculum will help expose kids to different coping mechanisms and opportunities to seek additional help.

When 11-year-old Ava lost her 5-year-old brother Mateo in a drowning accident last year, she received strong support at school.

“My teachers and counselors were all very kind,” she said. “It made me feel better, like my teachers understood me.”

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The Essex County child said she likes the idea of classes to teach about grief and loss because “it can benefit kids.”

Ava described her brother as “very kind, he had the curliest hair, and he was always happy and smiling.”

Schambach said while some deaths are violent and unexpected, others may take years to play out, and both can cause trauma in a child — but it is not anticipated the curriculum will address different causes of death.

“Some people may have it worse [than others] but it’s not necessarily healthy or beneficial to compare which situation is worse…grief comes with all losses,” she said.

The bipartisan measure was co-sponsored by Democratic state Senator Joe Cryan.

It now heads to Governor Murphy’s desk for his consideration.

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