Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Wyoming hurting

High achievers learning to live with loss


Wyoming High School is used to its highs - high academic achievement, high rankings in sports, high levels of community support, high graduation rates.

But underneath all this success, Wyoming High is hurting.

One of its graduates died in an auto accident during spring break; another died in a climbing accident last summer. Two of its prominent parents died recently from illnesses.

And just before spring break, one of its popular seniors attempted suicide.

So what would normally be private pain, kept within families, has become public anguish permeating this close-knit, upper-class city of social and academic achievers.

Most of Wyoming High's 680 students have lived in the community their whole lives.

Their parents are mostly professionals and business executives, yet many give all their free time to the school.

The school consistently wins "excellent" ratings from the state. Two of its students made perfect SAT and ACT scores this year.

Many Wyoming kids are involved in at least two extracurricular activities. The school's sports teams are on track for a regional All Sports award, for the third straight year.

'No handbook for grief'

But the school's greatest challenge this year is helping kids deal with tragedy, says Brooke Hill, a parent of two high school students.

"Everybody knows everybody here," she says. "There's no handbook for grief. It's tough enough for adults.''

Just before spring break, a senior on the wrestling team hanged himself. He was found at home and has not regained consciousness. He is receiving hospice care.

Family members went to the school and spoke with the boy's teammates. Two weeks ago, the school and the boy's church youth group held a prayer service for him and his family. More than 200 people attended.

Students continue to visit his bedside. They're also are planning a student-run concert of "healing and celebration" on April 28 at 2 p.m. at the high school.

Pain in public

Ken Baker, Wyoming High's principal, says students have to face their pain and parents need help to help them.

"One of the facts about being a teenager is you don't talk," Baker says. "A lot of our kids are carrying a lot of baggage around right now that they're not talking about."

The school is helping the community heal, he says, by pulling the lid off private pain and making it public.

Thursday at 7 p.m., Wyoming High will host a meeting for parents, students and the community. A Talbert House crisis team will discuss the differences between grief and serious depression.

The prom is Friday night.

"How do you get things back on track?" Baker asks.

"Everybody wants things to get back to normal. Well, normal has changed."

Parents received a three-page letter last week with suggestions for helping teens discuss loss.

It advises parents to listen with empathy and avoid giving advice. It also warns parents that they'll feel helpless, too, when faced with their children's sorrow.

"Although you can't take away their pain, don't underestimate how much a hug can mean," the letter states.

This has been an unusually heavy year for high schools throughout the Tristate. Too many have lost students to car accidents, shootings and other tragedies.

One lesson Baker says he hopes school leaders learn is that they must give top priority to students' grief. Schools can help students learn from it and move on.

E-mail, or call 768-8395.

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