Educators and students can exist in a healthier 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. Children’s grief should be seen as an ongoing life process that is approachable through words, activities, nonverbal communication and accountability.
Educators can use this understanding to create a safe environment for parents, teachers and children to acknowledge and process difficult feelings. By Linda Goldman, MS healingmagazine.org 2012 27Education Grief in today’s world So often, adults rely on the prevailing myth that children are too young to 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 both inside and outside of their homes. Girls and boys 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 our children globally face the loss of the protection of the adult world, as grief-related 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 fear, isolation and loneliness, which can be far more damaging than the original loss.
Natural disasters ranging from earthquakes to tornadoes wreak havoc involving death and destruction of property. Family issues in our modern world including adoption, divorce, immigration, deployment and imprisonment reflect, for so many young people, family loss through separation.
Normal signs of grief Today’s educators first need to become familiar with the common 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. Sophie was a fourth-grade client whose dad had died of suicide on her birthday. During our grief therapy session, she explained her rage at her teacher, Mrs. Martin. Sophie had told her the first week of school that her father had committed suicide over the summer.
Mrs. Martin never responded to her and never addressed the subject again. Sophie was furious and swore never to tell anyone else in school about this death. I asked Sophie what she wished her teacher had 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. Normalizing grief Educators need to understand that children don’t like to feel different.
When they have experienced the death of a parent, they sometimes choose not to talk about it. Not talking about the death allows some kids to feel control over normalizing their life. Tyler 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. Tyler scored the final basket that won the victory for his team. Charlie, Tyler’s coach, ran over to Tyler 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,” Tyler replied.
Coach Charlie was unaware that Tyler’s dad had died of cancer three months earlier. Tyler needed to save face and avoid his dad’s death in order to “appear normal.”
Normalizing grief response for children It is common for grieving children 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 their loved one
•Speak of their loved one in the present tense
•Tend to worry about the health of their 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 Tyler as a grieving child.
The school guidance counselor could serve as a liaison to identify grieving children to all faculty members who currently work with them. ll painful to remember her. Mr. Barry admonished Katie. “It’s been two years since your mom has died. You need to get over it and move on!” Katie 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, Katie and I lit a candle to remember her mom. Perhaps Mr. Barry could have responded to Katie in a more compassionate way that would have enabled her to safely express challenging feelings in school. One useful procedure is creating an agreement with Katie to choose a designated safe adult in school to speak with when she missed her mom. Another effective intervention could have been to invite Katie to make a symbolic Mother’s Day card for her mom, write a poem about her mom or plant a flower in her memory. Letter and poetry writing are grief therapy techniques that allow children to create concrete ways to commemorate the death of a loved one. The following is a letter Ashley wrote to her mom on Mother’s Day. 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.
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 fundraiser 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.
What a bereaved child needs Things to remember when your child is grieving
•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 okay.
•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.