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Nercy Clarke on Supporting Students through Grief and Growth 

Nercy Clarke On Supporting Students Through Grief And Growth 

By Maeve Galea

Image Source: Sarah Horrigan, flikr

‘For young people with a refugee background, grief experiences could vary from having lost a close family member to grieving the loss of their country or grieving the loss of life as they knew it’, notes Nercy Clarke, who has facilitated the Seasons For Growth program at STARTTS since 2019. Graduating from California State University in 2007 with a Masters in Social Work, Clarke spent the first decade of her career working in community-based programs for at-risk youth in her hometown of Los Angeles, ‘I’ve always believed that if you grab a young person at just the right time and give them the proper tools and support, even though they’ve been through something traumatic and horrible and life-changing, they can be okay and move forward to be outstanding adults,’ she explains.  

In 2018 Clarke migrated to Australia, where her life-long passion for ‘helping young people navigating not the best of circumstances’ landed her a role working at Headspace school support, providing post-vention support to schools dealing with youth suicide. It was during Clarke’s time at Headspace that she was introduced to the Seasons For Growth program, an innovative, evidence-based change, loss and grief education program that draws on the metaphor of the seasons to understand the experience of grief. Clarke, who was trained as a Seasons For Growth companion when she began working for STARTTS in 2018, has adapted the program to help students with refugee experiences to ‘have an open discussion around grief and eventually land on some coping methods they can use to deal with it now and in the future’.  

Over the eight weekly sessions, Seasons for Growth offers young people a safe space to come together, and share their experiences of change and loss using activities such as drawing, discussion, and journaling. ‘We’re using very gentle and subtle ways to help kids open up about their experiences’, shares Clarke, before explaining one of her favorite activities where she asks students to bring in a photo of a happy memory to share with the group. Clarke fondly describes how students excitedly pass around their photos, explaining where the photo was taken and who each person is; yet often these are places and people they may never see again.’ That was eye opening because they aren’t focusing on the loss and the sadness of these family members no longer being around but the fact that they have these special memories and really wanted to share it with somebody’. For Clarke this encapsulates the fundamental benefit of Seasons for Growth, ‘it allows young people the space to have these conversations that I don’t know that they would be having with anyone else’. 

While the program’s tactful approach to conversations around grief is notable, Clarke is most proud of how she has used Seasons For Growth to ‘build community’ and make students feel less alone, ‘the benefit of the group context is that they recognize that there are other young people who can share similar experiences and similar grieving experiences’. For some students that newfound sense of belonging is ‘the first time they recognize they are not alone in that process’. It means the benefits of the program extend far beyond the eight-week schedule, ‘at the end of the program facilitators like myself may be gone, but they have the support of one another to continue to cheer each other on or check in with each other”, adding, ‘I say that because we do return to the schools where we’ve run the program and I do see that they’re still friends and still checking in with each other.’  

In 2010, a study by Southern Cross University concluded that Seasons for Growth ‘1. Builds understanding and skills, 2. Improves participants’ emotional wellbeing, 3. Enables participants to express their views, thoughts and feelings, and 4. Strengthens participants’ social and support networks.’ Clarke’s observations of the program’s efficacy are consistent with those findings, ‘in the eight weeks that we meet, there’s almost always some sort of breakthrough that happens for a young person, and I’m not talking about some big dramatic breakthrough, but it’s just a disclosure about something that’s happened to them that maybe they haven’t shared with somebody before or didn’t quite understand, but in listening to other group members they now understand what they’re experiencing and what they’re going through’. 

While the program uses the eight weeks to explore different themes around grief, there is an unofficial ninth week, called “The final goodbye”. This is not only a celebration of the group’s achievements but ‘shows to them that not all goodbyes have to be tragic and sad,’ Clarke explains, ‘this is a goodbye that can be positive for you and we’re going to show you that.’ The final goodbye is something Clarke is now facing as her time at STARTTS comes to a close, something she describes as a ‘full-circle moment’. ‘Coming from a family where my parents had to flee El Salvador to escape civil war I can relate to a lot of the things these kids are experiencing’, explains Clarke, ‘I’ve been very honored and privileged to be able to support these young people and provide a space of understanding and recognition’.  

If you would like to find out more about the Seasons for Growth program please contact Good Grief – Mackillop Family Services on 1300 379 569 or info@goodgrief.org.au 

Supporting your Students Through Grief – Nercy Clarke’s Top Tips for Teachers  

  1. Build community & connection in the classroom 

‘All kids want is to be accepted by their peers and have friends. Even the most withdrawn kids, just want to be able to connect. And that that’s something major that we can provide.’ 

  1. Language can be an obstacle, but it doesn’t have to be

‘If you have a student who is struggling to communicate in English please use an interpreter. It’s not a bad thing to include an interpreter, and often they can become a part of that group as well. If an interpreter is being used, use that same interpreter as much as possible!’ 

  1. Consistency is key

‘These kids have already been through so much loss and change and we just want to be able to offer some consistency.’ Consistency provides predictability for the child, which can help relieve anxiety and rebuild their sense of safety.  

  1. Be discreet. 

‘Sometimes the curriculum can bring up triggering things for students. If a child becomes tearful during class the most important thing is not to point it out or make them stand out in the class, but ensuring to check in with them. Wait until the end of the period, and ask questions like “Are you OK?”, “Do you want to talk about it or is there someone else you’d want to talk about it (with)?” It’s just about making them feel acknowledged while not drawing attention to the situation.’ 

  1. It’s OK to not know what to do.  

‘If you don’t have the answer or don’t know what to do, it’s OK and there might be other people you can reach out to, be it a school counsellor, deputy principal or external organisation so that you can help that young person. There are systems in place so that that student can be supported, whether it’s through STARTTS or Headspace, there are so many resources out there for young people.’  

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