Transcription of the episode “Grief and loss: Supporting students, families, and teachers in a pandemic (encore)”

Amy H-L: [00:00:01] As of today, March 31st, 2021, over 550,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. We’re reposting our conversation with Cynthia Trapanese former grief counselor, now teacher, who explains that the adults in a school need to grapple with their own losses in order to help children and families.

Amy H-L: [00:00:39] Hi. I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:41] And I’m Jon Moscow. Our guest today is Cynthia Trapanese. Cynthia teaches first grade at The New School of San Francisco. Cynthia was a board certified pediatric chaplain for 17 years before returning to school to become a credentialed elementary school classroom teacher eight years ago. In her career as a chaplain, she worked in the cancer center of a large children’s hospital system and was the program director for a children’s bereavement center. Her chaplaincy background has been extremely helpful during this time of isolation and global crisis, and she’s offering webinars and professional development to groups of teachers, parents, and administrators. She’s created a practical document with tips and resources to support children in this time, which we’ll post on our website. Welcome, Cynthia. 

Cynthia T: [00:01:27] Thank you.

Amy H-L: [00:01:29] Coronavirus has disrupted our lives on a scale none of us has ever witnessed. As adults, we may think of our losses especially in terms of so many people who have died or jobs that have disappeared, but for children especially, how would you define loss more broadly?

Cynthia T: [00:01:49] Yeah. Loss. I do, in  any setting, define loss more broadly because I think it’s extremely important for all of us at any age to be aware of how much loss we experience in our daily lives. So one way I define loss, and this is my definition, based on my experience working with kids, is missing someone or something that we love and that we wish we could see again or more often. So it’s quite broad. It is not just a loss of a close relative due to death. It is loss of something or someone we love and  wish we could see again or more often.

Jon M: [00:02:28] So for children, who rely on predictable routines, relationships, the dislocation that we’re all going through can be especially traumatic. How can teachers help children to feel connected to their schools and classmates, even in physical isolation?

Cynthia T: [00:02:45] Yeah, it’s very important because as we just defined loss, students who are in isolation are likely wishing they could see their school building, their teachers, their friends, their supplies again or more often. And right now it would be again, because they’re not seeing those things, except maybe through platforms that allow video conferencing. So the way teachers can best help, really, is to have awareness of their own feelings of loss and grief, and then connect with kids, check in with students and families authentically, to listen for what they might need as far as feelings. So it’s not an easy, it’s not something teachers do by necessity other times. But right now, putting the academic piece of the teacher role just next to the piece of checking in. How are you feeling right now about all of this? And maybe then there can be some academic growth or even discussion of that, but right now the best thing teachers could do is ask how kids are feeling. How are you doing?

Amy H-L: [00:04:01] Cynthia, going back to your definition of loss as something that we miss, or wish we could see again or more often. Could you give us some examples of what that looks like in children’s lives?

Cynthia T: [00:04:16] In children’s lives? It could be. . . Right now or generally? Right now. I think some of those things I said a moment ago and just like think of each of those things, probably the routine of waking up, getting ready for school. All of that is a part of the school day to me, the arrival at school. Is it a bus ride? Is it a car ride? What happens during that time? Maybe stopping to get a bagel on the way. All of those routines that accompany attending school, arriving at school, and then the actual building, the movement of their bodies around the building, their friends, the adults in the building, and then all of those things. I’ve heard families say their kids miss the book rack. Maybe they have some books at home. And some schools, I know our school has, we got a grant to send books to some of the students that didn’t have as many books in their home, but the kids miss the way the books look in the classroom. So it’s all those details that we don’t necessarily think about that kids are talking about right now.

Amy H-L: [00:05:31] When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that a lot of kids are missing their grandparents. 

Cynthia T: [00:05:36] Yes, yes. And so in their lives outside of the school setting, I have heard so many families talk about grandparents and even if they live near them, they’re still not seeing them in person. So maybe they’ll drive by and play a game from outside the window or wave from the car, from the porch, or send notes back and forth. So yes, there are aunties and cousins.

Jon M: [00:06:00] You mentioned that one of the things that teachers can be doing now is just asking children how they’re feeling. What are some of the ways that teachers can respond when children say how they’re feeling and they’re expressing this loss and grief and dislocation and so on?

Cynthia T: [00:06:22] At this time, or any time when an adult is supporting a child in those feelings, the first thing to do is to be aware of those feelings ourselves. So as adults, when we can be aware of what we’re missing, when we can be aware of how we feel when we’re grieving. Grief is the experience of the feelings of the loss. So when we’re grieving, those feelings that accompany the loss, when we’re aware of them and can be in touch with them, then we can be present to a child who is expressing those feelings or a child who’s feeling those feelings and can’t necessarily articulate them. So the most important thing that adults can do is to sit and be present and not try to fix or take away those feelings. I’ve heard many, many kids over all the years of my work talk about the person or the, let me take that back. Not person. The the friend that listens best is a dog or a cat that they have some relationship with in their home or someone else’s home. Dogs and cats listen without fixing very, very well. And so sometimes as adults we need to kind of access our inner dog, I’ll say, and be present without feeling like we need to change the situation or fix the child.

Jon M: [00:07:45] Why is it so important not to try to fix?

Cynthia T: [00:07:50] Then, whether it’s an adult or a child who is the one expressing their feelings, when someone else tries to fix them or change that feeling, then it can do a few things:  Make the person who is expressing those feelings not feel heard; or it can make that person feel like they need to be fixed, like they’re wrong to feel those things or that those feelings are something they need to get over or beyond. There is an excellent book called “Healing Through the Dark Emotions.” I’m sorry, I don’t have the author right in front of me. I meant to look that up, but it is a therapist’s book about how many people she was seeing in her practice who were saying they were grieving or sad or feeling depression and they felt like they needed to get beyond that. And her point was noticing that that is sort of something that society does to trip us up in the sense that we’re like, those are the dark emotions we’re not supposed to have, and we’re supposed to be happy and not grieving. And so when we embrace those feelings as part of life, we really have more balance and can heal. So if a kid feels like they’re having really big feelings about all of this loss and this time of isolation, and we try to fix that then they feel like, “Oh, I’m not supposed to feel those feelings.”

Amy H-L: [00:09:10] For some children, these losses that they’re feeling during the pandemic are layered on other adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, like homelessness or relatives being deported, parents being incarcerated. It sounds like the strategies that you’re recommending to help kids with Coronavirus related loss would be applicable as well to these other sorts of adverse childhood experiences.

Cynthia T: [00:09:43] Absolutely. I agree with that very much. There is something called complicated grief, which is when there are several losses at once, or there’s an unexpected loss. And complicated grief as well as anticipatory grief, two very particular types of grieving are not more or less emotionally painful. Grief is painful no matter what. But the complicated grief can be more difficult for a student’s thinking or a child or an adult as well. This applies to all ages. So if there is a previous loss already, every new loss brings up every previous loss. It’s just a part of our human psyche.

And so being aware of that. So some of the questions or thinking about a previous loss could come up in this time, and I am hearing parents talk to me about that as well. I’m working with kids who have lost parents at a young age. Maybe they haven’t really talked about that parent much before and right now there’s a lot of new questions and feelings coming with them. Remembering that loss, and I think it’s true. I feel myself, my mom died four years ago and I, as soon as this happened, I was missing her in a new way because I wanted to ask her her opinion about all of this or hear her wisdom about all of the different aspects of the virus. She was a nurse and had so much intelligence, and I just wanted to not only get her support and connect with her emotionally, but hear her ideas and thinking, and so it’s like losing her in a different way. Again. 

Jon M: [00:11:15] For a lot of the questions that children ask about the pandemic, adults, teachers or parents, simply don’t have answers. How do we help children live with these kinds of ambiguities and unknowns?

Cynthia T: [00:11:35] Being honest. I have been really suggesting to parents and teachers that they don’t avoid talking about the details. But doing that in an authentic and honest way, so it is okay to say we don’t know. It’s okay to say, “Wow, that’s a great question. Let’s see what we can find out and do some of that discovery together.”  Depending on the age of the child, it is very important, and always when working with a child who is grieving, whether it’s during this time or grieving a death, too, notice what they’re asking and answer in the context ot  their wondering. So it’s the classic example of a child asking something and then an adult giving an answer that has so much more than the child is asking. And then at the end of the adult’s answer the child saying, “That isn’t really what I want and I didn’t need [inaudible]. So really listening to the question, giving a little bit of information and then, you know, “Is there anything else you wondered?”

 It’s a lot about, all of it is about self-awareness for us as adults helping children and about being aware of what is really being said or asked by the child and not withholding, not trying to like hide information because that doesn’t work either. There are so many times, there were so many times in my work, especially in the bereavement center.  where kids would talk about both directions maybe, and that that bereavement center worked with kids who experienced loss due to death. So kids would say either they wanted to see their loved one and then their family didn’t let them, or they didn’t want to see someone maybe in a hospital or a hospice setting and their family made them go. And sometimes that kind of experience will stay with someone all the way into adulthood. So it really is, it’s a delicate balance of listening. What does the child really want? If the child wants information, wants to, you know, watch a little bit of scientists’ explanation of the virus itself, or whatever they’re curious about, I think it’s important for us to honor that in a way that is honest for them, but let them sort of guide that with their questions.

Amy H-L: [00:13:53] We are all traumatized. We’re bombarded with stories of illness and death on a daily basis. So how can teachers and parents be helpful to children when they themselves are grieving and frightened?

Cynthia T: [00:14:07] Yes. Again, that sense of self awareness of our feelings that we really connect. There is a phrase in chaplaincy called appropriate self-disclosure, and that means you talk about your experience of something to the point where you’re able to connect with that other person, not beyond that point, so that then you don’t become the person getting support. In that moment, we might discover we need support. Then we go to someone else and say, “You know, I had this conversation with this child at brought up these feelings in me. Yeah. Like, could I talk to you about that?” So everyone who is being supportive also needs someone to support them. So that chain of support, we just need to find that.

But it is true globally. We are all, I believe, going to have some form of PTSD after this. Or as we go back into society, we go back to school and back to work. We’re not going to just go back and pick up where we left off. We’re going to have to acknowledge that this was difficult, and how it was difficult and that will be different for all of us. But the best way, as we as adults are really suffering or experiencing fear, or all of those things, is to be honest with ourselves and honest with the kids, but also take it to the next step of providing some type of hope.  If we’re really so despairing that we don’t feel hope, we might not be the best adult for that child in that moment. So self-awareness and responding to that.

Jon M: [00:15:42] What is your school, The New School of San Francisco, doing to support teachers and parents?

Cynthia T: [00:15:48] I’m really pleased with how our school is responding. We have spent a lot of time finding language around what our goals are for this time of distance learning and really putting the whole child, whole family emotional wellbeing at the top of that. The document that you will share with listeners today, I created for our school initially. So the first thing we did was have this type of conversation with our staff and then with parents as well. So providing resources, making ourselves available. The first two weeks of distance learning, we had a fairly elaborate Google-like spreadsheet, making sure every student had two check-ins a week, those first two weeks, by FaceTime, with a teacher that they knew, so that everyone was having an offer of support. Very little concern for academics at that point. Just checking in and then making sure that families had what they needed as far as technology to be able to opt into the academic work once we started it. So we provided iPads and Chromebooks and hotspots as much as we could to whoever needed them. So sort of a combination of offering that support and acknowledging this is a difficult time and don’t feel pressure from the school, but let us be a resource.

Amy H-L: [00:17:16] How can schools that don’t have someone with your particular background and expertise and grief support teachers?

Cynthia T: [00:17:26] What I’m hearing from teachers in  other schools and other states and friends and such is the most supportive thing seems to be administration that is acknowledging these things we’re talking about. Acknowledging that, reaching out and being supportive to families is something we can all do. So kind of empowering teachers to do those check-ins, allowing families to be honest about what they need. So I’m hearing from other teachers that’s really sort of coming like from administration. And some schools are having an easier time of that. Some schools are struggling more.

Jon M: [00:18:02] How concerned should parents, you mentioned that, you know, during the first couple of weeks you really sort of deemphasized the academic part with the emphasis being on the social emotional part. How concerned should parents be about students keeping up with schoolwork during this time?

Cynthia T: [00:18:20] Yeah, that’s a difficult question. We’re seeing such a wide variety of responses as far as how families are approaching the academic piece. For some families, it seems like the structure of that is really helping, but also some families have not been able to find that structure and not, unlike any other time in life, it changes. So we’re hearing from families like, “This was working great for a couple of weeks, but we kind of hit a wall.” Or “We weren’t able to do it, and now we’re going to try.” So I think that the best thing schools can do is again, to leave a lot of room for families to decide what’s working for them and then also be flexible if that needs to change.

Jon M: [00:19:08] You suggested when we were talking before that sometimes parents are worrying too much about the academics and that it’s important, you know, to give them, explicitly give them space not to. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Cynthia T: [00:19:25] Again, it’s different for every family and every child. Sometimes there are families with three kids, and each of those students has a different way of accessing this online teaching and learning that we’re doing, but it’s a balance between, is it. being deemphasized in the home because the family’s just not figuring out how to do that, or  is it because there is something going on in the home that really is so much more important. If someone has a diagnosis or has had a loss in the family, due to this virus or other reasons, like we’re saying, let the academics go if it’s causing more stress. So that because this is such a different kind of time, this isn’t like all of a sudden we just said, let’s just do school from home. It’s because of something that’s real and affecting everyone’s lives. The financial implications on small businesses and the isolation. So those things need attention.

And also I think psychically, or just emotionally and intellectually, those things are taking our attention anyway, and so letting ourselves like be present to that and not putting that pressure on ourselves like, “Hey, I’m just at home. Why can’t I do this?” Well, because we’re consumed with a lot of other ways of responding to this that we don’t have any roadmap for.

Amy H-L: [00:20:58] So you’ve suggested that this experience might help us reflect over the long term about our thinking about what the most important aspects of education really are.  Could you talk about that?

Cynthia T: [00:21:16] I think there’s been a movement in some circles toward student-centered, inquiry-based education where, the Responsive Classroom model is so good at this, where teachers and administrators get to know the students in their class and then respond to what the needs are. And that can change, depending on who speaks what language, depending on what the experience of the student has been previously, all of those things. So I think this, what we’re doing as teachers now is really so much differentiated learning, at least at our school, and what I’m hearing from other teachers in other states is there’s a lot of one on one instruction for the kids that need it, small group instruction, much less whole group instruction. And so I think that that can really work. I know it takes a different way of preparing as a teacher. It might take a little bit more staff or different ways of even structuring what a classroom looks like, but it seems like being a responsive and reflective practitioner is working more than ever now, and we can bring that into the classroom in a even more robust way when we go back together.

Amy H-L: [00:22:34] Cynthia, you also teach some classes, I believe, at the Institute for Humane Education. Could you talk about how that particular view of education and of interconnectedness impacts your thoughts on this pandemic and how we might be most impactful for kids?

Cynthia T: [00:22:55] Yes, absolutely. The Institute for Human Education is a wonderful institute, doing so much great work. Right now, we have programs through Antioch University New England, online courses for certificates and for graduate degrees in education. I kind of entered  classroom teaching backwards. I was still the program director at the bereavement center when I did the  degree in 2012 and graduated in 2014 and then decided I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so I went to Georgia State to get that aspect of my education. A lot of people in our program are already classroom teachers and then add their master’s degree in humane education, but there are all different students with all different backgrounds in our courses. I teach two electives, one called State of Activism and one called Just Good Food.

And what I’m hearing happening in those classes is the need to filter the coursework we’re doing right now through this lens already. So in my Just Good Food class, we sort of ditched the last couple of assignments as the semester is about to end, and they’re looking at how is this pandemic affecting the food system in the world and in Creative Activism, they’re looking at how are artists responding. So it’s been very rich and a very interesting process, Just Good Food. The students in the Just Good Food class have found amazing articles about the food delivery systems.  One student wrote a whole piece on the truck drivers and how this has impacted the delivery from farms or food supply places to stores and things like that. Of course there is that aspect of the eating of animals that is becoming very visible in this time and some of the shutdowns of the processing plants and things like that. So the food system is definitely impacted by this virus, and we’re looking at that like in real time, that sort of changes every day. Clearly it’s becoming even, you know, more possibly important to not eat animal products and to look at how those things are being processed. 

Jon M: [00:25:20] I have a question. Speaking of that, have you been able to integrate that into your classroom teaching with the children that you’re working with, some of the things that you’ve been doing, for example, in the Good Food class.

Cynthia T: [00:25:34] I teach first grade, so in my classroom, I’m very careful to spend time raising awareness and a reverence-building for animals, but not go beyond that. I think it’s very important as we integrate humane education into the classroom to be super careful about developmental age. And so what I do in my class, for example, around Thanksgiving is have a whole day where we celebrate turkeys. So we look at how turkeys move and look at how turkeys behave and look at artwork that is turkeys, and so raising that. Zoe Weil, in her development of the Humane Education coursework, has something called reverence-building, and that is a beautiful way at a young age to raise that awareness. We don’t necessarily talk directly about eating animals and things like that. We just talk about how all life is interconnected and noticing how that is. So that when a student has reverence and awe for all life and then loves all life, there is more of a desire to protect all life.

Amy H-L: [00:26:45] Cynthia, the Institute for Humane Education has a program called Solutionaries and I’m just wondering how do you sort of translate that into something that’s accessible for young children, first graders.

Cynthia T: [00:27:02] It’s really fun to do that through things like a project, perhaps. This year in our classroom at The New School, in first grade, we were studying animals and we looked at animal adaptations and then how scientists have looked to animal adaptations to in their design. So we talked about how can an adaptation, like for example, birds’ ability to fly, help the planet? So they could design, they had to choose sort of a need. If maybe people don’t have enough water, how can we look at an animal adaptation and then create something in the design world, as humans help, either to protect or to provide more things. One student, actually, Oh my goodness. I’m sorry, I can’t remember what animal she studied and discovered something about how they, their waste gets like sent away or something. And she designed this like remote controlled, almost like a toilet that would be for people who are experiencing homelessness. They could like call the toilet and then it would come to them and then they could go to the bathroom and then send it away.  It was brilliant. And her artwork was incredible. So things like that, where we have projects and let them really have free rein. How to think about how to help the planet or other animals or other people.

Jon M: [00:28:29] Thank you, Cynthia Trapanese of The New School of San Francisco. 

Amy H-L: [00:28:35] And thank you, listeners. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy for you to use in workshops or classes. We offer professional development on social emotional learning, with a focus on ethics, in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram,  and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

Click here to listen to this episode.