This time of year can be challenging, exciting, sad and happy – all at the same time. For children and young people who have experienced bereavement, the journey from primary to secondary school, or from secondary school and college to university, can trigger a mix of emotions, including amplifying their grief. Transitions may involve leaving staff who supported them in their bereavement. In this grief guide, we hope to give you some tips and coping mechanisms to make this transition easier, and remember that your feelings are valid, and it’s okay to seek professional support during this time.
Part of the transition from one educational setting to another involves saying goodbye. It’s important to place emphasis on this and create a special way to honour the memories made at the previous school/college and honour them, perhaps with a photo-book or similar. Remind children and young people that moving away from close relationships and friendships is not the end of that bond, it can be continued with close contact either out of school, or by chatting online and on the phone.
Transitions also involve leaving behind what is familiar, including the routine, environment, and places we are used to. This loss of familiarity can trigger feelings of grief, as people mourn the comfort and predictability they had grown accustomed to. You can minimise the discomfort caused by new surroundings by talking about the new places and people in their new setting. Perhaps draw the classroom and point out the most exciting parts or favourite spots. Encourage playdates with new friends and chat with new teachers.
The unknown nature of the new situation can cause anxiety – the fear of the unknown. When transitioning to a new school or educational level, children and young people can often worry about whether they will fit in, make friends, or succeed academically. This fear of the unknown can be closely tied to feelings of grief over leaving behind a sense of security. Talk to professionals within the school setting about this and see if you can work together to combat those fears.
With each new transition, identity can change. For example, moving from primary to secondary school means going from being one of the oldest in a smaller environment to being one of the youngest in a larger one. This change in identity can trigger feelings of grief as individuals adjust to their new roles and let go of their old ones. Reassure children and young people that life is ever changing and it’s ok to change and adapt to new situations, you will still be you.
Looking back on the past with fondness is a common response during transitions. As individuals remember the positive experiences they had in the previous stage of their education, a sense of nostalgia can intensify feelings of grief over what has been left behind. Remember to underpin those feelings of nostalgia with hope for the future and looking ahead to new opportunities.
- Pressure to Adapt Quickly
There’s often an expectation to adapt quickly to a new environment and routine. This pressure can intensify emotional responses, as children and young people process their feelings of grief while also trying to fit in and succeed in the new setting. Remind them that nothing is linear and that every situation will have ups and ‘down’s’.
Successfully navigating a life transition can lead to a sense of accomplishment and growth. This positive aspect can sit alongside feelings of grief. Explain that it’s natural to feel a sense of loss and feel happy that you are in a new place with new opportunities.
If a child or young person seems overwhelmed and needs to talk to a professional, Grief Encounter’s free and confidential helpline, grieftalk, is open 9am – 9pm every weekday for immediate support and listening advice.
Things that will help Children and Young People as they Navigate their Transition:
Being Organised: Moving up to secondary school might mean your child is going to have more homework and multiple subjects to manage. They might like to use a planner or digital tools to keep track of homework, tests, and additional activities. Staying organised can help reduce stress and make them feel like they can stay on top of their work and responsibilities.
Asking for Help: Encourage your child to ask their form teacher or wellbeing lead for help if they need it. This might mean they want to explain their own personal grief and what affects them – that might be a particular awareness day, or a milestone that they will encounter. Asking for support early in the school year might prevent issues from getting bigger as time goes on, and the support from others may help them adjust to their new school easier.
Sleeping well: Sleep is so important for children and young people, and can often be interrupted by new experiences, anxiety, and grief. Encourage early bedtimes, and relaxing environments during the first few weeks of school. If they are struggling, try relaxing baths, calming music, and reading before bed and limited screen time.
Remembering: Remember their special person and have ways of keeping them with them at their new setting. This might be making a special keyring which attached to their new schoolbag, wearing a locket, or keeping a note or token with them in their pocket. Children could keep a journal and write their experiences to their special person, which is private and just for them. These are all ways of sharing the new part of their life with their special person and continuing their special bond even after death.