Frequently Asked Questions from School Professionals
It is always a good idea to talk with the parents/family and the student and ask what their wishes are about sharing information to classmates. Options include:
- Sending a note home with students informing parents about the death.
- Classmates can make sympathy cards or other expressions of support.
- In certain situations, telling the class what has happened in advance of the student’s return can be helpful so the student is not “bombarded” with questions.
It is important for teachers to acknowledge the death to the student. However, most students do not want to be ‘different” or set apart from their peers.
You do not have to wait for the grieving child to begin a conversation about the loss. Be simple, straightforward and say: “I am sorry about your mother’s death. I am here and would like to help you.” Saying nothing conveys the message that it is not okay to show grief feelings or talk about their experience.
Avoid euphemisms and speak directly, using the words “dead”, and “died”. It is also helpful to use the same language the student uses. Try not to use phrases that soften the blow such as “sleeping”, “passed away” or “lost”. These messages can be confusing and instill fear and anxiety.
Remember to continue to inquire in the weeks and months that follow, not only in the first few days after the death.
It is important to acknowledge the death and not ignore it. Allow the student time and opportunities to talk about what they are feeling. Allowing them to share memories of their friend or school official can be very helpful. Take time to answer questions with age-appropriate truth and what the family allows. It is okay to say “I don’t know” and “we don’t have all the answers”.
Many time grieving students experience teasing or bullying about the death loss. In young children, it can look like “at least I have a dad”, “you can’t do Donuts with Dad”, and “stop crying just because you don’t have a mom”. Do not ignore this teasing. It is important to address the issue immediately and not let it continue. Set boundaries in the classroom, lunch, recess and other times. A grieving child is more susceptible to bullying due to grief feelings and emotions. Other children often do not understand if they have never had a death loss in their family.
Help the grieving child develop strategies for handling the teasing as well as giving consequences to the bully.
Yes, if your school permits. Many WARM Place children have said how much it meant to them when their teachers and classmates attended the funeral.
If you notice the following behaviors lasting over a prolonged period, you may suggest referral:
- Persistence of blame or guilt
- Character changes
- Aggressive/destructive outbursts
- Depression/suicidal thoughts or actions
- Illegal acts/stealing
- Appearance/exhibiting no emotion or feeling
- Signs of addictive behavior i.e. drugs, food
- Prolonged dysfunction in school (falling grades, withdrawal from extracurricular activities, social isolation)
- Consider INTENSITY and DURATION
These signs may not show up for awhile
One of the biggest fears for younger children is their own security and safety when someone dies. They worry that someone else might die while they are at school or away from home. Sometimes just allowing the child to talk with his/her parent on the phone can provide reassurance. It helps to renew the child’s sense of security. Grief in younger children often affects them in a physical way: headaches, stomach aches and lack of sleep can result in frequent trips to the school nurse’s office.
Grief affects teens on many levels. Grief impacts how a teen thinks, feels and behaves. The death of a friend or family member can be emotionally, physically, and cognitively exhausting. Focusing on school work can become a problem. Lack of sleep often contributes to their lack of focus. Feelings of grief can be triggered in school assemblies, curriculum, activities, or by other students.
Carefully listening for the underlying need is very important. Teachers and counselors can work together to provide emotional safety and support at school.
Allowing a student to go home often becomes a “slippery slope” and may result in habits that are hard to break.
Ideally the answer is a case-by-case basis. Working with the child and parents to identify grief triggers can help in the process. Offer the grieving student options: allow them to identify and talk with a trusted teacher or counselor, take a short time out of the classroom, or talking to the parent/caregiver on the phone.
It is helpful for a child to attend the funeral to make the death more real and concrete. It can also be helpful for a child to take part in it. (For example, lighting a candle, reading, sharing a memory etc.) Children can be encouraged to attend and participate in the planning but should never be forced to do so. When they are lovingly guided through the process, and know what to expect, most children want to attend the funeral.
Let it be the child’s choice. Offer the child options.
Adults have trouble facing death themselves at times. Therefore, open, honest discussions about death with children can be difficult. Sometimes adults do not want to talk about the death because they think they will spare the child some pain and sadness. The reality is, children will grieve anyway. Children need to be told the facts surrounding the death in simple language appropriate to their age and understanding. Young children grieve in short blocks of time. Adults should answer their questions in a matter of fact way as many times as needed for the child to comprehend. Teens may need to take time to process the information. It is important they hear from someone they trust rather than from other teens or through social media. Talk to them in a safe comfortable place and let their questions guide in your sharing.
Let it be the child’s choice. Offer the child options.