Reaching Out to Grieving Students - ASCD
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October 1, 1997

Reaching Out to Grieving Students

Educators who understand the grief process and its manifestations in children can provide the continuity, security, and support that grieving students so desperately need.

A child is shot; students are killed in an automobile accident; a teacher collapses and dies after trying to break up a school brawl. "Counselors have been called in and are available to students and teachers," reporters write. End of story.

But the true stories of losses don't end with the arrival of counseling teams for these highly visible and traumatic deaths. The real struggles surface in the weeks, months, and even years of recovery from these traumas and the equally painful, but not so newsworthy, losses that school-age children experience.

Each year, millions of children and adolescents grieve the death of a loved one—a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or friend. Young people also grieve other important losses, ranging from the death of a pet to the break-up of families. As one 8-year-old confided, About two years ago, I had three losses in my immediate family in the same year. First, my rabbit died; then, two weeks later, my grandfather died; then, six weeks later, my grandmother died.

A once talkative 4th grader exhibits a fairly common response to the death of her mother from multiple sclerosis. She diligently completes her work, but rarely interacts with her classmates. Equally common is a former A student who, six months after his father's death from cancer, has falling grades, a belligerent attitude, and a dismal attendance record.

Keen and Complex Emotions

Because they spend so much time interacting with students, teachers, administrators, school counselors, and school nurses play a vital role in helping students understand and survive the grieving experience. As a first step, these professionals need to understand grief and its manifestations in children.

For youngsters no less than adults, grief is a keen and complex emotional experience that includes fear, anger, relief, despair, peace, guilt, numbness, agitation, and sorrow. Children, in particular, may feel abandonment and a loss of security and control in their lives. Each person grieves differently, and this is especially true for children. In The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide (1992), the American Hospice Foundation's Director of Training, Helen Fitzgerald, notes: Children haven't had many of the experiences life has to offer, nor are they cognitively able to understand death as we do. Thus they grieve without the same level of comprehension of what is happening to them, for they have not had the experience of the finality that accompanies someone's death.

Like adults, children don't work through their grief on a predictable timetable. As Fitzgerald points out, young people may grieve intensely, but sporadically. A major loss in early childhood can reverberate through the years as the person progresses through life's milestones—first date, graduation, marriage, and parenthood.

Teachers are role models for students, especially for older students. But like many people in our society, teachers often feel uncomfortable discussing death and loss. This reluctance can adversely affect the children in their charge, who look to their teachers for truth, knowledge, and support. At times of death loss, it is particularly important that teachers, administrators, and counselors be emotionally available to their students.

In her training sessions, Fitzgerald asks teachers to develop a "Death History Information Sheet" to get in touch with their own feelings and attitudes about loss. She asks teachers questions such as "What was your age at the time of your first death experience?" "What feelings do you remember?" "How did adults respond?" and "What changes would you make if you could re-experience that event?"

The Ages of Grief

Teachers need to understand how students of different ages respond to grief and how to manage the classroom while addressing these students' needs. In the me-centered world of the early years, children may feel responsible for a loved one's illness or death. They may think that their misbehavior or a "bad" thought caused the crisis. Reality has not yet replaced this magical thinking, and young children see unpleasant events like death as avoidable or reversible. They may believe that they can do something to bring back a loved one.

In addition to acting-out behaviors like tantrums, grieving children may have physical symptoms, such as eating or sleeping problems or bladder or bowel disturbances. They may also exhibit fears and separation anxiety. Teachers should be vigilant because children's play and art may reflect the confusion and emotion they are feeling.

From mid-primary years to adolescence, children begin to understand that death is real, yet it still seems remote. They can portray their grief in drawings and in play and they may pose lots of questions. Still, they generally will not contemplate the death of a family member or their own mortality until shocked by that reality. The shock that older children in this age range experience often gives way to intense sadness. They may regress to immature behavior or act out. Or, they may behave too well. Indeed, behavior that is too good from a child who has suffered a loss can be an important sign of emotional difficulties.

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to loss. In the best of times, the early teen years are marked by rapid change and many losses. This period is a time of intense feelings when anger is commonly manifested in tantrums, defiance, or withdrawal. For young teens, peer reaction is especially important; they rarely seek help from parents or family. Consequently, when a parent dies, especially if the death is sudden, there may be unfinished business because of the tensions between the teenager and the parent. It is not uncommon for grief to affect the adolescent's school behavior and even lead to inappropriate coping mechanisms like substance abuse, impulsive-compulsive behavior, promiscuity, and car accidents.

What Grieving Children Need to Do

Grief thoughts and feelings are continuous and ever changing, inundating bereaved children's lives like waves on the ocean. These thoughts and feelings may arrive without warning, and children feel unprepared for their enormity in a school setting. How can teachers help? By recognizing that these children often need to do the following:

  • They need to acknowledge a parent or sibling who died by using his or her name or by sharing a memory.

  • They need to tell their story over and over again.

  • They need to use tools such as drawing, writing, role-playing, and re-enactment to safely project feelings and thoughts about their loss.

  • They need to be allowed to go to a safe place outside the classroom when overwhelming feelings arise, without explaining why in front of classmates.

  • They need to call their surviving parent during the school day or visit the school nurse for reassurance that they and their family are okay. Such reality checks counteract children's preoccupation with their own health and the health of their loved ones.

  • They need physical ways (like memory books) to reexperience and share memories in a safe way.

Adapted from Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief: Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence, and Abuse by Linda Goldman (Washington, D.C.: Taylor and Francis, 1996). Copyright © 1997 by Linda Goldman.

Front Line Training for Teachers

In an overburdened school system, guidance counselors and school psychologists cannot devote enough time to every student in pain. One way to ease this burden is to provide grief training for those on the front line: the teachers. Teachers are uniquely positioned to guide grieving students and their classmates. They can help students acknowledge loss by giving them permission to cry or show sadness. They can provide the continuity and security of a safe place that a grieving student may desperately need. A firm hand that establishes boundaries may be a comforting one, and consistency can be a sign of normalcy in a student's off-balance life. Teachers are also objective observers of children's behavior, and grief training can make teachers more alert to extreme grief-related responses that may require professional help.

One such grief training program is Kids Grieve Too, developed by Hospice of Washington (D.C.) for teachers, administrators, and school counselors. Marlena Brown-Tumlin, the bereavement coordinator, offers the program in several schools in the Washington metropolitan area to help these staff members detect grief and address related problems before they escalate into serious disciplinary actions or poor classroom performance. The program delves into the grieving process and specific classroom interventions. The training also helps teachers make appropriate referrals for students who need more help.

After grief training, teachers are more apt to recognize grief as the root cause of a student's deepening isolation or more pronounced acting-out behavior and to connect grief to dropping grades, problems with classmates, or the use of profanity. Grief training may also heighten a teacher's awareness of the dangers of a student's preoccupation with, or idealizing of, violence or death or suicidal thoughts. And the training gives teachers a better understanding of the reasons for unusually good behavior and a relentless need to please.

Recommendations for Reaching Out

  • Use teaching moments, such as the change in seasons, to make the student—and particularly the younger student—aware of the cycles of life.

  • Prepare classmates of a student who has suffered a loss by talking about what they can do to help. If Suzie starts crying, her classmates might say, "I'm sorry your father died" or offer a handkerchief. (In The Grieving Child, Fitzgerald notes that youngsters "are not born with the knowledge of how to be supportive of one another." These experiences provide them with important lessons.)

  • Talk with a parent or other caregiver before the child returns to school to find out how the child is reacting at home and, as a result, what to convey to classmates about how to respond to the child. Once the child returns to school, keep the parent informed of the child's progress.

  • Offer grieving students opportunities to express their grief nonverbally, such as by creating a dance or a drawing.

  • Be alert for signs of distress and inappropriate behavior. You are responsible for all the students in your classroom, and order is important to them, as it is particularly important to the grieving student. Be firm if the student is disruptive, but also provide quiet moments when the student can talk about feelings he or she is experiencing.

  • Refer students who need additional help to individual or group counseling. Local hospices offer bereavement support groups for young people, and some even set up groups at schools.

Fitzgerald notes that school support groups can be particularly helpful in high schools. Teenagers are more receptive to group sessions in familiar territory and often are unwilling to commit themselves to sessions away from school. In addition, school-based support groups save parents the trouble of transporting their children to and from the group.

Fitzgerald recommends scheduling school groups once a week at different times so that they don't affect any one class period. She also acknowledges a major difficulty with school support groups: They usually coincide with the school year and therefore may end at a critical point in a child's healing.

Hospice Educators in California

Even if a school system is unwilling or unable to undertake in-depth grief training for employees, community bereavement programs, such as local hospices, may provide occasional or ongoing support. Although such training will be less intensive, it can yield substantial dividends.

The Hospice of the North Coast in San Diego County is one example. In response to a survey showing that community members greatly desired more information on grief, hospice staff developed an outreach program for local primary and secondary schools. They begin with 25-minute inservice programs at regularly scheduled staff meetings at the school. Presenters outline what school personnel can expect from grieving children and how they can help, as well as how hospice services can be helpful. The hospice staff offers interactive classroom sessions and support groups for grieving children.

The impact of the hospice's training program has been dramatic and immediate. In less than four months, district teachers and counselors referred more than 50 students for counseling. Scrambling to meet the overwhelming demand for support groups, the hospice staff was forced to place students on a waiting list. Laura Behm, the hospice's children's program coordinator, observes that teachers in the sessions are looking for answers to a host of questions. For example, one teacher had a student who had lost a parent four months earlier and was still crying in the classroom. The teacher didn't know what to say. She was afraid to discuss the death and make the child feel worse. At the training session she learned how to address the issue directly and how to create a supportive environment in which the class could participate.

The hospice training sessions help bridge what Behm calls "the discomfort zone"—that awkward place where a teacher struggles to find the right words. At the end of the training, teachers reported a new confidence in talking with both grieving students and parents. They gained new insights, practical classroom strategies, and useful materials.

One testimonial came from the 8-year-old who had lost his rabbit and grandparents. After a classroom session on dealing with a loss, he was moved to write a thank-you letter: I appreciated you sharing the story about the kid who lost his grandparent. . . . I was glad to know that I really wasn't going crazy, that everyone feels like that when someone dies. Our family didn't have counsilling (sic) or anything, so I had no idea whether I had a weird problem or not . . . . I learned that the best way to get a problem to go away is to talk it out with someone.

Understanding the grief process, recognizing grief that may be progressing dangerously out of control, and knowing how to reach out through gestures and conversation are skills that every educator should possess. In most communities, the training and technical assistance to help educators acquire or hone these skills are readily available. Helping our young people deal with their losses can be as crucial to a happy, productive future as any English, history, or science lesson can be.

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