How To Help Grieving Students
When a child or teen experiences the death of an important person in their lives, their world is forever changed. Teachers can be an important source of support for a grieving student. By providing a sense of safety and security for the student at school, you can help facilitate that student’s ability to grieve in a healthy way. Remember, grief is a normal and natural response to a death.
Grieving students do not need for you to become an instant grief counselor. What they do need is an available and caring listener who will let them talk about their feelings, concerns and fears without judgment. Trust yourself to be present and authentic.
It can be difficult to know what to say to a student after a death. It is important to acknowledge the death. Not doing so can make the student feel more isolated. Choosing a private moment with the student, you might say:
As each student is unique, so is their grief. For some grieving students, school will be a refuge and for others it will be a place of great challenge. It is important to recognize and respond to these differences with compassion and acceptance. The following is a list of recommendations that, based on our years of experience working with grieving children and teens, we have found to be helpful:
Have a plan. If possible, help the grieving student identify what he or she is most anxious about with regard to returning to school after the death of a loved one. Find out how the student and the family would like you to relate the loss to the class. Identify the possible supports for the student at school such as a social worker or counselor for the student to meet with or an in-school grief support group. Offer creative ideas for coping with difficult feelings, such as keeping a journal, expressive drawing or deep breathing exercises.
Set up a Safe Room. Sometimes grieving kids get overwhelmed by the feelings of grief. This can happen very unexpectedly. Identify a place with the student that he or she can go to if this happens to them while they are in class. Establish a sign with the student that lets you know that the student needs to go to that safe room so that they can leave as privately as possible. Often, the room is the nurse’s office or a counselor's office.
Talk openly and frankly about the death. Use direct and concrete language, such as died vs. passed away. Do not try to “cheer up” the student. The goal is not to take away the pain, but to allow for the safe expression of it. It’s OK if a student does not want to talk about the death.
Stick to a normal school day routine, but make necessary adjustments. It is usually better for a student to go to school, because there is a comforting sense of routine and safety in the structure. Often, after a death, a student will feel as if life is out of control. The student will need time to process the meaning and impact of the death. Frequently, a student’s academic performance is impacted. It can be very helpful to the student if appropriate adjustments and allowances are made, such as lightening the homework load, extending deadlines and giving incompletes rather than failing grades.
Initiate and maintain communication with the student’s family. Many grieving parents or caregivers can be overwhelmed and will most often appreciate the outreach and connection.
Remember to be sensitive to the family’s cultural and religious differences. Pay particular attention to those things related to what death means to the family, both culturally and spiritually.
Utilize age-appropriate relaxation and emotional regulation exercises to help the student and his or her classmates learn about identifying feelings, safe ways to express feelings and how to calm themselves in a difficult moment. These skills are not just helpful to grieving students. We all need them!
Here are a few examples:
Deep breathing is a technique that can be taught to children of all ages. The benefits of deep breathing are many. Deep breathing engages the body’s “relaxation response” which supports a child’s ability to calm down, to focus, and to create space between their feelings and their actions. It is easy to learn, can be practiced at home, and can be used in any situation. Deep breathing involves teaching the child to take air in and exhale air out in a measured way while associating each breath in with becoming calm and each breath out feeling relaxed. “Nice breath in… Blow out like you’re blowing out a candle.” Younger children may need props and visual cues to bring attention to their breathing and to control their breath. Children can watch their belly expand as they breathe in and “get smaller” when they breathe out.
Using the basic deep breathing, kids can be encouraged to imagine that they are blowing up a different color balloon with each inhalation and exhalation. By the time they have blown up 10 balloons of different colors, they will have started to experience the benefits of deep breathing while having fun doing it. This exercise can be done 1 on 1 or in a group.
This exercise allows children to let go of strong emotions, unwanted thoughts or pent up energy. Explain to the kids that as a group you are all going to do something called the Lion’s breath and let them know that it is a way for them get unwanted thoughts and feelings out from the inside and to let them go. Invite them to imagine that they are lions with giant roars and sitting up tall and proud. You can model the first time through: “I’m going to think of a feeling that I would like to let go of or a thought that I want to release. Now I squeeze my hands in fists, holding that thought or feeling. I take a deep breath in and let my roar out, stretching my arms out wide in front of me and opening my hands wide.” Then tell them it’s their turn. Invite them to think of a feeling or thought that they would like to roar out. Lead them through scrunching that feeling or thought up in their hand, taking a deep breath and roaring it out while stretching their arms out and opening their hands.
In general, provide classroom opportunities to grow students’ emotional intelligence around death and loss. Encouraging students in this way, enhances their capacity to be better supports to grieving classmates as well as to be better able to cope when, in the future, they experience a death in their own lives.
General activities that can be adapted for different age groups are:
“The most valuable thing I learned from Willow House group is that I am not alone and there is hope.”