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Dealing with Loss, Tragedy and Death - Tips for Coaches

Carol Rossignol, 8/19/2010

March/April 2007

Dealing with Loss, Tragedy and Death - Tips for Coaches


Dealing with the death of a loved one or a skating student is one of the heaviest burdens we are ever asked to bear.

Tragedy struck for a Rochester, MN family this past holiday season when a snowmobile ride turned fatal.  Nine-year old Olivia Nicole Clark died after the snowmobile she had been riding with her father plunged through the ice on Lake Tomahawk in northern Wisconsin, December 29th.   She was a sweet girl that was always smiling and she loved dogs and she loved to skate.

      Olivia was a member of the Rochester FSC and she participated in the Basic Skills Program and in the Junior Program for Skating Excellence (JPSE), a bridge program.   She was to compete in her first Basic Skills competition in February at the 2007 Hiawathaland in Rochester, MN.

      As the coach you may be dealing with your own grief but what about helping the other skaters in the club deal with the loss and death.  The effects may be significant for some children because of their emotional closeness or concern for fellow skaters.  Children in particular, will need the support and love of their coaches and parents to cope with their loss and reach constructive grief resolution.  As coaches we must deal with the unexpected.  We needed to take care of the grieving parents and the other skaters and coaches at the club as her death was sure to cause a wave of grief and confusion.  We also needed to support her younger sister, Abby, who was also a member of the club and skated in the basic skills group classes.

      The following are some tips for coaches and parents with helping children cope with loss, death and grief taken from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) ¹.

Expressions of Grief

Talking to children about death must be geared to their development level, respectful of their cultural norms and sensitive to their capacity to understand the situation.  Children will be aware of the reactions of significant adults as they interpret and react to information about death and tragedy.  For primary grade children adult reactions will play an especially important role in shaping their perceptions of the situation.  The range of reactions that children display may include:


Emotional shock  - an apparent lack of feelings


Immature behaviors - needing to be rocked or held


Explosive emotions and acting out anger, terror, frustration and helplessness


Asking the same questions over and over

Helping Children Cope

Allow children to be the teachers about their grief experiences - give children the opportunity to tell their story and be a good listener.


Children do not understand death in the same way or with the same feelings - all children are different and their world is shaped by different experiences.


Grieving is a process, not an event - allow an adequate amount of time for each child to grieve in the manner that works for that child.


Don’t lie or tell half-truths about the tragic event - children are bright and sensitive and will see through false information.  Lies do not help the child through the healing process or help develop effective coping strategies for the future.


Help all children, regardless of age, to understand loss and death - give the child information at the level he/she can understand.  Loss and death are both part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.


Encourage children to ask questions - adults need to be less anxious about not knowing all the answers.  Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find his or her own answers.


Don’t assume that children always grieve in an orderly or predictable way - there is no one “correct” way for people to move through the grieving process.


Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need - by giving them the time and encouragement to share may enable them to sort out their feelings.


Keep in mind that grief is hard - it is hard work for both adults and children.


Grief is complicated and needs understanding - every situation is different.


Be aware of your own need to grieve - you may need support as well to deal with the situation.

Developmental Phases in Understanding Death

It is important to recognize that all children are unique in their understanding or death and dying.  This understanding depends upon on their developmental level, cognitive skills, personality characteristics, religious or spiritual beliefs, teachings by parents and significant others, input from the media and previous experiences with death.  Nonetheless, there are some general considerations that will be helpful in understanding how children and adolescents experience and deal with death.


Preschoolers:  Young children (2-5) may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible.  They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition.  Preschool and early elementary children may link certain events and magical thinking with the causes of death.  [Olivia’s younger sister, Abby (6), was afraid to go into the ice rink afterwards as she imagined that there was water under the ice and she may fall through.]


Early Elementary School:  Children at this age (approximately 6-9) start to comprehend the finality of death.  They begin to see that certain circumstances may result in death.  They may not be able to differentiate between what they see on television and what might happen in their own neighborhood.


Middle School:  At this level children have the cognitive understanding to comprehend death as a final event.  They may not fully grasp the abstract concepts.  They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions which may include acting out or self-injurious behaviors as a means of coping with their anger, vengeance and despair.


High School:  Most teens fully grasp the meaning of death.  They may seek out friends and family for comfort or they may withdraw to deal with their grief.  Some teens may need more careful attention from home, school and skating during these difficult times.


I would like to dedicate this article to Olivia Nicole Clark as our hearts and prayers are with the family, relatives and friends.  We wear turquoise blue ribbons (her favorite color) in her memo



Resources to help you identify symptoms of severe stress and grief reactions are available at the National Association of School Psychologists website:


Webb, N.B. (1993) Helping Bereaved Children: A Handbook for Practitioners. New York: Guilford Press.


Helping Children Cope with Death, The Dougy Center for Grieving Children:


Gootman, M.E. (1994) When a friend dies: A book for teens about grieving and healing.  Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.


Wolfelt, A. (2001) Healing your grieving heart for kids.  Ft. Collins, CO: Companion.  (See also similar titles for teens and adults.)


¹ © 2003, National Association of School Psychologists.  4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814.