When Diana Creaser walked through the Montclair High School doors for the first day of her freshman year, she did not yet know what the next four years would hold. 

But she soon heard news that would shape her entire high school experience. 

The same day, her mother received a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer. 

“From 2019 to 2022, my life and schooling were defined and surrounded by my mother's cancer treatment,” the senior said at the Nov. 14 Montclair Board of Education meeting. 

Creaser’s mother, Mary Curtin Creaser, died in May.

And during those three years, as Diana Creaser balanced her mother’s diagnosis and treatment with school, she did not receive “any meaningful support” from her teachers, she said.

“I left school for two weeks to care for my Mom in her last week of life and to grieve her death,” she said at the meeting. “As I prepared for my return to MHS, I was an extremely different person, as are so many students when they return to school after a traumatizing experience. But when I walked through the doors of MHS, I've never felt more alone.”

No teacher or counselor reached out to her upon her return to meet and talk with her, she said.

“My first class of the day, instead of being showered with condolences from my teachers and friends, I was ignored and told to immediately create a plan with how I would make up my missed work,” Creaser said.

She, her father, Thomas, and parent Montserrat Kim spoke at the Nov. 14 meeting in support of the district’s working with Imagine, a Mountainside, N.J.-based grief support center for children and young adults.

The organization offers training for districts and schools to become “grief-informed,” with curriculums for students, school staff and parents focused on recognizing loss, understanding coping skills and learning how to support students through their grief. 

The district is not currently working with Imagine, but Maggie Shaver-Dock, the mental health/anti-bullying coordinator, has spoken with the organization, David Cantor, executive director of communications and community engagement, said.

“We hope to work together in the future,” Cantor said. “We've also met and hope to work with trauma-sensitive therapy practices.”

Earlier this school year, Montclair High School staff participated in a professional development session with Grief Speaks, and the district plans to hold additional workshops, Cantor said.

“It's always critical for a school district to be informed by and sensitive to the various needs of families and staff,” he said. “The pandemic heightened that need, of course. More than ever, we've had to be attuned to the short and long-term impact of isolation, loss and trauma.”

While Montclair High School has nine school counselors, four student assistance counselors and one restorative justice teacher on special assignment, Diana Creaser did not receive help upon her return to school, she said.

“The lack of support for grieving students is unacceptable,” she said.

By working with Imagine, the district could equip staff with the tools they need to support their students, Creaser said. 

“The training provided by Imagine to make Montclair a grief-informed district could benefit so many students for years to come,” she said. “Teachers would finally receive the training they need on grief and loss, along with strategies for how to support grieving students and co-workers, so that no student has to go through what I did upon my return to school after the death of my Mom.” 

According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, one in 13 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or a sibling by the age of 18. The model was developed by bereavement groups the New York Life Foundation and Judi’s House/JAG Institute.

Studies have found that the death of a loved one can have a profoundly negative impact on academic performance, lowering a student’s ability to concentrate and learn, and student mental health, leading to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

“Grief is complicated,” Thomas Creaser said at the meeting. “In our experience with cancer, grief began with the diagnosis, but then grief continues after a student loses a loved one.”

Grief spans academic years, he said — his daughter’s grief did not disappear at the end of her junior year after attending her mother’s funeral. 

And with each new year come new teachers without an understanding of a student’s background. When Diana Creaser started school in September, her teachers were unaware of her mother’s death four months earlier.

“It's extremely worthwhile for the district to invest in an initiative that trains teachers on how to more effectively interact and empathize with students grieving due to traumatic experiences in their lives,” Thomas Creaser said. “Had such a program been established in the past, Diana would have had much better support during an extremely difficult time in her life.” 

He also recommended a system where guidance counselors share a student’s background with the student’s new slate of teachers following a traumatic loss.

For Kim, instituting training for staff to learn how to help grieving students is essential. 

In 2017 her husband, George, received a diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer. At the time of diagnosis, their younger daughter, Nola, was 6 years old, and their older daughter, Kerala, was 10. Two years later, George Kim died.

Montserrat and George Kim with their daughters Nola, left, and Kerala during a family holiday in 2015. After George Kim died in 2019, Nola and Kerala were lucky to have understanding teachers, their mother said. (COURTESY MONTSERRAT KIM)
Montserrat and George Kim with their daughters Nola, left, and Kerala during a family holiday in 2015. After George Kim died in 2019, Nola and Kerala were lucky to have understanding teachers, their mother said. (COURTESY MONTSERRAT KIM)

Unlike Diana Creaser’s experience, Nola and Kerala received support from their teachers. 

“They were lucky, I think, because they had some exceptional teachers at that time,” Kim said. “But I don't think students should have to be lucky. I think this should be something that is standardized across our district.”

Many people think that grieving lasts only a year or two, said Nola, a seventh grade student at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.

“I know from my experience that it doesn’t work that way,” Nola said. “It would be great for teachers to be grief-educated so that they can help students year after year — not just right after someone dies.”

Having a process for dealing with student loss and training teachers about grief would benefit all future students, she said. 

“Death is one of the worst things to talk about,” Kim said. “But when we don't talk about these things, they get worse. They get bigger and they get harder.”

Between 40 to 50 kids in each grade will lose a parent or sibling during their adolescence, said Kerala, a tenth grader at Montclair High School.

"No one becomes a teacher, a public servant, unless they want to help children grow, both academically and emotionally,” she said. “In order to help teachers help students, they need training in grief counseling."

And the training will help more than just students, Kim said. In reaching out to her daughters’ teachers about their father’s death over the years, Kim has often received replies from teachers sharing their own grief or loss. 

“When I told them about losing my husband, they responded with, ‘Oh, I understand, I lost my mom recently,’” Kim said. “We're all human, and we are all dealing with this.”

While Kim does reach out to teachers about her husband’s death, “not every parent can,” she said.

“It's so hard to write those emails,” she said. “It's really hard to have to say it over and over again.”

Montclair is good at talking about tough subjects and not shying away from difficult things, she said. Arming staff with grief training should not be shied away from, she added. 

“Before having experienced this, I would have thought grief moved in some type of linear process, you move forward and through it, and that’s so incredibly wrong,” Kim said. 

“It goes this way and that way. And there are moments that you feel like everything's going pretty strong. And then there are times that it's like thin ice and it's just broken all around you.”

Kerala took biology last year as a freshman, and one day in class they started talking about cells and malignant cells, Kim said. 

“All of a sudden, from that, she started to understand cancer and what had happened to her Dad,” she said. “You can imagine what that was like for her to understand on that level. It's important for her to understand that, but without her teacher knowing what was going on, it was really hard to understand her reaction.”