Back to School: Grief Basics for Teachers

Child at School | Hansen-Spear Funeral Home - Quincy, Illinois

Child at School | Hansen-Spear Funeral Home - Quincy, Illinois

Dr. David Schonfield believes that teachers see a grieving child in their classroom every day. He goes on to say that 50 percent of children will lose a parent by the time they are 16 years old. And that by the time students finish high school they will have lost someone close.

Any teacher I’ve asked agrees with Dr. Schonfield’s assessment. Students are grieving at school every single day. Their lives are impacted by death and non-death losses alike. Parents or close family members die. Adults around them are facing cancer and other difficult diagnoses.  Parents are incarcerated and not present in the home. They may be present but so involved in an addiction or with mental health issues that they are unavailable. These are just a few of the things children face – and bring to school.

Teaching at an area high school a friend encountered a good student who was suddenly absent for several days in a row.  Finally, classmates spoke up and explained that the student’s brother had been killed as part of a violent crime incident. The thought was breathtaking. And, for my friend, an opportunity to reflect on how she could be supportive.

First, she arranged to take the afternoon off in order to attend the brother’s funeral. It turned out she was the only school personnel present. She spoke with her student. She visited with the parents. She learned more about the brother and her student’s family.

In the weeks following the funeral, my friend chose not to stay silent and act like nothing had happened. She could have assumed that attending the funeral was enough. But she didn’t. She decided to learn more about students and grief. Here’s what she taught me;

  • It was hard for her student to return to school particularly because her brother’s death was so public.
  • Some days she was able to come to school, but that was really the best she could do – she could be there but she wasn’t really present.
  • Her student seemed uncertain and less confident.
  • Her student worried about other family members while she was at school.
  • Her student had trouble completing assignments (something she’d not had before).
  • Her student withdrew from friends and social activities.
  • The student was very quiet, didn’t participated in class discussions and forgot to bring assignments, books, and her notebook to class.
  • The student needed more time to complete tasks.

With these observations, my friend sought to create a safe place in her classroom for her grieving student. She tried to demonstrate ways that she cared about the student, too. And she supported her student by adjusting her expectations of the student’s performance. She gave her more time than her classmates to turn things in.  She spoke to her about her brother – listening without trying to fix any feelings that came up. And, she followed her student’s lead – so if the student didn’t want to talk about her brother or any concerns she nodded and didn’t push her.

She also recognized as a teacher that she isn’t a counselor or therapist – so she connected the student and the school social worker with one another.

These were just a few of the strategies my teaching friend tapped into. She learned more by visiting Scholastic’s resources for teachers related to grieving students. She found this information at: http://www.scholastic.com/childrenandgrief/

Deb Buehler is a certified funeral celebrant, certified creative grief practitioner and professional writer. She works virtually and in-person with individuals and families as they tell their stories of grief and loss. Deb co-authored The Hollowed Heart; Inspiration for Women Awakening from Grief and Loss. You can learn more about Deb and her services at www.growingbeyondgrief.com or contact her directly at deb@growingbeyondgrief.com

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