How to: Help Your Students Deal with Grief and Loss
Kit Richert, Ph.D.
Each year children from every school will be faced with the death of a loved one, and will be forced to cope with loss while continuing their studies. How a child expresses grief will vary according to their developmental level, their concept of death, and their ability to self-assess and express feelings through language. Children may not be well supported at home in their grieving process, especially if their parents are not coping well. In fact, students may avoid sharing their feelings at home because they may not want to further upset their parents. These are important reasons to make your self available as a coping resource during school hours.
How Your Student May Grieve
Children experiencing an emotional crisis often will act more childlike, immature, and may exhibit separation anxiety when away from their parent. They may need to sleep in their parent’s bed or need to be held more often than they had previously. This is normal, and it is important to be tolerant of their regressive behavior. Grieving children should not be shamed or told to “grow up”.
Many children in crisis will seem detached from their feelings. It helps them manage their pain. However, behaviorally they will look like they are doing fine because they are not crying and emotional. As a result, many adults in their life will not check in with as frequently and they will not get as much support as they may need.
An increase in problem behavior, erratic or explosive emotions, difficulty concentrating, and work avoidance are all symptomatic of grief. Children may feel helpless, angry, scared, anxious, or frustrated. They make be seeking to increase control over their immediate environment because they feel so powerless over circumstances.
Children may have difficulty understanding or accepting the facts about a traumatic loss or event and may therefore need to ask the same questions again and again.
Developmental Differences in Understanding Death
Cognitive development, personality, religious education, media exposure, and family teaching will all influence your student’s understanding of death and terminal illness. Here are some overall developmental characteristics of death concepts.
Can perceive that their caregivers are sad but do not have a concept of death and what it means to die. However, it is false to think that they do not experience any loss.
May have an emergent death concept but integrate fantasy and false beliefs into the concept. For example, they may see death as reversible or as a temporary separation. They may also have false thinking about what causes death. For instance, if their parent dies of a heart attack while on a jog, they may develop the false belief that running is dangerous.
Can comprehend the permanence of death and have concrete understandings of events that cause death. However, they often cannot comprehend that they or their loved ones will experience death.
Have developed a complete death concept but may lack the ability to fully understand abstract concepts that are involved in certain causes of death. This age group is more at risk of acting out in ways that are self-injurious.
Teens will fully grasp all meanings and truths surrounding a death. Teens are at risk for self-injurious behavior and substance use as means of coping with strong feelings.
8 Ways to Help Your Grieving Student
• Give grieving students the opportunity to tell you what happened and how they feel.
• Encourage them to work with you to make modifications and accommodations to their schoolwork. This will help them voice what they need and how they are feeling. Grieving is a process. Make sure you are patient and give them adequate time to resume a normal workflow. Putting too much pressure on them too quickly may result in an emotional breakdown or school avoidance.
• Don’t distort the truth or lie to kids about tragedy. Children will often see through lies and will feel more alone and confused with their feelings because they know you don’t want to talk with them about the truth. Knowing the truth will help kids begin to heal because they have a complete understanding of events.
• Encourage children to ask questions about death or the traumatic loss. Often if things are not discussed, children will create their own, inaccurate interpretations of events. For example if a child’s parent commits suicide, the child may falsely decide that they caused it somehow. Helping children understand the event will insure that their interpretations are accurate, as painful as the truth may be.
• Understand that we all grieve differently. There is no right or wrong way to do it. There may be a great deal of anger, the need for vengeance, and an ongoing sense of worry for your student. Always remember that it is hard work for your student to grieve. You are only able to be helpful in supporting them in their process.
• Encourage “active coping” techniques, which refers to taking action to seek out help when one is hurting. Be straightforward with your student that you really want to understand what they need and how they are feeling. Give them time and encouragement since they often may not be able to express themselves or let you know what they need right away.
• Connect them with a place to go outside the classroom if they become upset. This may be the school psychologist or counselors office, the librarian, whoever seems like they will be most helpful. Let the student know they are free to leave the class whenever they feel like they need space.
• Make sure you manage your own grief appropriately. The death of a student, teacher, or staff member can affect you as well as your students. Keep in mind that you need to take care of yourself as well, and if you need to miss school or take time to get help yourself, you will be much more effective at helping your students in the long run. Remember that they are learning from your response. It is perfectly appropriate to cry softly with your students or express your sadness, but if you become hysterical it may be more upsetting for them. Go through your own process but make sure to take time away if you are not okay.
How to Encourage Other Students to Help a Grieving Friend
• Make sure to clarify their understanding of the event in the life of their friend.
• Reassure them that their own families are safe.
• Be aware that children that have experienced loss may be triggered by their friend’s loss; they may need support in coping with painful memories.
• Talk to students about how to give condolences to their friend. Tell them what to say and what not to say. Help them make cards or write letters.
• Prepare children that their friend may act differently for a while.
• Encourage them to play with their grieving friend, and that doing fun things after school may be a welcome distraction.
Dealing with death is a difficult, but inevitable part of being a teacher. You are in a position to be of immense help to your class and teaching them healthy coping skills.