Community helps teens deal with grief

Counselors, family, friends form support net as school suffers loss of two students

October 16, 2005|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Just weeks into her sophomore year at Westminster High, Brittany Costley, 15, has all the typical concerns of a teenager, but she also is grappling with an especially heavy burden: coming to terms with the recent deaths of two classmates.

Both were friends, and she lost them to two deadly car crashes that occurred exactly a month apart, the most recent one about a week and a half ago.

Though her mother begged her not to go to the first funeral - for 16-year-old Zachary D. Ondrish - Brittany insisted she needed to be there. But, as her mother had feared, the funeral was too overwhelming.

When Brittany lost another friend, 16-year-old Bethany "Beth" Shay Green, she decided she couldn't bear another funeral - especially so soon.

"It's hard losing one person, and this was one right after the other," said Brittany, who added that she had a panic attack after Zachary's viewing. "It's just too hard to deal with now."

While most teenagers are susceptible to a false sense of invulnerability, Brittany and the nearly 1,900 students at Westminster High have experienced a rude awakening: Death happens, and it can happen anytime and to anyone - including the young.

"It has been really hard," Brittany said. "This has affected everyone. ... In school, you hear kids saying they don't want to get their driver's licenses, they don't want to drive."

Brittany said that although she is excited about getting her learner's permit at the end of the month, she, too, has recently developed qualms about getting behind the wheel.

"It just makes you think that you could be in an accident at any time, and it doesn't even have to be your fault," she said.

Bethany, a varsity volleyball player who was on her way home from a game, lost control of her car Oct. 5 when she missed the curve on a windy, unlit road and veered off the right side of the road, state police said.

Her car struck a utility pole, trapping her inside the vehicle, police said. Her parents, who had been a few cars behind her, came upon the scene soon after and attempted to help pull her from the wreckage.

The accident was reminiscent of the Sept. 5 crash that claimed Zachary's life and injured three other Westminster High students when the Jeep Wrangler they were riding in veered off a sharply curving road in Finksburg and plowed into a tree.

As Brittany and her classmates sort out their feelings and try to put the tragedies into perspective, local educators and crisis counselors are focused on helping students deal with the deaths and return to a sense of normality.

"We understand that things will never be the same," said Barbara Guthrie, supervisor of guidance for the school system. "But [the tragedies] can be incorporated into their lives. ... We acknowledge their pain and help them understand that death is a part of life."

Guthrie, who helped develop the school system's crisis-response plan, said each school has a team of crisis counselors who work with students one-on-one and in groups. At Westminster High, the crisis team comprises about 10 counselors - including the school's guidance counselors.

Crisis counselors maintain contact with students, parents and teachers throughout the year to make sure that students are receiving the attention they need, she said.

"When students see that we are there and know that we have a plan [for helping them], it gives them a sense of security," said Judy Klinger, chairwoman of the guidance department at Westminster High. Klinger was recently named to replace Guthrie, who plans to retire this month.

Guthrie said the school system has had crisis teams since 1982 - starting with a group of four counselors, including herself. Since then, crisis teams of varying sizes have been stationed at each of the county's schools.

Many students - including Brooke Richardson, 16, who played on Westminster's junior varsity basketball team last year with Bethany - have found the crisis teams helpful, but say they are also drawing on support from their peers.

"We've been experiencing this together," Brooke said. "You know [your peers] can relate because it's a shared experience."

Brooke, who attended Bethany's viewing, said her friend's death has made her more appreciative of those around her.

"It has made me prioritize more what's important in life. All the pettiness seems to dissolve," said Brooke, who had known Bethany since kindergarten when they played T-ball on opposing teams. "You never know if you're going to see [your loved ones] again; you never know what's going to happen. ... I'm making more of an effort to get along with everyone."

Brooke said that when she and her friends talk about Bethany's death, they try to focus on positive memories rather than become consumed with the negative feelings.

"We reflect on the good times," she said. "We decided to honor her death by living our lives more fully. It's OK to mourn, it's OK to cry. ... But it's better to remember when she was alive than when she died."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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