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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 6

School Bereavement

In a school, the death of a parent is a community tragedy. Caring for the bereaved student requires a generous investment of time and heart.

It is mid-August. I gradually reenter the school year: tuning and retuning schedules, speaking with returning teachers, reviewing enrollment and maintenance progress. Quickly, I warm to these familiar faces and routines. I feel new vision and planning begin to take root. Abruptly, a phone call shatters the hum: A parent gives me the startling news that a mother of a child in our division has just died of cancer.
With this phone call, community bereavement begins. I slip into my administrative role even before I allow myself to respond emotionally, and I envision what can be done to support the child and family while guiding and sustaining classmates, faculty, and parents. I consider how to extend my role as division head to initiate and model this nurturance, how to act as the school's ambassador and identify the support for our community. I'm aware that this tragedy will resonate beyond those who know the family personally and that how the news is disseminated is crucial.
In recent years, I've learned the ropes of sensitive and supportive communication. Over and again, I've helped our school cope with loss, specifically parent death, and discovered that most often the process knits our school community more closely together. Expertise, advice, and practical help crossed lines in times of crisis. We pooled our resources and gave and accepted support.
In our school, loss had a unique set of circumstances and dynamics, drawing on the emotional and practical resources of our community in a different way. We've mourned lingering illness, complications from a difficult operation, the swift hand of cancer, and violent death. Twice children lost both parents within a year, and twice our community addressed parental suicide—tragedies similar only in their legacy of irreparable loss. For those of us working with the children, bereavement stops us short and rapidly reshuffles priorities.

One School's Answer

We rely on our school's history to guide us in times of crisis. As a progressive institution, we address the whole child and, by extension, the whole community. Teachers weave interpersonal and emotional issues into their students' everyday classroom experience. Regular classroom meetings foster active discussion and consideration of the points of view, feelings, and opinions of others. Students learn to be group thinkers and grow comfortable grappling with complex issues.
The adult community is strong at our school. Parent-administrator discourse is collaborative and lively, often intimate and occasionally heated. Among parent groups, there is a dynamic akin to that of an old neighborhood that welcomes newcomers, celebrates those who move on, and comes together around pertinent issues. The constancy of these relationships accelerates our work together in times of crisis, permitting us to drop our agenda in the interest of supporting the bereaved. Parents divide responsibilities. Teachers coordinate their efforts with parents, make frequent home visits, allocate special school meeting times, and even prepare meals for the bereaved student's family.
Our school psychologist has been an initial and ongoing source of support. Her participation is both compassionate and constructive. Her wisdom and psychological perspective have helped me grieve privately before the faculty and I reach outward and weave the fabric of bereavement. She meets directly with the family, the faculty, the students, and the other parents according to the situation.

Caring for a Child in Crisis

Experience has shown us that the school's initial roles are to disseminate news and to participate actively in bereavement rituals. The director, psychologist, child's teacher, and I make painful personal phone calls and visits to the bereaved family, during which we listen for ways that the school can be helpful. In addition, we often act on behalf of the family, possibly circulating information about a memorial or funeral service or the destination of donations. In whatever way we can, we support the family's observance of ritual. Louise Kaplan (1995) writes The ritual process is about conventionalizing the longing, subduing the tantrum of protest, tidying up and wiping away the tears so that the bereaved can resume her ordinary life. Real mourning takes its own sweet time. . . . When the public mourning is over, the personal mourning begins. The rediscovery of the lost one commences. (P. 16) Sensitive involvement of the school in these initial steps paves avenues of support for the months ahead. In time, the school's responsibility becomes that of observer, adviser, and mainstay to the grieving child and family.
Teachers and administrators try to anticipate the range of intense emotion—sadness, guilt, anger, shock, denial, fear—that colors the way the student and the surviving parent or caregiver cope with their loss. We consider the family's make-up, stability, and stamina; their practical needs; and their stated wishes regarding offers of support and intervention. Our responses to the family (and to classmates) are influenced also by the circumstances surrounding the parent's death. When death comes as a surprise, feelings of shock and disbelief are difficult to dispel. Conversely, when it follows a long battle with illness, families struggle with the public expectation of preparedness.
  • Acceptance of a range of emotions;
  • Increased individual attention;
  • Reliable, consistent routines;
  • Physical warmth and comforting; and
  • Gentle, honest dialogue consistently and sensitively reinforced over time.
The school support team—composed of the surviving parent or guardian, the student's teachers, administrators, and the school psychologist or counselor—outline programs of intervention. Their primary consideration is likely to be the student's cognitive and emotional development. What is the student able to understand, to internalize, to make sense of? How "real" is his or her sense of time and lasting loss, of the relationship between wish and consequence? How does the student view his or her peer group? The answers to these questions help the team determine what constitutes meaningful support for this particular child.
Additionally, we ask what and how the child has been told and which parent is and was the child's main support. We weigh our sense of the remaining parent's emotional sturdiness, consider other adult support, and look at the point during the school year that the death occurred. Whatever the circumstances, we are aware that "for the child, it takes courage to recognize and cope with uncomfortable feelings . . . courage to grieve" (Crenshaw, 1991). I allow my previous connection with the child to determine my own role in offering comfort and personal support, realizing that I may or may not be an important presence to this student.
In the broadest strokes, children's understanding of death may be broken into four segments: irreversibility, finality, inevitability, and causality. Research reveals that our youngest students, those under 7 or 8 years old, will not truly internalize the permanence of death. Developmental benchmarks map out stages of emotional understanding, just as they do cognitive progression (Christian, 1997). Wisdom also tells us that gains remain in flux for children even more than for adults. What children say may not mirror what they have internalized; what they internalize does not remain constant. They may demonstrate a short sadness span, unable to stay with their painful feelings for long stretches of time (Wolfenstein, 1966). As Grollman (1995) describes, "Their grief then may be expressed in short, intensive outbursts followed by periods during which they seem unaffected by loss" (p. 43).
Throughout the elementary years, children grapple with the notion of irreversibility and harness their comprehension to concrete, tangible evidence. How exactly did she die? What was she doing when she died? Who was with her? Why wasn't it prevented? We frame our responses in direct language and ground them in fact.
Our psychologist helps shape appropriate, child-centered responses to the bereaved student. She also meets with the surviving parent and sometimes facilitates the creation of a book about the student's life with the departed parent—a biography of warm memories. It may be hand illustrated or documented by family photos, and it becomes the student's tangible family history. Bibliotherapy may be helpful for both children and adults, and a considerable body of resource materials is available to advise us in helping children cope with the death of a loved one, in addition to age-appropriate children's literature.
Often a family is able to look beyond school supports to consider outside professional support. When there is interest, our school provides referrals for therapy or play therapy and, when appropriate, has remained in contact with a child's therapist.
  • Acting-out or resistant behavior, particularly during transitions;
  • Unwarranted hostile or angry responses to classmates or teachers;
  • Chronic complaint of physical ailments;
  • Diminished academic performance;
  • Lessened enthusiasm and —al classroom participation;
  • Regression; and
  • Altered eating and sleeping habits.

Communicating with the Community

Supporting the bereaved child is a community-wide effort. Similarly, the entire community needs help dealing with the loss.

The Student's Teachers

Upon receiving tragic news, I immediately notify the student's teachers, including them in the initial planning and giving them a chance to grieve. This sharing is often extremely painful. Together we plumb feelings, consider implications, and eventually outline the first steps.
Other faculty members who have been close to the student and family—particularly former or specialist teachers, the school nurse, and the after-school director—broaden our understanding of the student's needs. We coordinate arrangements for services and possibly Shiva. In the Judaic tradition, families "sit Shiva," extending the formal mourning over seven days. During this period, friends and relatives are welcomed at the home of the bereaved to provide comfort and warm support.
We plan support for the weeks ahead: announcements to classmates, small-group talks with the school psychologist, a parent meeting, or daily get-together times for the student and a sibling or a best friend. We design classroom discussions and anticipate as best we can the students' questions and fears.

Parents of Classmates

After I've informed the teachers, I call the parents of each student in the bereaved's class and grade. I deliver the news personally, which allows them to question me. In the case of protracted illness, phone calls to parents may have occurred over months in painstaking installments, according to the family's wishes. Often I must take breathing time between calls. At unanticipated moments, I'm struck hard by my own feelings of loss for the student and the family.
I appreciate that only a small part of the process is mine to design and that so much will fall to others. I compose a small tribute from the school for the city newspaper, the New York Times, and notify faculty and parents of the arrangements for services. I follow phone calls to class parents with a letter (see "A Letter to Parents," p. 82).
A Letter to Parents

A Letter to Parents

Dear Parents:

It is with enormous sadness that I write you that Susan Jones, mother of Bill Jones, died this Thursday, October 10, of cancer. Susan and David Jones joined our community last year when Bill entered Kindergarten. Many of you came to know the family at that time, and some of you were on hand to support them during this difficult summer. Susan Jones was an extraordinary person and active parent. She will be sorely missed.

In school, the teachers have spoken with the children in Bill's class. You may wish to do so at home as well. Children respond to such sad news in a variety of ways: some may feel sad but not know what to say, others may worry about their own parents. All these feelings are understandable and appropriate, and may signal the beginning of further conversations to come.

Please feel free to consult our psychologist should you like some guidance, or visit the library for an appropriate book to read.

In the meantime, we are all thinking of Bill and of ways that we can support him and his family.

—The Principal

Other Faculty and Parents

The next step in communicating the news of a tragedy goes to the faculty of our division and school who either did not know or were not close to the family. Usually this occurs during a meeting, either our standard weekly faculty meeting or a special meeting that our psychologist and I call to share the news.
Each of us integrates the death with our own experience and history. At these times, the sadness that fills the room is deep, and many teachers cry. It is necessary and good to spend this time mourning as a group. We discuss aspects of the situation that may affect the other children's experience and review developmental considerations. As we do, new dimensions invariably arise. What about the student whose grandfather is dying? The family in the throes of divorce? The student whose parent died the previous year?

Care of Classmates and Other Children

In their daily classroom meetings, teachers speak with students about a range of "adult issues": cancer, HIV, suicide, religious belief, illness, death, and startling current events. But few topics are harder to broach than the death of a parent. Don't we reassure young children that their parents will take care of them; that they won't die until they are very old? Isn't the comforting parent-child relationship at the heart of most children's literature and at the core of so many school events?
We emphasize how unusual parent death is, we talk about who will care for their classmate, and we elicit ways that we can offer comfort. The death of one child's parent raises questions from all youngsters: What about my parents? What about me? Teachers allow children to share openly; reassure the class with honest, direct responses; and leave the door open for further conversation.

Modeling Mourning

Recently, a classroom pet in our preschool died. This was a bittersweet opportunity for the teacher to model mourning and help children process emotional loss. When Rosey, the class rabbit, died unexpectedly, the teacher looked beyond her own sadness to think quickly of how she would break the news to her class. She imagined what the children would want to know and constructed honest and helpful responses in light of her understanding of the group. She then wrote a letter to their parents (see "On the Death of a Class Pet," p. 83) so that discussions in school and at home might be consistent.
On the Death of a Class Pet

On the Death of a Class Pet

Dear Families:

I am writing with sadness to tell you that Rosey, our class rabbit, died yesterday. He died at the Animal Medical Center in the examining room. I was able to be with him, as was the veterinarian from the emergency room.

Here are some things that we will tell the children:

  • Rosey died from rabbit pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs. People cannot get this disease from animals.

  • The veterinarian said it is almost impossible to notice any symptoms of this illness in time to treat it.

  • Rosey suffered no pain or discomfort.

  • When an animal dies at the animal hospital, the doctors and their helpers bury the body.

  • It is sad when pets die—teachers and children feel sad and miss them. Rosey's death may remind them of the deaths of loved ones or of pets.

We will tell the children after assembly tomorrow and invite them to participate in a discussion. They will also be invited to help create a Rosey memory book in which they can contribute feelings about the loss of Rosey or happy memories they have of him.

During the upcoming days, some children may speak often of Rosey, while others will be more reticent. Please share your child's response with us. We, of course, will share any school discussions with you, as well as our Rosey memory book.

—Warmly, The Teacher

The next day, her class created A Book About Rosey. Children drew pictures and dictated their memories: "Rosey loved carrots." "Rosey is buried in the ground." "I love you very much." "Take care of yourself when you are buried." "Dear Rosey, I love you, Dear. I hope we will manage to remember you." "I am sad that Rosey died. Sometimes you just have to move on." "I miss you, Rosey."
I also met with classes who had cared for the rabbit in previous years. The teachers and I shared information with the students: where and when the rabbit died; what was "wrong with it," how Rosey's illness differed from any that a person might have. We talked about what death means. "What stops working when an animal dies?" "It stops breathing and its heart stops beating." Students placed one hand on their hearts, one on their mouths. We acknowledged our own sadness, and I allowed generous time for children to tell about their grandparents or pets that have died.

The Loss of a Parent

Last year, I sat in on a 1st grade class's discussion of a student's father's death. The father had died suddenly of cancer—and within a year of his wife's death. The student was about to leave the school and move into the large, welcoming family of his aunt and uncle. His 6-year-old classmates had processed his mother's death with him the previous year. Now it was to be renewed.
Preceding the discussion, I had spoken with and written to each student's parents, and they had provided a range of support for the bereaved student. Parents had also spoken with their own children. Some students and many adults had also attended the funeral service and Shiva. The teacher sent sealed notes to parents saying that the boy's father's death would be discussed the next day in class; would they listen for questions when their children returned home?
The teacher knew that her students wouldn't understand the finality of the father's death and would wonder and hope that he might return. She also knew that her students were afraid for their own parents and for themselves, and she warmly described who would care for their classmate. The 6-year-olds asked questions, and the teacher helped the student answer when he wished. She reminded children of the dad's visits to their classroom. She offered a factual, age-appropriate description of cancer and talked about many feelings that the father's death may have elicited among all the children.
A week later, the class had a good-bye party for the boy with cake and presents. His new family handed out copies of his new address and phone number. They told the children about his new house and his school. People took pictures and signed T-shirts. The shop teacher gave him a special hammer in a handmade wooden box. His kindergarten teacher composed a school photo book with greetings from his teachers, past and present.
His current teacher recognized that this was the start of many-faceted discussions about the tragedy. She also knew to begin observing her class with special care, monitoring the effects of this tragedy over time.

Later on

According to Robert G. Stevenson (1990), bereavement is the "forcible loss of something precious," and grief represents the process by which we recover from a loss. Grief requires teachers to monitor and support the child as he or she enters each new developmental stage. They give their students permission to reminisce, and they reframe their students' questions about death and loss by respecting their students' references to it and occasionally introduce it themselves into a group conversation. As Louise Kaplan (1995) reminds us, "Real mourning takes its own sweet time" (p. 16).
Ultimately, sensitive support for the child who has lost a parent is a community journey that continues as echoes of mourning resurface within a school. It is both a responsibility and a privilege to be part of this collective healing process.

Christian, L. G. (1997, May). Children and death. Young Children, 52(4), 76–80.

Crenshaw, D. (1991). Bereavement: Counseling the grieving throughout the life cycle. New York: Continuum.

Grollman, E. A. (Ed.). (1995). Bereaved children and teens: A support guide for parents and professionals. Boston: Beacon.

Kaplan, L. J. (1995). No voice is ever wholly lost. New York: Touchstone Books.

Stevenson, R. G. (1990, February). Helping children understand and recover after a loss. Paper presented at a lecture.

Wolfentstein, M. (1966). How is mourning possible? Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21, 93–123.

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