Support for Grieving Children

Support for Grieving Children

Communication is the heart and soul of this work with bereaved children and their families. When teachers help initiate the conversations, they help children gain the skills and confidence to continue them with others.

We encourage teachers to address the topic of death and loss proactively. It is important to discuss death in a general way with all students before any loss is identified because it provides information and anticipatory guidance around the matter of death and grief. It is also essential for teachers to actively open communication when they know a specific student is experiencing grief. Teachers should not wait for students to approach them. A student may not realize this is an option or feel secure enough in taking the first step.

A vital power differential exists between students and teachers. This is a good thing. It helps teachers offer trustworthy guidance in learning and maintain order when necessary. However, this same difference in power makes it difficult for a student to approach a teacher with questions about something as troublesome as death. This is not so surprising, really. Even adults are often reluctant to tell others about personal experiences of grief. They may hesitate to tell a boss or supervisor about a death, or they may minimize the challenges and distress presented by their grief.
Children who observe this deference or hesitation in a parent or other family member might be even more likely to avoid troubling their teacher.

Similarly, however, a teacher's status can open up possibilities with children.Teacher authority communicates experience, wisdom, and an ability to determine what topics are appropriate to discuss. Children are often quite responsive when a teacher suggests they talk about a recent death, and they usually appreciate the opportunity to do so.

Getting Students to Talk
Students may be more likely to discuss a death with a teacher if the circumstances make the topic approachable. Teachers can help set the tone for a conversation by using the following suggestions:

Steps to Invite the Conversation
This section offers some steps that teachers can take to start and sustain communication with grieving students.

These types of interventions give children an opportunity to find their own best way through this process. Such conversations help them make meaning of their loss while continuing to move forward in their lives.

Communication Challenges
In the same way that there are factors that increase children's likelihood of talking to teachers about grieving and death, there are also reasons why children who are grieving do not readily approach teachers about their loss. For example:

Students may feel overwhelmed.
They may not know where to begin. They may feel unable to manage the burden of trying to cope with their own complex feelings while protecting the feelings of others who do not necessarily want to talk about death and grief. They may worry that if they start to express their feelings, they will embarrass themselves by beginning to cry in front of their peers, or, worse yet, be unable to stop crying once they have started.

What to do:

What to do:
What to do:
Reprinted with permission from The Grieving Student: A Teacher's Guide, by David Schonfeld, M.D., & Marcia Quackenbush, M.S., M.F.T., C.H.E.S. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 2010.

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