Humans, by nature, are designed to grow, learn, work, and play in groups. By the time a child is 10, he or she has created and maintained dozens of key relationships — parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and more. Throughout life, these relationships satisfy our primary needs. It is the brain that allows these social connections. Unique neural systems change in response to the waxing and waning of relationships in our lives — forming a landscape created by the history of our emotional experiences. Relationships can bring us comfort, safety, and joy. Yet relationships can change or even end. And then we experience painful emotions.
The loss of a loved one is an earthquake that fractures and devastates our emotional landscape. Death is the most permanent loss we face; yet there are other forms of loss that can alter, break, or erode our emotional anchors. The most common types of loss for children are moving and divorce. In the modern world, adults control the context and the shape of our children's relationships. When we decide to move or separate, often we have already taken the time to gradually adjust to these transitions. Yet we then turn around and force our choices onto our children. They have less time and fewer skills with which to adjust.
The pain of loss can be related to the nature of the transition. The sudden death, the abrupt move, and the unanticipated separation may all shatter existing emotional connections, often causing fear and intense emotional pain. When loss is sudden and unexpected, there is much less time for the child to begin adjusting. An anticipated death, separation, or move is easier because there has been time to think, review, anticipate, mourn and, slowly, reshape relationships. Gradual, predictable transitions, although they are painful, make the loss easier to deal with and accept. When informed, the child can prepare for the change ahead.
The pain from loss is also related to the nature of the relationship, the history of other losses, the vulnerability of the particular child, the support system available, and other factors. If a child is close and dependent upon the lost loved one, he or she is likely to experience more severe distress. If the move or the separation takes the child away from the loved one, he or she may experience a similar intensity of pain as if this were a death.
For most children, loss and fear go hand in hand. They do not know what will happen to them. And fear intensifies and complicates the other emotions associated with loss. The fearful child cannot concentrate in school; will misinterpret comments; and will sometimes regress to immature behavior (a young child may start to bed-wet) or self-destructive coping behavior (a preadolescent may drink or experiment with drugs).
It is often the teacher who first identifies how difficult a loss is for a child. After a move, divorce, or even many months after the death of a loved one, most of the world expects the child to bounce back and "be resilient." Yet the teacher may notice a lethargy, sadness, anger, and deterioration in performance. Teachers know better than most that recovery from loss is not likely to be over in a month, or 2, or, for some children, even 10 years. Different children will have different styles of grieving and different timetables.
The key to helping the child is the appreciation that recovery from loss requires the re-shaping of existing relationships in the child's life. A teacher can help facilitate this by fostering changes in three of the child's key relationships: the relationship with the teacher, the relationship with the family members, and the relationship with classmates.
Sometimes the teacher will decide to cautiously share her observations with the caregivers, and inquire about what they may have observed at home. Rather than preach, the teacher should use her instincts about the parent's readiness to talk, respecting their privacy.
Whether the teacher helps the child directly or indirectly by supporting the parents and guiding classmates, there are some key points to remember when talking about loss.
Tune in to every child, but especially to one who has recently experienced a loss. Pay close attention to the content and mood of his verbalizations, his play themes, stories, and drawings. The better you understand his feelings, the easier it will be for you to comfort and support him.
Each child who has experienced loss should be free to communicate her pain and bewilderment when ready. Forcing the issue is likely to cause feelings to go underground.
If a child senses your discomfort with the topic, he may not bring it up even when he is ready to. Consider your own feelings of sadness to avoid discouraging a child's readiness to express his.
Be sensitive to any inappropriate remarks or teasing from other children. In a discreet way, you can help them to respect the grieving process and avoid their classmate's "tender spots."
By being attentive, sensitive, and supportive, a teacher can become an important emotional bridge for a child at times of loss.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (http://www.childtrauma.org/). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.