As schools start to return, communities are welcoming back children into a school setting who have suffered a bereavement during the pandemic. With the government set restrictions, these bereavements have been experienced in some circumstances without family rituals or extended family support. In this sense, coming back into a school environment may be the first time external support has been available to the child, young person and their family. Here is some advice from our specialist Trauma Team on how to support a grieving child whilst they are at school, informing the school community of a death and preparing classmates for the return of a bereaved child.
Supporting a grieving child or young person at school is a long process, and often becomes more challenging as time goes on. Many children tell us that the second year after their loved one’s death is more difficult than the first year. As the reality of the permanence of the death sinks in and the initial feelings of shock subside, the sense of loss and longing take hold. It is at this time that teachers and others who work with children and young people can be most helpful and supportive.
Supporting a bereaved child in school
There are many triggers in the school environment for the bereaved child, such as aspects of the curriculum, and in particular their ‘successes’ such as winning an award or receiving a certificate for an achievement. Social interaction with peers who ask questions about their family or complain about their own parents/siblings can be hard to manage. Even many years after a bereavement it can be enormously helpful for a caring adult to acknowledge the bittersweet feelings evoked by important milestones and the ongoing nature of grief.
Grieving children may behave in expected ways such as being tearful and withdrawn. However, they can also behave in unexpected ways such as being:
- Distracted, have a short attention span and ‘daydream’ a lot
- Forgetful and absent minded
- Fearful, apprehensive and anxious
- Angry and having sudden outbursts of tears or frustration
- Aggressive and ‘picking fights’
There are some ways to help a grieving child during the school day
- Providing a Time Out Card allows the child to leave the classroom in a discreet way if they are worried about becoming upset or crying on front of their peers. Please contact Grief Encounter who can supply you with our own cards.
- Allow a child to keep a small unobtrusive photo that is a comfort to them, it can be advisable for this to be in a keyring or a case of some kind.
- Allow short phone calls if they need reassurance that others are safe
- Designate a support person for the child such as school nurse, counsellor or SENCO
- Don’t be afraid to talk to the grieving child and ask how they are doing but ensure you do so in an appropriate place and when both you and they have time to properly engage.
- Remember that listening is more important than offering advice or trying to find out what has upset them at a particular time. You cannot fix it for them and children know that but are grateful for the opportunity to be heard.
Informing the School Community of a Death
When there is a death in the school community it can be difficult for Senior Leadership to respond efficiently and proactively when coping with their own shock and emotions. However, news travels fast in school communities, and it is important to manage the information in a timely manner so that it can be communicated in a sensitive and accurate way.
Where possible the staff team should be informed first, ideally in a way that all staff can be told at the same time, perhaps in an online meeting, where questions can be asked and all staff have the same information. Even if staff are already aware of the death it is advisable to hold a group call or video conference to clarify information, and ensure staff are aware of the school position to help avoid rumour and conjecture. Some staff members may need some time to process the information and perhaps seek external advice and support. The Grief Encounter helpline, grieftalk, can be contacted from 9am-9pm Monday- Friday. The grieftalk number is 0808 802 0111.
If a death in the school community has happened, often the year group or class most affected will be informed before the whole school, whether this be by email, video conference or group call – this may be to the students directly, or to their parents. It is advisable for form teachers to be supported by other appropriate staff members. Staff can be fearful of showing emotion but as long as this can be managed for themselves and the students then it can be helpful to model sadness and shock. Try to be honest and direct, sticking to the facts and using age appropriate language, with words such as died and dead.
When a death affects the entire school then informing everyone together is advisable, so that all students have the same information. Once again, be honest and direct, using age appropriate language, sticking to the facts and using clear and concise words such as ‘died’.
Preparing students for the return of a grieving classmate
When a classmate has experienced a death it is usual for children and young people of ages to be anxious about what they should say and how they should treat them. Returning to school will probably carry its only anxieties and class teachers may well themselves feel apprehensive about how to support all the children in their care.
Discuss the bereavement with the class before the student returns. When all children have returned to school, it is advisable to have a class discussion about death and how grief affects different people. Naturally, this should be delivered in an age appropriate way but some points for discussion are:
- Encourage the sharing of feelings, possibly through thinking about other types of losses or deaths that students have experienced and what helped them cope.
- Explore what difficulties the student may experience as they return to school through thinking about how they might like others to treat them. Would they like to be left alone or want to talk about it? The idea that someone is likely to want both at different times or from different people can be introduced.
- Discuss how students might reach out to their classmate. Encourage them to think about this in the context of their friendship before the death. Would they want to offer to talk outside of school hours? Or would it be more appropriate for them to offer to help them with school work?
- Make students aware that their classmate may act differently. They may seem withdrawn and unfriendly or they may be aggressive. They should understand that this is normal and nothing to do with them.
- Be aware that the bereavement may have an impact on other students, stirring up their own feelings of loss and separation. Close friends of the bereaved and his/her family may also need additional support to help them cope with feelings of helplessness or being ‘shut out’.
Grief Encounter are offering online training to schools and professionals, available to book now. Learn more at www.griefencounter.org.uk/onlinetraining