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A Tragedy Brings a School Together as Family

The fire that took the lives of Lily, Sarah and Grace Badger was an unimaginable tragedy for everyone blessed to have known and love them. First and foremost, of course, is the Badger family. Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare and as we awoke Christmas morning to learn of this unthinkable event, millions grieved with them. For another family, the loss of these three beautiful young girls also left a hole that will never be filled. Their classmates, teachers and the entire Windward School family, we too lost three of our own.
How do you explain death to children who have just started to live? How do explain that a friend, who played with them just last week, is gone forever? How do you provide answers to questions without creating more questions?
It is something virtually every school leader will eventually have to face - how to help children and their families, teachers and staff members, deal with sudden, unexplainable loss. While thankfully, this has only been necessary a few times in my over 40 years in public and private education, each time I am reminded that a school is more than classrooms and curriculum, it is in so many ways a family. And, it is how we come together as a family, particularly at a time like this, which can make all the difference.
It is essential to bring the entire school together immediately and approach the issue with openness, honesty and compassion. While the initial tendency might be to protect and shield a child, it is important to deal with the issue head-on, recognizing that each child is different. Some will want to talk about what they are feeling even if it is to ask questions. Others will withdraw. Teachers and parents need to allow each child to decipher things in their own way on their own schedule, while providing continuous love and support.  
It is also important to reach out to experts. In our case, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the founding psychiatrist at The Child Mind Institute, provided information on how parents can talk with children about the loss of a friend on the Institute's website.  Patty Donovan-Duff, the Director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester, created access to their counselors and our own school psychologists and counselors were on call for any child or family that needed guidance.
As we returned from the holiday break, it was clear that the world had changed. I saw it in the eyes of our teachers and felt it in the hallways. While everyone did a wonderful job to get everyone back into the classrooms, it will be a long, slow healing process -- as it should be. Everyone at Windward will always carry Lily, Sarah and Grace in their hearts. They are a part of what makes us who we are - a school, a community, a family. 

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