N.J. senators want high school students to learn about grief

New legislation would require school districts to update health curriculums to include lessons on the symptoms of grief and ways to cope.

A group of people pose for a photo.

New Jersey state Senators Joe Cryan and Jon Bramnick pose for photos with grief survivors and Imagine volunteers. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

Lessons on grief would be added to classwork for some middle and high school students in New Jersey under bipartisan legislation introduced by state Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union) and Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union).

School districts would have to update health curriculums for 8th through 12th graders to include lessons on the symptoms of grief and ways to cope. The measure would also require students to learn about resources available to them, like in-school support, mental health crisis support, and individual and group therapy.

A wall of paper-cut stars with words on them is seen close-up.
A memory wall at Imagine, a nonprofit in Union, N.J., dedicated to helping people process grief. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

The senators announced the bill at a press conference at Imagine, a Union-County-based nonprofit center for coping with loss.

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Imagine provides free in-person and virtual grief support programs for children and families, and Bramnick says Imagine’s work inspired him to create the legislation, stating that this type of support should not just be left up to the “private sector.”

“When you see the work they do and the importance of the work, that was the motivation for drafting and submitting the bill,” Bramnick said.

A woman stands at the doorway fo a room with a table and rainbow-colored curtains.
Angela Marie Tayco provides a tour of Imagine’s grief support center. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

Angela Marie Tayco, development and communications manager for Imagine, says she started working in the field because, as a teenager, she wished she had better support when her cousin died. Tayco says children don’t always grieve in the same ways adults do and that adults don’t always know how to provide the proper support, especially if they are grieving themselves.

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“[Working with] teenagers, that’s when the emotions can get so strong, they’re becoming adults, the hormones are there,” Tayco said. “And they’re learning things like, ‘Mommy isn’t going to braid my hair anymore. Daddy is not coming on vacation.’ And they understand, that’s it, that people die and that they don’t come back.”

The effort comes as more than 35,000 people have died from coronavirus-related ailments in New Jersey since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.

“I think more and more people have been touched by the grief… and frankly, I think, in many cases, whether it was due to the isolation of COVID … having the opportunity to express their grief, I think makes this bill more timely,” Cryan said.

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