A teacher has died; a student has gone missing. Horrible, unexpected tragedy strikes every day. It disrupts our sense of safety and stability. It can make us feel like a train barreling down the tracks without any way to slow down. When these tragedies occur at school, whole communities are impacted and disrupted. DC schools have mental health teams who are well equipped to address the day-to-day needs of students. But grief and trauma are not day-to-day, they are exceptional and require specialized skills and expertise. When crisis strikes at DC schools and faculty call for help, the Wendt Center picks up the phone.
The Wendt Center deploys clinicians to work with faculty and school mental health teams following sudden tragedy. “The trauma that can come with death can make [school] clinicians feel unmoored,” says Melissa Sellevaag, Director of Training and Education at the Wendt Center. “They just don’t have enough of a foundation in [grief] to be able to know what they’re doing. When in reality you need to know that you can’t fix it. You can only sit and hold and witness.” That is what the Wendt Center does best.
The Wendt Center works with school faculty to ensure they are equipped to support their students. The first step in this process is often to help faculty regain some control over their reactions to the crisis. Clinicians accomplish this with a mixture of hands-on techniques; such as breathing, meditation, and grounding through attunement to cardinal senses. They also provide fundamental psychoeducation that normalizes and validates the feelings of faculty members.
Grief can often feel like your thoughts are out of control, like you’re losing your mind. Sellevaag explains, “what they’re experiencing is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation and [we make sure] they feel a little more grounded in this moment and into tomorrow and the next day.” Once school staff are stabilized, the Wendt Center then focuses on building the core competency of staff to work with their students to help them process their own difficult emotions.
The Wendt Center’s crisis response work is akin to first aid. Wendt Center clinicians provide immediate onsite support and offer ways for school staff to stabilize the situation. The Wendt Center, however, is also a resource for deeper information. Sellevaag recalls one school where, after receiving excellent help from the Wendt Center, sent their whole support staff to the Wendt Center’s Grief 101 training because they realized they hadn’t integrated grief into the training they provided for their own staff. They were so focused on student support, such as stressors related to grades, extracurricular activities, and daily home life, that they hadn’t really built the foundation of what loss looks like to their students.
The Wendt Center provides crisis responses for many different organizations, but, in 2019, 1 in 5 responses were for schools in the District of Columbia. Through crisis response work, training and education, and many other programs, the Wendt Center continues to educate the community about the realities of grief and trauma and to build a more resilient world.