Suggestions for Teachers and School Counselors
Teachers, classmates, and school personnel make up a child’s “second family.” They, too, feel pain and a sense of helplessness when a member of that family dies or experiences the death of a sibling. These guidelines have been prepared by bereaved parents, surviving children, school personnel, and professional caregivers in an effort to aid those in a school setting who want to help when a child dies, regardless of the cause.
The Grief of Children
There is no road map for a child to follow when he or she is grieving the loss of a sibling or classmate. Children are apt to bottle up their feelings around adults, especially adults who also are grieving. Students who have suffered the death of a brother or sister are often referred to as the “forgotten mourners” because so much attention is paid to the parents of the child who has died. Students who have a classmate die may feel the same way, depending on the level of support received both at home and at school. As a result, their actions and behavior in the classroom and with other children may reflect this. While no one can know what children are thinking, cues can be taken from their behavior.
You may notice many different reactions: withdrawal, aggressiveness, anger, panic, anxiety, guilt, fear, regression, and symptoms of bodily distress. Observe, and exercise patience and understanding.
When children are grieving, they have shortened attention spans and may have trouble concentrating, which in turn will affect their schoolwork.
While children might attempt to deny feelings of anger, hurt, and fear by repressing them, eventually grief takes over and their feelings leak out. Children have to reestablish a self-identity, whether because of their changed families at home or their changed “second families” at school.
Perceptions of Death
A child’s understanding of death changes with age and experience. Preschool- and kindergarten-age children usually see death as temporary. Those ages 6 to 8 generally understand the child will not return and death is universal (it could happen to me). Children ages 9 to 12 do understand the reality of death and may be curious about the biological aspects of death. Children 13 years of age and older fully understand the concept of death and perceive death on an adult level and will mourn accordingly.
Understanding Feelings of Grief
When a student or a brother or sister of a student dies, teachers should examine their own feelings about death and grief. Share your feelings with the children within your class. Know that it’s okay to cry, be sad or angry, and even smile. Children cannot be shielded from death and grief, and a thoughtful approach taken in the classroom can help them in the future.
If a student seeks you out to talk, be available and really listen. Hear with your ears, your eyes, and your heart. A warm hug says, “I know what happened and I care. I am here if you need me.”
Be open and honest with your feelings. Create an atmosphere of open acceptance that invites questions and fosters confidence that you are concerned.
Encourage children to express their grief openly, but in ways that are not disruptive to the class or damaging to other students. Acknowledge the reality that grief hurts, but do not attempt to rescue the child (or the class, or yourself) from that pain. Be supportive and available to classmates who may want to know how they can help.
Provide a quiet, private place where a student may go whenever he or she feels a need to be alone. Almost anything that happens in the classroom may trigger tears. Respect the need that students have to grieve while helping classmates realize that grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss.
Help students to recognize that death is a natural part of life. Use such opportunities as a fallen leaf, a wilted flower, and the death of an insect, bird, or class pet to discuss death as a part of the life cycle. Explore feelings about death, loss, and grief through books while fostering discussions as a classroom family.
Grief in the Classroom
Remember that the class functions as a group, and sharing grief may benefit the entire class. Thus, students can be exposed to death in a safe and caring atmosphere where the grieving children find people who are compassionate and supportive.
When a student has lost a sibling, try not to single out the grieving child for special privileges or compensations. While this is tempting, the student needs to feel a part of the peer group and should be expected to function accordingly. Temper your expectations with kindness and understanding, but continue to expect the student to function.
If possible, meet with a few of the bereaved student’s friends to help them cope and explore how to be supportive. Friends often feel uncomfortable and awkward in their attempts to make contact.
Help a bereaved student find a supportive peer group. Oftentimes there are other students within the school or school district who are coping with similar losses. An invitation to share with each other might be welcome.
For the School Counselor
Oftentimes schools have difficulty acknowledging and handling the death of a student or a student's sibling from an "unacceptable cause," such as suicide or drugs. No matter the cause, siblings still feel grief from the loss, as do students. It's important for school personnel including counselors to be supportive, no matter the circumstances.
Be open to ways of providing this support. Make available books and bereavement materials that can help the students and teachers to explore their feelings of loss.
Encourage classes to find ways to remember a classmate who has died or to support one of their own when a sibling has died. Encourage not only classroom discussions but also expressions of grief, such as a display of poems, pictures, or drawings. Other ways to remember a student or a sibling may be for a class to prepare cards for the family, create a memory book, plant a remembrance tree, or create some other type of memorial. Yearbooks can have a remembrance page, and graduation ceremonies may include in some way a student who has died. Do something to acknowledge the death, thus giving students permission to do the same.
It can mean a lot to the family and community when you reach out to the parents of a student who died to explore ways that the school might help in the remembrance of the child. While this gesture could be met with tears, know that they will be tears of gratitude and that your offer of support will always be remembered by the family. As the weeks, months, and years pass, children and young people will continue to deal with the death of a family member as they grow and mature. Continue to be available, to reach out and to care, just as you do now.
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Craig Handy, Andy Cameron, Leslie Crawford, Adam Stull,
and all the children of our chapter.
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