The Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative: How New York Life is Mobilizing It's Nationwide Workforce to Address Grief at School

Mother consoling child

As the largest corporate champion of childhood bereavement support over the past decade, the New York Life Foundation has long been committed to improving the ability of schools to reach the grieving students in their midst. In 2013, the Foundation partnered with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement to convene the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a collaboration among leading K-12 professional organizations to develop and deliver best-in-class grief-support resources to educators through a dedicated website,  

The next challenge was getting this resource into every k-12 school across the country. The New York Life Foundation developed Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative (GSSI) to achieve this goal.

Schools have a critical role to play in a child’s grieving process. During the week, most children spend about as many of their waking hours at school as they do at home. A child’s school becomes an important frame of reference for his or her grief, and the response of a child’s school, teachers, and classmates can impact how the child perceives and copes with his or her loss.  

GSSI tackles the pervasive yet under-addressed issue of childhood grief. Childhood bereavement is incredibly prevalent: in the U.S., 1 in 14 children will lose a parent or sibling before age 18, and nearly all youth experience a close personal loss by the time they graduate from high school. Early loss of a loved one can take an enormous toll on a child, leading to social, emotional, and behavioral issues that can last a lifetime.


Mission and Goal

The objective of the GSSI is to deliver resources to K-12 educators so school communities are better equipped to support grieving students. Through the program, employees and agents are trained to become GSSI Ambassadors to local schools, helping to raise educators’ awareness of grief’s prevalence and impact. Schools that strive to better support their grieving students receive the “Grief-Sensitive School” designation and a New York Life Foundation grant.

Now active in 46 states and more than 1,000 schools, the program is creating a stronger culture of grief sensitivity and support in schools across the U.S. and is projected to triple its impact by the end of 2020.



In 2018, New York Life launched GSSI to address the bereavement training gap (New York Life Foundation research revealed only 7 percent of teachers have received bereavement training) through a nationwide program that helps educators in local schools tap the guidance and resources they need to better aid their grieving students.

GSSI trains New York Life employees and agents to serve as Ambassadors to local schools, helping to raise educators’ awareness of grief’s prevalence and impact among school-age children. As Ambassadors, they deliver an in-person presentation where they direct educators to free online resources designed for educational practitioners (developed by the Coalition to Support Grieving Students) as well as other grief support tools, including a state-by-state guide to local grief organizations and camps. Schools that agree to strive to better support their grieving students receive the “Grief-Sensitive Schools” designation and a grant from the Foundation to help support the needs of its students.

Participating in GSSI helps school personnel address the training gap and signals to students, parents, and community members that their school is strongly committed to supporting its grieving students and their families. At the same time, employees and agents are provided with a meaningful opportunity to support their local schools and communities in a way that directly aligns with New York Life’s core values and services.

In addition to facilitating local community efforts by employees and agents, the Foundation is aiming to generate large scale impact across some of the nation’s largest school districts through a partnership with the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, directed by Dr. David Schonfeld. In an upcoming phase of the GSSI program, Dr. Schonfeld will work with school districts over the next three years to develop strategies and best practices for broader, district-wide grief support that can be adopted nationwide.


Proof of Positive Impact

A far-reaching program, nearly 1,200 GSSI presentations have been completed in local schools across 46 states and nearly $600,000 in grants have been awarded to schools that pledged to become Grief-Sensitive. The New York Life Foundation is aiming to triple the reach of GSSI in schools by the end of 2020, creating a growing roster of schools across the nation seeking to build a culture of grief support.

The GSSI program has also received strong support from New York Life’s workforce. Nearly 1,800 agents and employees have attended a GSSI training session, and 361 have completed more than one school presentation. Many agents attest to the immediate impact of GSSI in the community:

  • “At the end of last year, a tragic road accident occurred that took the lives of an entire family. All three of the children attended schools where I had presented GSSI. Within one day, the Superintendent had sent out the GSSI materials on supporting grieving children to every household email address for the entire district." (Kathy Moritz, a Managing Partner in Detroit, who has completed several GSSI presentations)

  • "I was speaking with a counselor in a small school about the presentation but had not set a date when I heard that a 4th grader at his school passed away from the flu…He had been looking for things to give to the staff all day and was at a loss. I went to the school and shared the GSSI resources." (Jessica Holt, agent in Texas who has given 30+ presentations)

Participating schools also attest to the positive difference that GSSI has made. A survey of schools participating in GSSI highlights their need for grief training: prior to exposure to the program, 97 percent of educators and other school staff didn’t know where to turn for bereavement resources geared toward educators. According to the survey, participation in the program has resulted in tangible changes for many schools, including more training for school employees, better coordination among staff for supporting grieving students and partnerships with local bereavement centers.

The impact of the program has been felt by schools nationwide. Participating GSSI schools share how the program has helped connect them to critical community partners:

  • "Since participating in the program, we have created a bucket system to promote character development with our students to further support their social-emotional needs, provided access to individual and group counseling sessions and offered referrals to social workers to our grieving students when needed."

  • "Our school has partnered with a local bereavement clinic and offered them space on our campus to hold their monthly meetings to a regional community...while also allowing members of our school community (students and parents) to access such support groups…"

New York Life’s efforts at the local and district level have also resulted in recognition from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which named New York Life and GSSI as one of nine Miami-Dade County Public Schools Values Matter Miami Award recipients, selected from more than 200 community nominations.


What's Next

Driven by a mission to support grieving students nationwide, New York Life will continue to expand the program with the goal of tripling its current reach to schools by the end of 2020. Program improvements are underway thanks to educators’ feedback and emerging best practices from the Center, with new offerings including more universally accessible grief training modules for teachers and the implementation of a quarterly newsletter for GSSI schools providing timely bereavement resources and expert guidance.  

In addition to facilitating local community efforts by employees and agents, the Foundation will also continue to work to scale the impact of the program in some of the nation’s largest school districts in states including California, Colorado and Florida.

Beyond this initiative, childhood grief continues to be a guiding focus for the company’s philanthropic activities.  The Foundation will make nearly 50 national and local bereavement grants totaling approximately $6,145,000 this year alone.