The Right Way for Teachers to React When Children Experience Grief
From time to time, a child will experience a loss in their life. It may be something many would consider minor, like a family pet or a distant relative, but sometimes it can be as serious as a sibling, close family relative, parent or grandparent.
When this happens (and if you teach long enough it will) there are many things to keep in mind:
Recognize your powerlessness
You can’t take away the hurt and loss children feel as they grieve for the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, it’s an individual process that everyone must go through on their own.
That being understood, remember that your relationship with the child will be of great (though mostly unspoken) help during their difficulties. Try not to fill this difficult time with platitudes or encouraging someone to “look on the bright side.” Just be a consistent and nearby presence for the child.
Make the classroom a safe space
Many children look forward to returning to school because it provides a distraction from the intensity of their feelings of loss.
If it is OK with the child’s parents, prepare your class by reviewing appropriate behavior — acknowledging the loss (but not prying) and being prepared for emotion to flow from the child — and making certain that everyone is comfortable.
Often another child’s losses get reawakened when the same thing happens to a classmate, so expect a variety of emotional responses. Welcome the child back to class, and remind him or her that you’re happy to have them, and that you can be approached if they need to leave the room to compose themselves.
Acknowledge their situation, but don’t overdo it
Once you’ve acknowledged what has happened, avoid returning to the child’s loss. Well-meaning inquiries often scratch an emotional wound for the child, so you don’t want to violate their sense that the classroom is a refuge from their loss.
If you are a newer teacher, speak to your administrators and trusted colleagues in establishing what to say and when to say it.
Pay your respects
If time allows, pay your respects to the family by attending the wake or memorial service. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to the child to show you care by giving up your time. Going out of your way to be there and express your condolences is of incredible comfort to the family, and not to be underestimated.
This also reinforces to the parents, who are also managing a wide variety of emotions, that their child is being well cared for at school by compassionate adults.
Communicate to parents
Families experience loss in different ways. Some are open to the emotions that come alive, and some choose to address it more privately. In your conversation with the family, ask them for parameters on communicating with the child.
Some will ask you to avoid all discussion of the loss, while others will be open to it. Regardless of what you think is appropriate, be sure to work inside the expectations of the parents.
Expect ups and downs
The emotional impact on the child will often vary depending on the day and time. Be ready to see just about any emotion — sometimes when you least expect it. A quiet moment can awaken a memory and the child will react to it.
Handle any situation with care and continue to reinforce to the child that any emotion they feel is appropriate. The only wrong thing to do is try to talk the child out of what they are feeling.