One Monday morning in November, my principal called me into his office. He told me that Ben would not be at school that week because his mother had died. I was stunned. I knew she had cancer, but I didn’t really expect her to die. I was suddenly overwhelmed. Nothing in my teacher training had prepared me for this. Questions raced through my mind. Should I tell the class? Would Ben want me to? How would I handle his return? Should I talk to him about it or would that make it worse? I wanted to support Ben but had no clear sense of what to say or do.
Unfortunately, major losses in our students’ lives are relatively common, and over the course of our careers, most teachers can expect to encounter students who are bereaved. The National Centre for School Crisis and Bereavement estimates that one in 20 children will lose a parent before the age of 16 and the majority will experience the death of someone they love before the end of high school. Research into teachers’ responses reveals that when a death occurs, most teachers feel inadequately prepared to support bereaved students.
For Ben, losing his mother at the age of 9 was devastating, but in one way he was “lucky,” and so was I. His father stopped by my classroom that week to talk about how to support Ben. He told me that Ben wanted the class to know what had happened. Ben also wanted school to be the place where he could go every day and “feel normal.” The family requested a reprieve from home reading expectations for three months so that they could use the time for getting used to their new life. I was relieved to be guided in the next steps.
During the week that Ben was away, I read several picture books to the class about death and grief. We used metaphors about how losing one’s mother might feel. We incorporated grief into art, drama and dance. We made a stack of cards to show Ben that we cared and looked forward to his return, and a classmate delivered them to his house. When Ben returned the following week, I noticed that his classmates didn’t seem to feel the awkwardness that adults did. They simply folded Ben back into everyday activities and life went on. However, underneath it all, acknowledging Ben’s grief was the subtle but important gift that had made the natural flow possible.
At the time, I felt like I was simply muddling my way through, doing my best in a difficult situation. Since then, I have read a great deal about how teachers can support bereaved students. Psychologists provide these tips for teachers:
- Make a phone call to the family to express condolences and discuss how to best support the child in school.
- Find a private moment to tell the child you know about what happened in their family and that you are available to talk.
- Assure the student that it is normal to feel emotionally overwhelmed sometimes.
- Create a hand signal that they can use to take a break and retreat to a safe place in the school.
- As special days come up (e.g., Mother’s Day), provide the child with options for how to handle the activities, or adapt them if possible (e.g., Caregiver’s Day).
- Children often have misunderstandings about death. If it feels appropriate, ask the student what they know or understand about death. Clear up misconceptions using simple, direct language.
- Grief is different from depression. If a child seems to be constantly sad, professional intervention might be needed.
- If grieving students are struggling with schoolwork, assure them that it is normal to have difficulty while they are grieving and that other bereaved students experience this too. Reassure them that their focus, memory, speed and motivation will come back eventually and are not gone forever.
- Consider making temporary accommodations (e.g., extra time, reduction in number of questions, etc.) on a case-by-case basis and remember to communicate with the family about these accommodations. However, do not automatically assume that accommodations are needed or wanted. Some students find it stigmatizing to have different expectations from their peers, or cope by devoting themselves to their work.
- The loss of a close family member makes children feel different from their peers and this can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Teachers can model the ways that peers can be supportive.
Supporting grieving children is a challenge because we long to spare children from emotional pain. We fear doing more harm by discussing death, yet research shows that children benefit from clear, open communication. By now, Ben has graduated high school and we have lost touch. But I will always be grateful to his father for coaching me when I didn’t know what to do. He taught me that when the worst has already happened, the best thing to do is to just acknowledge it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jamie Roos is currently teaching at Regal Road Public School in the Toronto District School Board. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Ottawa and has been teaching for twenty years. She is currently pursuing an online Master’s of Thanatology at Marian University, Wisconsin, and volunteers with Hospice Toronto.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.