Back to School for the Grieving Child

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by Taryn Lacey, MA, MHC-P, Niagara Hospice Bereavement Counselor and Camp Hope Director

The excitement of back to school in September often turns to trepidation for the grieving child. Parents, teachers and children can help themselves with knowledge about grief that will help ease the transition.

There are many myths surrounding grief; as illustrated in the picture below. But one thing is for sure, grief can be an uncomfortable topic. Addressing the subject directly can help. Think about how you feel or might feel when someone tries to console you while you are mourning. What do you like about what people say and do for you? What makes you angry about how people address you? One thing we know is that although you may look okay on the outside, you may really be hurting on the inside.

Children are no different in this respect. And vice versa. For example, for a teacher who may have a troubled student bouncing out of her seat because she cannot concentrate, it may be grief. What helps to figure out the root cause is just to ask, "Hey, are you okay? I know that your father died this summer and I want you to know that if you ever need to talk about it, or leave the room to collect yourself, we can make a plan ahead of time to address your needs." It's okay to be there for each other.

 

Following are some suggestions for parents, teachers and children to help the grieving child cope with a new school year while missing someone very dear to them.

Parents:
The following tips were found on the What's Your Grief (WYG) blog, a great resource for grief and loss. You can use all or just a few of these suggestions; you know what is best for your child.

  • Definitely talk to your child directly about grief and loss before going back to school. As you know, getting back into the swing of things can be difficult.
  • To make things easier for you, and your child, allow time to think about the following checklist. Also, be especially mindful with younger children if the child thinks they may have caused the death. For example, Sammy was playing doctor on Grandma before she died. Sammy stopped playing doctor altogether after her death because he thought he couldn't save her, he cannot possibly save anyone, and he thinks he killed Grandma.
  • If you think your child needs extra support in the form of grief counseling then reach out!
  • Lastly, just say it! It's not necessary to dance around the topic. Ask what your child believes happens after death. What happened to the body? Allow your child to make a list of questions they want answered, and don't be afraid to answer them truthfully.

Teachers:
Here are a few tips for teachers on what to look for and how to help their students:

  • Be mindful of class/homework assignments that have death related events involved. Tread lightly, and allow the student to see a counselor if necessary, and to do that particular assignment with the counselor.
  • If the student needs a secret signal in order to leave the class before a breakdown, create it ahead of time.
  • It's always better to acknowledge the loss than not; there's no need to dance around the topic.
  • Children can still make crafts for their deceased loved one, or give the craft to someone else i.e. uncle/aunt, etc. For example, for Father's Day make a gift for a favorite uncle or other prominent male figure. If they do choose to make the gift for the deceased, then offer to put it in a special memorial box the student can keep and look into later.
  • Send a card in the mail before school starts, or give it to the grieving child personally.
  • If a student dies, don't replace the seat - you can decorate it or create a memorial. Or, if you must utilize the space - create a memorial board for that student.
  • Just say it; "I know your father died. I am sorry for your loss. I am here if you need to talk, and so is the school counselor."

Children:
Although terrible to have to think about, if someone bullies your child/student after the death of a loved one, provide them with the following tips:

  1. Know that it's NOT your fault.
  2. Stick to the friends and family that you know are supportive.
  3. How will you react the next time bullying happens? (Example: Walk away)
  4. Talk to an adult you can trust; parent, caregiver, counselor, teacher, other family member.
  5. Remember that YOU ARE AWESOME! There are many people that care about you.


Additional resources:

Helping Kids Cope With Loss
The Adventure of Grief: Dr Geoff Warburton at TEDxBrighton
Camp Hope

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