Grief. Death. Tragedy.
We don’t like thinking about it, much less talking about it. But if you teach for long enough, grief will touch your teaching practice. As a teacher, sometimes it becomes our job to help students deal with grief in the classroom.
You may teach a student who suddenly looses a loved one. It can happen to anyone. It happened to my mom at age 15 when her dad died of a heart attack. It was during the summer, but she went to her drivers ed class that day because they told them they couldn’t miss class no matter what. She didn’t tell anybody in class, and she talks about how that felt to this day. Even before tragedy strikes, your students need to know that your classroom is a safe, nurturing place to be. They need to know that they matter, that their feelings matter. Death and grief happen to our children more often than you think as about 1 in 20 kids will loose a parent before they graduate, and even more will loose other close relatives. Even though it is common, children often feel alone in their grief.
It’s important we keep in mind that grief doesn’t impact students only if they lived in the same house as their loved one. The loss of a parent is extreme, but remember the loss of a grandparent may have a profound impact on a student, even if the grandparent didn’t live with them. The student may be having to shoulder the grief of their parent who did just loose a parent. My best friend’s children grieved and still do grieve their grandfather who died a little over a year ago. The pain is still fresh for my friend’s family.
So how can we as teachers help?
Supporting a Grieving Student
Attend the Funeral
If at all possible, attend the funeral to show support for your student. Your student will appreciate a friendly face, and they will appreciate knowing that someone came specifically for them. For a student, the funeral of their loved one may be the first funeral they have ever had to attend. The most important adults in their lives will be consumed with their own grief. Say hello and express your heartfelt condolences. Funerals are for the living, not for the dead. So it doesn’t matter if you had met the family member or not, you should attend. They’ll remember you cared enough to go, possibly for the rest of their lives. It makes a big impact.
After the Student Returns to School
What to Expect
Just showing up in your classroom and facing the world after loss could be immensely difficult for your child. And those emotions won’t always come out as a tears. Your student may have angry outbursts or clam up.
As soon as possible when the student returns to school, have a private conversation with the child. Let them know that you are here for them and that in your classroom, they are safe. Let them tell you about what happened if they want to, but don’t force them too. Work with your student and your administrator to have a place where your student can go if they need a place to cry privately. It might be in the counselor’s office, the main office, the library. Somewhere quiet, removed, and out of the prying eyes of other students as much as possible.
Keep in mind that not only is the student grieving, but the students routine has been uprooted. If mom passed, dad or another caretaker is suddenly taking on new roles like packing lunches and carpool while grieving a loss themselves. Your student might be tardy for reasons completely out of his control. Homework is likely (and if you ask me, understandably) not going to be a priority for a while. If it gets out of control, talk to an admin. You’ll need to call home, but you’ll need to have a caring, compassionate conversation about it. Our society expects people to “get over it,” more quickly than many people are equipped to handle. Remember, you can’t do the Bloom’s stuff until you do the Maslow stuff. During grief, your students are working on feeling safe and secure and looking for love and belonging when a person they loved went away.
If you have access to a guidance counselor, your student should most likely make use of that resource. Here are some resources you can look through that guidance counselors use. Not all schools have a counselor, so if you’re stuck being guidance counselor as well, read more here. The resource includes a lot of videos making it handy to listen to while doing something else.
What to Say?
When someone dies, you probably wonder, “But what do I say?” It’s easy to be afraid of saying the wrong thing and making it worse. It feels like everything good say is cliche, and while true, those cliches can be more helpful than well intention ed messages that cause hurt.
It’s perfectly fine to start out by saying, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Yes, they will hear it a bunch, but that doesn’t make the sentiment not true. This isn’t really the time to break out a thesaurus or worry about using common phrases. It’s not the STAAR test, and there are no bonus points for creativity here. Nothing you say is going to be able to magically make the death OK. The goal here is to comfort, express empathy, and avoid adding pain.
People shy away from acknowledging what happened is bad. Our society is particularly uncomfortable around death. We often feel the need to fix it or to reassure someone when they are upset that everything is OK. That won’t work here. Everything is not OK. Nothing will ever be the same again for your student. By facing this discomfort and acknowledging it head on in a compassionate way sets a good example for the student. By saying what happened is terrible, you show them an appropriate way to use words to express what happened instead of stuffing emotions down and pretending everything is fine.
Use words accurate words like, “death,” and, “died,” especially for younger students. Attempts at softening the blow at best don’t really work, and at worst, confuse children into thinking that their loved one will come back. Don’t tell a child, “At least he is in a better place now,” or any variation of that. They will feel like the better place to be will be alive and with them. Also, you and your student may not share the same belief system.
You might have experienced a loss too, even around the same age as them. While it is tempting to empathize by sharing your story, people grieving don’t benefit from this. Quite simply, it’s not about you. This is about their grief, their loved one, not you and yours.
Words to Say
- I am so sorry
- I don’t know what to say, but please know I care.
- I am here to help you.
- You are in my thoughts.
- It is awful what happened.
- Died, death
Words and Phrases to Avoid
- At least…
- In a better place now
- It was his time to go.
- I know how you feel.
- You are in my prayers (Even if true, the student may not share your belief system. Plus you could get in trouble.)
- Passed away
We Were Going to be Reading (Insert Sad Book Here)
Was a sad book on the list of books you were planning to read for the year? If you have the option and flexibility, it’s probably not the best year to read “Where the Red Fern Grows,” “Charlotte’s Web,” or “The Bridge to Terabithia.” Your kids will still learn the skills they need to master with more lighthearted novel studies.
Yes, your other students will need to learn about death, loss, and empathy. Honestly, they are likely to be learning quite a bit from their classmate in a way that a book could never teach them. They will have plenty of opportunity to read sad books in other grades. I am of the opinion that the benefit to the other students does not outweigh the pain for the student who experienced loss.
To help students deal with death in the classroom, it’s important to account for their developmental age. For elementary age students, consider a class meeting to let other students know that their classmate experienced a loss and might be sad for a while. Young students won’t always seem sad. Besides sadness and anger, your student may feel anxiety, guilt, or even shame at what has happened. They may not talk about their feelings much, but they might be a student who clings and needs extra attention from you.
Be prepared to answer tough questions your student might ask. Your classroom may be the most normal/stable place they have during this time. When you answer questions, be direct. Use clear language like, “death,” and, “died.” Avoid using euphemisms like, “passed away,” or, “lost.” The person who died isn’t missing and won’t return so don’t confuse the child or give her false hope.
What to do for Mother’s Day/Father’s Day Activities?
Maybe your school has Donuts with Dad or Muffin’s with Mom and you aren’t sure how to handle it. Talk to the student’s caregiver well in advance of any activity and work out a plan. The right thing to do should be a decision made jointly with the family. Some families may have another relative that would like to be honored as a stand in for the family member that passed away. Your student may want to participate in making a craft like the rest of the class for someone else special in their life, but if it is too hard, they might prefer visiting another classroom for that time period. Remember to send them with something fun so they won’t have a double whammy of being excluded from fun and grief.
What to Tell the Classmates?
For younger classmates, they may not quite understand what happened. Explain in simple terms to classmates that their friend’s loved one died. Explain that their friend will be sad when they come back to school and they might be sad for a long time. Talk to your students about ways that they can be a good friend when someone is sad. Have the class make cards.
Middle School and High School
Older students will understand death, but still can’t cope as well as an adult can. Because of their age and a teenagers drive for independence, they will be pulling aware from their remaining family. They may be more at risk for using drugs, fighting, or having sex, but of course that won’t happen for all students.
You already should be greeting your students at the door, but if you aren’t, start making it a practice now. Take an extra few moments to check in on your student who experienced the loss at the door. Work on building an especially good relationship with that student. If appropriate, ask the student, “How are you coping today.” Talk with your student to give them some choices that may help. Your student might prefer to sit in the back near a box of tissues to be less conspicuous if tears come. Do make sure the spot is also conducive to the student’s learning and checks out with any 504/IEP accommodations as the legal requirements have to come first.
It’s easier for grieving students in middle and high schools to get lost in the shuffle. They don’t have one teacher looking out for them in a classroom of maybe 25. Instead they have 7 or 8 teachers who maybe have 150-200 students each. Building a relationship with the student will potentially take more work because there is a shorter time to do it. Do what you can, and take an interest. Let the child know you see him and care about him. Encourage your student to get involved in an activity at the school. Band, art, sports, theater, dance, robotics, or something else. A group activity will help the student develop closer ties with peers to see them through the grief. And since many students choose to keep the same activity year after year, they can also develop a closer relationship with a teacher year over year.
Respect the child first and foremost. Your student might not want to talk about the loss, and that’s OK. They might prefer to write, draw, play music or something else to express their feelings. If you are teaching elementary, make sure the art, music, and PE teacher are aware of what happened. They may be able to collaborate with you on some ideas to help sooth or express feelings. If your student is having outbursts of anger, provide options on how to express the emotion in a less destructive way. Work out a signal where your student can tell you they need to draw in their journal for a bit to calm down for example. While it’s not necessarily on task with your lesson, it’s less disruptive to your classroom than an outburst and teaches them how to manage their emotions, which is a valuable life lesson too.
Your student may complain of physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches. Grief does manifest itself into physical pain. The child really is feeling this, they aren’t making it up. It isn’t all in their head. Send the student to the nurse when appropriate. Even if you think it is grief, as a teacher, you’re not medically trained to make that call. While I didn’t experience a loss like this as a student I had stomach aches for about a decade before I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. They started in high school and everybody though it was, “stress,” so I’m particularly sensitive to ignoring physical ailments in students. Grief and tragedy can be a trigger for physical diseases like autoimmune conditions. If your student frequently complains of a physical ailment, take data so you can let their caregiver know the frequency. That way they can give the students doctor the information to make a more informed decision about care.
Grief is universal. While some cultures (or even just families) are open with their grief, others may be much more reserved. It’s important to respect how a child grieves because there is no one right way to grieve. No matter what culture your student is from, approach them with empathy, kindness, and thoughtfulness.
Grief doesn’t have a timeline. Even if a student experienced loss a year or more ago, doesn’t mean that grief won’t be impacting your student emotionally. Transitions between schools might be difficult. In high school, a student may be keenly aware of milestones their loved one is missing out on seeing. Don’t act like a student should be, “over it,” even if they are years removed from the loss.
If you’re a teacher, you should read at least one book to prepare you for this heavy topic before it happens. A student could potentially get the news while in your classroom. Waiting until a child has lost an important person is late to read up and then make a plan. We don’t (or shouldn’t) leave lesson planning to the last minute, and this is far more important than any one academic lesson. Here are some books to start with. The book links are affiliate links which means I could make a small commission off the book, but at no additional cost to you.
Helping a student with grief in the classroom isn’t easy. It’s not what schools were designed to do. But with the right approach, your student will remember the love and care you showed them in the absolute worst of times forever. There is no perfect thing to say or do, only better things to say and do. You can’t fix it, so don’t try to. Focus on being a supportive, compassionate person for the child.