How to Help a Grieving Child

Dealing with death is not easy. It is probably something that you would not have pictured yourself and your class having to face. When death comes to someone close, surviving children suffer severe shock and will react in different ways. Grieving students will probably show a loss of self-esteem and identity. Their world has been drastically and permanently altered.

You may not think that you are the right person to deal with the subject, but you are the one the children need and want. There may be nobody else but you. They will need your support and help as they re-establish themselves at home and in the classroom.

Remember, the teacher is one of the most important adults assisting in the grieving process. Parents who are grieving deeply often have little energy or strength to help their children. Be assured that if you listen and respond with words or a gentle smile to the feelings expressed by your grieving student(s), you will be doing exactly what is most needed. When a student approaches you, she is trusting you to be there for her. Trust yourself enough to respond. Don't try to prevent the child from grieving. Grief is a normal and necessary process that should not be blocked. Each individual has their own way of grieving and this should be respected. Don't have set expectations or a time limit on a person's grieving process. ("Your brother died over a month ago. It's time for you to move on."). Some children grieve right away, others not until months later. Some grieve intensely, others intermittently.

If a major news event occurred that caught the attention of your students, you would surely incorporate it into your daily discussion, because there would be questions and concerns. When there has been a death that touches the lives of your students, they will not be able to concentrate on anything else until the subject is addressed.

Students will react to their grief in different ways. Aggressive behaviors, passive behavior, fear, anxiety and withdrawal are all normal responses. Physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea are also common. Time spent talking about the death and addressing feelings of grief are instrumental to your students and to the eventual return to their studies.

"You can't go around grief, you have to go through it." Students need to express their feelings and need opportunities to discover that their feelings are very normal and are shared by others. Bereaved students often have a difficult time concentrating in the classroom. Death severs relationships. Children need time to find out for themselves what can be salvaged. Offer academic support such as after school sessions or tutoring. Confer with the family to develop a positive plan to relieve the anxiety of all concerned.

Three things are of primary importance to the grieving child/teen:

  1. They need to feel safe within their world(s). You can make the classroom feel safe by listening with respect to the student's concerns and allowing the students most affected by the death special options. You can also incorporate discussions of safety and health.
  2. They need authority figures to acknowledge their pain. You acknowledge their pain when you respond with "You seem sad." When you do this, you send the message that feelings are OK and a very natural part of being human. When you give them safe ways to express their feelings, you are teaching them a lifetime of coping skills.
  3. They need to know that no time limit is drawn on their grief. You can expect that reactions to the death will last throughout the school year, and in fact, for years to come. You can affirm the student's discovery that death is not a temporary happening but rather an event that will continue to impact their lives. When you do this, you place value on human life and relationships. Don't try to "fix" the grieving child or somehow stop the sadness. This is impossible and such efforts usually result in more pain for the child.
As a teacher, you are in a position to open doors for children by allowing access to interior feelings. Grieving children who have been treated with care and consideration grow into sensitive caring adults. You can play a major part in making this happen.

Another way to help a grieving child is through books. Perhaps books could be made available in the school library or read aloud in class, or given as a very useful gift to the family. Contact us for our recommendations.

Fernside children and teens have spoken honestly about their readjustment to school. Kids liked it when their teacher said:

  • "I'm sorry that Tom died."
  • "I know that you are sad. It's OK to cry."
  • "We can set up a signal system. If you need to leave the class, you can be excused."
  • "If you cannot work on this special project right now, you can do something extra another time during the year."
  • "If you cannot turn all of your assignments in or keep up with all of your homework, I will lighten your assignments for awhile."
  • "Would you like it if we moved your desk so you could sit by your friend?"
  • "I can't know how you feel, but I want to help you in any way that I can."
  • "I'm ready to listen when you're ready to talk."
  • "I can't know how you feel, but I had a death in my family . . ." (If you feel comfortable sharing a personal experience, the student may respond very positively and a degree of trust may develop.)
Kids didn't like it when their teacher said:
  • "It's been four months now, you should be over it."
  • "You shouldn't be this angry. Being angry won't bring your brother back."
  • "Your mother would be so proud of you for getting on with your life. Now get back to work and concentrate."
  • "This paper is not up to your usual excellence. What in the world is the matter with you?"
  • "You'll get over it in time."
  • "It's been over a month since your sister died. Don't you think you should stop wearing her sweatshirt?"
  • "We don't have time to talk about Jim's brother anymore, we have to get back to work."