Helping the Grieving Child in School

Children’s grief should be seen as an ongoing life process that is approachable through words, activities and non-verbal communication. Educators can use this understanding to create a safe environment for parents, teachers and children
to acknowledge and process difficult feelings.

So often adults rely on the prevailing myth that children are too young too grieve. When a child is capable of loving, he is capable of grieving. Yet many of today’s children are born into a world of grief issues that await them inside their homes and outside their neighborhoods. Boys and girls are becoming increasingly traumatized by these prevailing social and societal
loss issues in their homes, in their schools and in their communities.

A major percentage of America’s children face the loss of the protection of the adult world, as grief issues of homicide, violence and abuse infiltrate their outer and inner worlds. Issues involving shame and secretiveness when death is caused by such occurrences as suicide and the contraction of AIDS create a grieving child that is locked into the pain of isolation –
which can be far more damaging than the original loss.

Normal signs of grief

Today’s educators first need to become familiar with the normal signs of grief. Educators and students can exist in a more healthy living and learning environment by acknowledging the special needs of the grieving child. Foremost is the complex relationship between loss issues and a child’s ability to function in and out of the classroom. The needs of the grieving child must be addressed in a new and fresh way within our school systems to create a safe haven for learning for our young people.

Educators also need to understand the normal signs of grief in order to normalize them for parents and students. We then can develop ways to work with the grieving child within the school system. Mary (names have been changed) was a fourth grade client whose dad had committed suicide on her birthday. During our grief therapy session, she told me she was enraged at her teacher, Mrs. Albert.

Mary had told her the first week of school that her father had committed suicide during the summer. Mrs. Albert never responded to her and never addressed the subject again. Mary was furious and swore never to tell anyone else in school about this death. I asked Mary what she wished her teacher would have said. She replied, “I wish she would have given me a
hug, said she was sorry, and promised she would be there if I ever wanted to talk about my dad or the way he died.”

Educators can develop ways to normalize and discuss these delicate subjects with children. Educators need to understand that children don’t like to feel different. When they have experienced the death of a parent, they often choose not to talk about it. Not talking about the death allows some kids to feel some control over normalizing their life.

Andy was playing on the school basketball team, and the final tournament was a major event. Most of the moms and dads of the team members came to support their children for the game. Andy scored the final basket that won the victory for his team. Charlie, Andy’s coach, ran over to Andy to congratulate him, and all the other boys and their parents joined in the celebration.

“Where’s your dad?” Coach Charlie asked. “He’s working today, and couldn’t come,” Andy replied. Coach Charlie was unaware that Andy’s dad had died of cancer three months earlier. Andy needed to save face and avoid his dad’s death in order to “appear normal.”

It is normal for a grieving child to:
• Imitate behavior of the deceased.
• Want to “appear normal”.
• Need to tell the story over and over
again.
• Enjoy wearing or holding something
of loved one.
• Speak of loved one in the present.
• Tend to worry about health and
health of surviving loved ones.

If the school had a policy of maintaining a “grief and loss inventory,”, Coach Charlie could have reviewed this tool for all of his students in order to identify Andy as a grieving child. The school guidance counselor can serve as a liaison to identify grieving children to all faculty who currently work with the child.

So often today’s children are misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities after their experience with traumatic loss. Hyperactivity, impulsivity and inability to concentrate are normal grief symptoms that too often become the
behavioral criteria to diagnose learning problems.

Seven-year-old Sam was a second grader whose older sister Sally was murdered in a drive-by shooting the day before
Christmas. He came back to school after the winter holidays with extreme restlessness and frequent swings of emotional outbursts and withdrawal. This continued for several months, along with a decrease in attention and school performance. The grief symptoms continued well into third grade, where Sam’s teacher expressed concern that he might be exhibiting signs of attention deficit.

She suggested to his mom that Sam receive an evaluation by his pediatrician. Sam was placed on Ritalin and given this drug for the next three years. He continued to have the nightmares and bed-wetting that began with his sister’s death. However, these anxieties were never addressed inside or outside of the school system. Sam became a part of the learning disabled population, and his deep grief and its symptoms remained buried.

Sam also became a member of a schoolbased grief therapy group, which he attended with four other children between the ages of six and nine. He attended this group, led by his guidance counselor, for several months. Children made memory books, commemorated loved ones, and shared photos and stories. Sam’s concentration in school became more focused; eventually, he was taken off the medication. He continued going to a children’s bereavement group in a neighboring hospice program for the rest of the school year.

We, as caring adults, need to be educated in learning the signs of normal and complicated grief. Gaining a respect for and acceptance of the feelings of anxiety and depression that occur with normal grief can be a strong force in differentiating between grief and ADD or LD.

The bereaved child may:
• Become the class clown.
• Become withdrawn and unsociable.
• Bed-wet or have nightmares.
• Become restless in staying seated.
• Call out of turn.
• Not complete schoolwork.
• Have problems listening and
staying on task.
• Become overly talkative.
• Become disorganized.
• Show reckless physical action.
• Show poor concentration around
external stimuli.
• Show difficulty in following
directions.

So often adults tell children they “need to move on and get over their loss.” We, in the educational system, need to recognize and build into our grief awareness the ongoing process of grief. Each child’s grief is unique, and the grief experience is unique to each individual.

Ashley was a third grader whose mom had died of a sudden heart attack when she was in first grade. Her art class was making Mother’s Day gifts, and she was flooded with memories as class members began talking about their moms. Ashley burst into tears and ran out of the room. Her teacher, Mr. Barry, rushed after her. Ashley explained that her mom had died two years ago, and it was still painful to remember her.

Mr. Barry admonished Ashley, “It’s been two years since your mom has died. You need to get over it and move on!” Ashley said she hated her teacher for saying that. The last thing she wanted to do was forget her mom. What she needed, instead, were concrete ways to remember her.

During grief therapy session that day, Ashley and I lit a candle to remember Mom. Mr. Barry could have responded to Ashley in a compassionate way that would have helped her feel safe to express her feelings of grief in school. An agreement between them designating a safe adult within the school whom Ashley could see when she missed her mom might have created a
way to allow for her grief feelings. Mr. Barry could have also invited Ashley to create a symbolic Mother’s Day card for
her mom, write a poem about her mom, or plant a flower in her memory.

Interventions for the grieving child

Children gain a greater understanding of themselves when they can express previously hidden emotions. The awareness of unrecognized feelings also allows educators, parents and other caring adults to be more in touch with what is going on in the grief process.

Grief feelings and thoughts are continuous  and ever-changing, inundating their lives like waves on the ocean. These thoughts and feelings may arrive without warning, and children feel unprepared for their enormity in a school setting. Remember:
• The bereaved child needs to
acknowledge a parent or sibling who
died by using his or her name or
sharing a memory.
• The bereaved child needs to tell his
or her story over and over again.

• The bereaved child needs to use tools such as drawing, writing, role-playing, and reenactment to safely project feelings and thoughts about the loss and present life outside of themselves.
• The bereaved child needs to be allowed to go to a safe place outside the classroom when these unexpected, overwhelming feelings arise, without needing to explain why in front of fellow classmates.
• The bereaved child often is preoccupied with his or her own health and the health of loved ones. Providing a reality check – such as allowing the child to phone the surviving parent during the school day or to visit the school nurse – can reassure boys and girls that they and their families are O.K.
• The bereaved child needs to use memory work to create a physical way to remember their feelings and share them. Memory books are a collection of drawn or written feelings and thoughts that allow the child to re-experience memories in a safe way. The books serve as useful tools to enable children to tell about the person who died, and open
discussion. Kids can tell about how the person died and share funny, happy or sad memories. Educators can use a grief and loss inventory (Goldman, 1994) as a tool for creating and storing history on the grieving child throughout his or her
academic life. This history includes all losses, and important dates of birthdays and deaths of loved ones that may have a great impact on the child through the years.

Educators can also use the concept of “teachable moments” to create a spontaneous lesson calling upon a life experience
that is happening in “The Now”. The death of Mrs. Arnold’s class’s goldfish, Goldie, was a huge loss to the kindergartners. Goldie’s death during school provided a “teachable moment” whereby the children could express their feelings about death and commemorate their loss with a burial ritual and memorial service.
Classroom teachers can provide a safe haven for the grieving child by:
• Allowing the child to leave the room if needed.
• Allowing the child to call home if necessary.
• Creating a visit to the school nurse and guidance counselor periodically.
• Changing some work assignments.
• Assigning a class helper.
• Creating some private time in the day.
• Giving more academic progress reports.

Schools can help children commemorate a death in the school by:
• Creating a ceremony, releasing a balloon with a special note or lighting a candle.
• Creating a memorial wall with stories and pictures of shared events.
• Having an assembly about the student.
• Planting a memory garden.
• Initiating a scholarship fund.
• Establishing an ongoing fund raiser such as a car wash or bake sale, with proceeds going toward the family’s designated charity.
• Placing a memorial page and picture in the school yearbook or school newspaper.
• Sending flowers to the grieving family.

Conclusion

What we can mention, we can manage. This idea is a useful paradigm for educators to understand when formulating a safe environment for the grieving child. If professionals in the school system can acknowledge and express thoughts and feelings involving grief and loss, they can serve as role models for the ever-increasing population of students experiencing traumatic loss.

Children face losses in the form of sudden fatal accidents and deaths due to illness, suicide, homicide and AIDS. There are also many nondeath related issues that have a similar or the same effect on children. Loss of family stability from separation and divorce, violence and abuse, unemployment, multiple moves, parental imprisonment, and family alcohol and drug addiction are a few of the many grief issues impacting today’s young children.

Educators can provide grief vocabulary, resources, and crisis and educational interventions, preventions and
“postventions”. Administrators, teachers and parents can join in creating a safe haven for the grieving child within the school system. By opening communication about loss and grief issues, educators can create a bridge between the world of fear, isolation and loneliness to the world of truth, compassion and dignity for the grieving child.

Reprinted with permission from Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children With Complicated Grief-Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence and Abuse by Linda Goldman. 1996. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis; Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children by Linda Goldman. 1994. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

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Linda Goldman

More Articles Written by Linda

Linda Goldman is a Fellow in Thanantology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement (FT) with an MS degree in counseling and Master's Equivalency in early childhood education. Linda is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and a National Certified Counselor (NBCC). Linda Goldman is the author of Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children (First edition, 1994/ Second edition 2000) Taylor and Francis Publishers. Her second book is Breaking the Silence: a Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief (First edition, 1996/Second edition 2002). Her other books include Bart Speaks Out: An Interactive Storybook for Young Children On Suicide (1998) WPS publishers, a Phi Delta Kappan International fastback, Helping the Grieving Child in the School (2000), and a Chinese Edition of Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children With Complicated Grief (2001), the Japanese Edition of Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children (in press 2005), and "Raising Our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide for Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today’s World (2005)" and a children’s book Children Also Grieve (2005), Chinese translation of Children Also Grieve (2007) and Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society (2008). She has also authored contributing chapters in resources including Loss of the Assumptive World (2002), Annual Death, Dying, and Bereavement (2001-2007), Family Counseling and Therapy Techniques (1998), and The School Services Sourcebook: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (2006). She is currently writing two books to be included in a series, Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Death (in-press 2009) and Great Answers to Difficult Questions about Sex (in-press 2009). Listen to Linda on Open to Hope Radio

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  • Linda gives practical advice and concrete examples of how school administration can best help children after a loss. This article is a must read for everyone that works in a school or knows a child that has suffered a loss.