For these MPS students, an important life lesson is understanding death

NOW: For these MPS students, an important life lesson is understanding death

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- For more than 600 Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students, a very different kind of lesson is part of their schedule.

The district offers grief counseling services to students who've recently lost a loved one. Christopher Gerou, a leader of those counseling efforts, bluntly describes it as "death education."

Gerou explains at just about any school, the curriculum is largely what you'd expect. He believes the value of his work is teaching a universal lesson that, for some students, is even more important.

"We learn about art, we learn about history, we learn about social sciences," Gerou said. "We learn about everything, but we also have to learn about death. Death is something that we all have to go through."

Gerou works in small groups settings with students from across the district. In total, Gerou estimated he's worked with about 635 students over the past three years, averaging a little more than 200 students in the counseling program per school year.

"At one school, I might have, say, 50 kids," he said. "And I might be at another school and have 100 kids."

Two of those students, Leah Orengo and Zamaya Gallegos, just finished their junior years at Hamilton High School. Both said when guidance counselors sent out a list of programs and activities, they immediately selected the "grief counseling" sessions.

Gallegos said she was put as ease during the first session because the group was small, and she knew the people who were in it.

"It was familiar faces, not knowing that what they're going through, I'm going through the exact same thing," she said.

As Gallegos heard the other students tell their stories, she wasn't sure she belonged. Her grandfather, Moises, passed away five years ago.

While she described her grandfather as her best friend, she noticed other students in the group, like Orengo, had lost parents more recently.

"I thought that my situation wasn't as important as theirs," Gallegos said. "ut the girls let me know, and Mr. G. and my counselor let me know, 'Your situation is important, and it equals to what our situation is, too.'"

Oregno lost her father, Hector, a little more than a year ago. She knew she needed outside help to handle the pain.

"I would just put my emotions inside. I felt like I had to be strong all the time," Orenga said. "I dealt with it but, like, not in a good way."

Orenga said she began to feel a sense of relief almost immediately in the group sessions. She specifically cited the second day, when the students shared more of the details about the loved ones they'd lost.

"We all started sharing our stories, and everyone listened to my story, told me to take my time," she said.

Gerau says one cornerstone of this course is the understanding grief is much more than sadness, especially for young people.

"You have anger. You have guilt," Gerau said. "You have a sense of loss that is, 'How do I understand what is going on?'"

Orengo admitted to having that anger. She was close with her father, and his unexpected death sent her reeling. During the hour-long group interview session for this story, she never felt comfortable enough discussing her father's cause of death.

"I didn't like seeing other people with their dads or when other people would talk about their dads," she said. "I wasn't comfortable because I mostly thought, like, 'why are you talking about your dad when you know mine is not here, not present?'"

While Orengo dealt with anger, Gallegos confronted the thing that kept her from having a sense of closure; she wasn't in the room when her grandfather took his final breath.

"Me wanting that closure of being there with him or holding his hand," she said. "Or, you know, just being in the same room, that would've gave me what I needed."

Both students said they have a ways to go on their healing journeys. Gallegos still has not gone back to Tiefenthaler Park, the place she frequented with her grandfather.

Gallegos said part of her reasoning is the trouble that sometimes happens at the park, but she also knows there's more to it than that.

"I don't know. Like, maybe reliving some of those memories I had," she said. "I'm not open to 'em yet."

But over the course of 16 weeks, there has been a lot of progress. Gallegos said she can talk about her grandfather and her emotions in a way she wasn't able to before.

"They know I'm in this group," she said. "And so, I think them seeing me feel like a weight lifted off my shoulder."

Orengo said her most valuable takeaway from the course is freedom. At first, her emotions were often based on what she thought she was supposed to feel.

"I feel more in control of my emotions knowing I don't have to be sad all the time or I don't have to force myself to be happy," she said. "I can be happy or be sad if I want to be sad."

However, one thing this group cannot control is budgets. During the district's beleaguered budget process, seven trauma specialist positions were eliminated in former Superintendent Keith Posley's proposed budget.

Gerou got notice his position was among those on the chopping block.

Gerou's testimony at a public hearing captivated the audience; one person yielded their time to let Gerou   finish explaining the value of his work.

The message appears to have gotten to board members. During the amendment stage, three trauma specialist positions were restored, and Gerou is optimistic his will be one of them. The board is scheduled to vote next week on passage of a final budget.

No matter what comes next, Gerou believes there are now hundreds of Milwaukee students better prepared for life because of how they are confronting death.

"And that's why what I do is very intense," he said. "But it also is very rewarding at so many levels."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been changed to clarify Gerou estimates he's worked with about 635 MPS students over the last three years.

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