By David Schonfeld, MD | February 10, 2015
Director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
Grief in children is real, powerful and common. Over the course of their school lives, 9 in 10 children will experience the death of a family member or close friend. One in 20 will lose a parent.
Think about this for a moment. Chances are that in almost every class, in every school throughout this country, there is at least one grieving student. Grief can have an impact on that student’s learning, school performance, social development and emotional health.
Schools have a unique and essential role to play in supporting grieving students. Some fairly simple interventions can help students navigate their experience more successfully and better manage school, friends, family and their own emotions. The newly introduced Coalition to Support Grieving Students offers schools and staff a rich set of resources to help them provide support that is both practical and meaningful.
I don’t want to pathologize grief—it is, indeed, a natural occurrence. It is important, however, that we not lose sight of how extraordinarily painful grief is for children. In my work as the Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, I have worked with hundreds of schools coping with crisis and loss, and I have talked to thousands of children and adults about grief during childhood. Grief is indeed a special circumstance, and it is one that deserves attention.
Impact on Learning
Every child, and every adult, experiences grief in a unique way. Responses depend upon things such as age, the relationship with the deceased, the circumstances of death, previous experience with death and loss, and what types of changes might occur in the person’s life as a result of the death.
For children, grief can have a profound effect on learning and school performance. Typically, they experience difficulty with concentration. Distractions abound. Schoolwork may seem puzzling or pointless. Good students may be discouraged to see their grades slip. Students already struggling with school may see their learning problems worsen.
A range of other challenges face grieving children. They often experience deep feelings of anxiety and sadness. They may become depressed. Sleep problems are common. There may be outbursts of anger or despair. Guilt and shame frequently emerge.
In older children and teens, risk behaviors may increase—drinking, drugs, taking dares, risky sex.
Most adults are not comfortable talking with children about a death, and often peers are not sure what to say either. Grieving children can be perplexed themselves about how to talk about these new and powerful experiences. They may withdraw or become isolated.
Without effective support, the overall impact on development, behavior and emotional adjustment can be profound.
The Unique and Powerful Role of Schools
Schools are uniquely placed to provide powerful support to students—in most cases with a fairly minimal amount of time commitment. Why are schools so special to grieving students?
Sometimes, a child who has done quite well in the year or two after a death has new challenges, especially during times of transition—starting puberty or entering high school, for example.
What Can Schools Do?
There are three main steps school staff can take to support grieving students.
No one wants to give these sorts of hurtful, isolating messages to grieving children.
A very simple, straightforward comment can make a world of difference. “I was so sorry to hear about your sister’s death. I’m thinking about you and your family.” It can be as easy as that.
They might help students understand how to talk with their friends or family about their feelings, what to expect from the process of grief, what death means (especially young children), how to navigate this process, and where to get resources.
After a death, families often speak to school staff before they’ve been in touch with other professionals such as counselors or pediatricians. The school may be able to give vital guidance on such things as how to support children attending the funeral, how parents can support the child’s academic efforts, emotional support for the family and what to expect over time as the child’s expressions of grief change.
The school can work with grieving students to adapt their course demands—postponing a test, allowing a student to complete a paper instead of taking a final, providing alternative activities that better match the student’s current state of mind.
Another important effort is educating all students about death and grief so they understand how to best support peers coping with loss. Children naturally want to be supportive and helpful. Their own anxieties about death—or those they’ve picked up from adults—sometimes interfere with this impulse.
When Should Schools Prepare to Support Grieving Students?
If I can communicate one essential message to schools, it is, “Get ready now.” Your students are already experiencing grief and loss. When your staff is better trained and the school has developed appropriate policies for these situations, everyone will be more attentive to these issues as they arise. This can make an immense difference for students.
Additionally, in today’s world of social media, there is often little time to prepare a response to a death in the school community—a student, teacher or other staff member, for example. It is ideal, of course, when a school can first arrange a meeting for teachers, discuss what has occurred, and plan how and when to talk to students. However, this is simply not possible when students learn of a death on Facebook over a lunch break.
Fortunately, there are some excellent resources that can help schools, teachers and communities make these preparations.
Further Thoughts on Social Media
Social media is an indisputable part of our world. Sometimes it is helpful, and sometimes it is not. In the arena of children and grief, expressions of support through social media can be quite useful.
I’d like to share three stories with you that demonstrate some of the ways social media is influencing the experience of risk, grief and loss in young people today.
A young man graduated from a private parochial school. The school grounds encompassed elementary, middle and high schools in one location. He returned to the school a few months after graduation. In the middle of the school day, in full view of the elementary classrooms, he shot and killed himself.
Just before shooting himself, he posted a letter on Facebook saying that he had been molested by one of the school staff and that was the reason he was taking his life by suicide. Staff and students throughout the school saw this post before it was removed.
Through a student exchange program, a group of American students spent a summer with students in another country. All of the students in the program stayed in touch through social media, and over the course of the program they grew quite close. When the program ended, the connections continued.
One of the students in the other country died. Students in both countries set up a web-based memorial service. Across oceans, they were able to share stories of this boy they had all known and loved. It was a powerful way for them to honor his memory, share their grief and provide support.
A young woman in a college sorority returned to her parents’ home over a holiday break. On her Facebook feed, she kept updated on her classmates’ activities.
One day during the break, the ex-boyfriend of one of the members of the sorority posted a distraught message saying his former girlfriend was suicidal and he didn’t know how to help her now that they had broken up.
The young woman didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t close to the girl mentioned and didn’t have a way to make sure she was safe. She decided to contact the faculty advisor for the sorority. The advisor did have contact information for the girl’s parents. She reached them by phone, the girl at risk was located, an intervention was made, and a life may have been saved.
These stories demonstrate a wide spectrum of possibilities, from one of the worst cases imaginable to a stellar example of helpful and healthy support. In the third story, a young woman’s composure, willingness to get involved and level-headed response turned around what might have been a tragic and disturbing outcome.
Together, these examples reinforce the call for educators to learn effective ways to respond to a death in a student’s life, or in the broader school community. Every educator needs to know how to respond as students cope with these situations.
As you review materials from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (and I hope you will), you’ll be struck by how simple most of the recommendations are. I’ve heard people say, “This information is so clear. It’s common sense. Anyone could do it.”
This is certainly true. These are straightforward guidelines that can be put into practice by almost anyone.
On the other hand, I always want to remind school professionals that watching children suffer is difficult. It may be helpful to remember that it is not your conversation that is causing the pain, but the terrible loss of the student’s loved one.
There is an undeniable emotional component to these efforts. It is rewarding to reach out to children at such important moments in their lives. It can also bring up feelings of sadness and memories of our own losses. This can be especially hard when we are going through difficulties ourselves—a life-threatening illness or recent tragedy involving a family member, for example.
It is helpful to remember that it is OK to seek support from others, to hand over follow-up with a grieving student to a colleague and to engage in other self-care activities.
David Schonfeld, MD, is the Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) and one of the main organizers of the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the NCSCB at 877-536-2722 (877-53-NCSCB).