Grieving in the Classroom
There is nothing more heart-breaking than watching a child grieve the death of someone special. As a parent, we just want to take their pain away and return their life back to what it was, but sadly that is the one thing we can’t do. We can, however, offer them our love, guidance and support to help them navigate their journey. Supporting grieving children takes a village. Our kids spend six hours a day at school, so part of this village is within the education system. Therefore, it’s imperative that parents, teachers, support and admin staff work together to create a safe place for our children and youth to grieve. Below are some suggestions for ways to advocate for your child in the school system.
Each child, regardless of age, will show, express and communicate their grief very differently and therefore will have individual needs. As a parent you must take this into account when determining how best to advocate for each of them. It’s important that all adults are supporting them age appropriately, using correct language and acknowledging their emotions.
Include your child in the conversation about what they want the school and friends to know. You are still the parent, so you get veto rights, but you can take into account their wishes. Have conversations each year/semester with the teachers until you feel your child can advocate for themselves. Information about the death is not recorded on your child’s file, so new teachers may not be aware. There is no timeline to grief, and often with children we can see their grief appear or reappear years after the death. Ask the teachers to share with you any concerns they may be seeing in or out of the classroom. School staff members often see things you may not as a parent. And let their teachers know you will communicate with them if your child had a bad day/night so they can be prepared in the classroom.
Prepare a Script
Work with your child to help them find the words to answer any questions their friends may have about the death. Empowering them with the words to answer can help to build their confidence. Revisit this every six months or so. Their words and understanding will change as their grief evolves.
Create a Safe Place/Routine
Often grieving kids don’t want to draw attention to themselves so they may find it difficult to express and control their feelings in the classroom. Grief can sometimes be interpreted as behaviour issues. Working with the teacher, create a silent message that can be used by your child if they need a break. Perhaps a card they can keep on their desk. One side has a symbol representing all is OK and the flip side is the symbol for “I need a break.” When the teacher sees, they have permission to leave class and take a predefined break. Ask if there can be a safe room set up in the school they can go to where there are some items they can utilize to defuse. For example, a punching bag, mini trampoline, colouring books, access to mindful apps, playdoh, etc. Also find out if there’s a trusted adult inside the school that they can go to for support when needed.
Special Days and Holidays
Talk with your child to see if they have any suggestions on how to handle special days/event (Mother’s/Father’s Day, concerts, etc.). They may wish to join fully, take the day off, or have their own ideas on how to participate.
When do you need more help for your child? Watch for changes in these areas.
Appetite change. Weight loss or gain.
Always tired. Can’t sleep or sleeping too much.
Withdrawing from friends and family.
Engaging in drugs, alcohol or sexual activity to numb pain.
Overwhelming feelings of guilt, hostility, helplessness and hopelessness.
At the end of the day, you know your child best. Trust your gut. Listen to others and hear what they see in your child. Take all of this into account as you work to find ways to best support.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Holistic Parent.