Supporting Students Coping With Grief
Most people don’t want to think about the idea of death, let alone a young person having to cope with it. However, a study published in School Psychology Quarterly found that people are most likely to experience their first sudden loss during their youth—between the ages of 15 and 16.
And that only covers sudden losses. “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 … Chances are that in almost every class, in every school throughout the country, there is at least one grieving student,” according to David Schonfeld, MD, Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
Read on to learn more about grief, how it affects children and young adults, and how you can help students with their grief no matter what relationship you have with them.
What Is Grief?
At its core, grief is a deep sadness in response to loss. People sometimes use grief, sadness, and depression interchangeably when talking about emotions and mental health, but they aren’t quite the same.
- Grief: Direct response to a loss during which someone goes through stages
- Sadness: A response to life changes, but usually with minimal disruption to one’s life
- Depression: A mental illness involving feeling down, sometimes triggered by an event but often not
- Denial: Refusing or being unable to believe the news is true
- Anger: Anger at the situation, a higher power, yourself, those around you, or the deceased
- Bargaining: Wondering what you could have done to stop this or how to undo it
- Depression: Extreme sadness
- Acceptance: You realize things can’t be changed and begin to move forward
There’s no correct order or length of time for these stages. Grieving individuals may go back and forth between all the stages—even acceptance.
How Does Grief Affect Children and Young Adults?
Everyone experiences and acts on grief differently. Personalities and life experiences influence whether someone breaks down, remains stoic, or does anything in between.
However, grief may affect students differently than adults when it comes to their academic and social lives. Children and young adults may also be more openly affected by the death of a pet.
Grief’s Effects on Social Behavior
Students of all ages who experience death may withdraw from their friends, lash out in anger, and become less social. Or they may throw themselves headfirst into socializing, trying to forget the pain they’re in by having fun with their friends. Sometimes this can be harmless; however, it’s crucial to watch out for risky behaviors.
Rick Ayers, author of “An Empty Seat in Class: Teaching and Learning After the Death of a Student,” explains the phenomenon of “some students seeking to get a social bump from being friends with the deceased. Some will even exaggerate their relationship for the sake of this bump.” He also points out that teens sometimes romanticize death, which can either appear in the form of life having more meaning or so-called “contagious suicide.”
College students could experience the same stages and social behaviors as adults, behave more like teens, or end up somewhere in between.
Grief’s Effects on Academics
Worsening grades is a common effect of grief, but not all students experience this—some immerse themselves fully in their academics.
The School Psychology Quarterly study reported that adolescents often perform less well academically while grieving, feel less confident in their abilities, and may dislike school more. However, the researchers also found students’ passion for academics and its merits didn’t change at all.
If we look at college learners, we may see similar results to the adolescent study above, but they could also have additional academic challenges. As legal adults, college students may suddenly be caregivers after a death and struggle to focus on school in addition to managing new responsibilities.
Are Grief Symptoms Different for Children and Young Adults?
Grief symptoms for children and young adults have a heavy crossover with adults, but there are differences.
Young Children and Grief
According to Earl A. Grollman, an expert in death education, there’s no minimum age at which people can experience grief—even infants and toddlers recognize loss. Some of the signs of grief for young children are the same as adults, but they experience and display others that adults may not. Young children may react with the following:
- Denial: Believing the whole thing is a joke, nightmare, or otherwise not real, which may last for months
- Sadness: Includes recognizable sadness and loneliness
- Panic: Worry they’re going to die the same way their loved one did or from an unrelated and even minor illness; they may fear others they love will die
- Guilt: Feeling this is their fault, blaming others for what happened, or idealizing the deceased
- Depression: Disinterest in normal activities, exhaustion, and anxiety
- Anger: Rage about why the person left them, who caused it (even the universe/a deity), and resentment toward the deceased or others around them
Unlike grief for older people, these stages aren’t set in stone. Not all kids will experience all of these, and they may experience some unexpected ones as well. They’ll eventually accept the death but may bring up the death at random for years to come.
Adolescents and Grief
Teens are already trying to figure out who they are, and the death of a loved one adds to this challenge. As Charles A. Corr, PhD, puts it, “When adolescents experience the death of a family member, a friend, a teacher, they are often left even more bewildered in their search for identity.”
Additionally, while teens may understand the concept of death, they might never have thought it could happen to or around them. Teens may go through the stages of grief like adults or experience some of the symptoms younger children do, along with feelings of losing their sense of self.
Adolescents are more prone to attempt suicide when someone around them completes the act. Therefore, it’s particularly important to look out for suicidal behaviors when helping teens deal with grief after a friend or family member’s suicide.
How to Help Children and Young Adults Who Are Grieving
Children and young adults need help with their grief process, even if they don’t verbalize it. If they don’t get assistance of some sort, they may end up in a tough mental spot.
Learn about how K-12 teachers and staff, college professionals, parents, mental health professionals, and even those who are grieving can help with the grief process. Each section has unique advice that’s helpful depending on your individual situation, so reading all of them will help ensure you have a variety of tactics.
How K-12 Teachers and Staff Can Help With Grief
When students experience death, whether one that results in individual grief (e.g., the death of a family member) or shared grief (e.g., the death of another student or teacher in the school), the school year doesn’t stop.
And, unfortunately, teachers and staff don’t always feel prepared to support their students during these times. In a New York Life Foundation survey of more than 650 teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school workers, just 24% say they feel very comfortable offering support to students who lose someone close to them.
In fact, 92% of educators would like a greater focus on training to support grieving students, and 91% would like to participate in bereavement training. Below, we’ll discuss how K-12 teachers and school staff can support students experiencing individual and shared grief.
For Kids Experiencing Individual Grief
Every child grieves differently, and their relationship with the deceased, cultural background, and more affect their grieving. However, there are some things teachers and staff can do to help grieving students in general, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and Maryanne Schreder (expert in loss, death, and grief):
- Never impose your own belief system on students.
- Keep your normal classroom routine as much as possible.
- Welcome conversation, but don’t force it.
- Talk to the student’s classmates ahead of time, both about the death and how to behave afterward. Misunderstanding and bullying may occur otherwise.
- Don’t assume you know what a student wants. Let them take the lead as much as possible.
- Allow wiggle room on assignments and exams, but don’t be alarmed if they dive into schoolwork.
- Don’t assume physical, behavioral, or emotional challenges or outbursts are intentional or “fake.”
- Allow them to have their feelings and validate them.
If you know the student well and feel they would be receptive, remind them that you’re there for them if they ever want to talk and ask for their input about their needs. Don’t force a discussion but offer to be there if they want to talk.
When a student is experiencing individual grief, it’s also important to communicate with their parent(s) or guardian(s).
Be proactive in the communication, contacting the parents before the child even returns to school, expressing condolences, and asking if there’s anything in particular they want from the team. As time goes forward, continue to check in with the parents.
Remember: The parents may not respond to you immediately, if at all. They’re dealing with a lot, which has nothing to do with how much they care about their child’s education.
For Shared Grief at School
Teachers often know about a death of a student, teacher, or involved community member before students do. They frequently discover this via email and await further instructions, trying to continue teaching as if nothing has happened.
Or something may happen overnight, and teachers get called into a meeting before school starts to discuss how to handle things with the students.
For many teachers, that’s all the training they get regarding grief, let alone shared grief. However, as Ayers says, “The number-one take-home is that you have to build community now to survive crisis later. You cannot start building community when crisis strikes. All the practices you do now to enrich your classroom and school context will not only promote more engaged learning but will provide an anchor during a crisis.”
In other words, schools need to assume the worst will happen and prepare for it while hoping for the best.
Once a crisis occurs, schools must make a lot of decisions. While there are variations in how to handle situations based on the person who died and the surrounding circumstances, you can implement some common practices in your school. Ayers and NASP recommend the following:
- Contact all parents directly (via email or phone) to tell them what happened, dispel rumors, and let them know of resources and assistance.
- Be totally factual with teachers, students, and parents.
- Allow teachers to make choices for their own classroom, so long as they maintain a safe environment. They know their individual classes best.
- Keep an eye on students who were particularly close to the deceased without becoming intrusive.
- Recognize you’re all going to be improvising and allow room for mistakes.
- Let students mourn however they need to.
- Have students take the lead on memorials, such as creating t-shirts or a mural, rather than forcing an idea on them.
- Give the students a chance not to have adults hovering. This allows them to talk among themselves freely (e.g., lunchroom chaperones could stand farther away than usual).
A Note Just for Teachers and Staff
It’s important to remember: The adults in the schools supporting students through grief may be grieving as well. In his book, Ayers quotes his friend Dana Moran as she talks about how she’s dealt with student deaths:
“We fight for these kids and their lives one kid at a time and, try though we might, we cannot protect them any better than we can protect our own children. Our vulnerability is multiplied a hundred times every year that we teach…I have started calling this an ‘occupational hazard’ and it is the price we pay for loving the kids we work with. But to not love them is worse—and to not fight for/with them is unthinkable.”
You can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, pour from an empty cup. Teachers and staff want to be strong for the kids, but it isn’t simply out of a sense of personal duty—it may be an obligation. “Teachers cry, even when there is not a major tragedy, and it is very important for students to witness their teachers as human, as it is important for them to see all adults in their lives as real, vulnerable, and caring individuals. Yet the general notion of the teacher’s role is that there is ‘no room for whining,'” says Ayers.
Please make sure to give yourself care and compassion during this difficult time. Your kids need you, of course, but you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. Get whatever help you need, whether counseling, taking a sick day, or practicing any other kind of self-care.
How Colleges Can Help Students Dealing With Grief
Chan L. Thai and Julia F. Moore of Santa Clara University report that many college students feel immense pressure to excel socially and academically while grieving, in essence being told to “get over it.” In part, this is because many institutions don’t have policies in place to assist students during their grief—even though 22% to 30% of undergrads are in the first year of grieving a loved one’s death.
Thai and Moore suggest colleges engage in the following:
- Psychoeducation and Training: Ensure faculty, staff, and students have access to educational materials to help them best support grieving students.
- Outreach: In the case of a student’s death, institutions need to reach out to the family, offer condolences, and ask for additional information on what the family wants to be announced and if any other students need help.
- Bereavement Policies: Mandate accommodations for assignments and attendance in the week or weeks following the death of a student’s loved one, ensure students know these policies exist, and enforce them with professors who may have previously had policies antithetical to these.
- Bereavement Centers: While students aren’t likely to seek mental health support, preferring instead to speak to family and friends, bereavement centers for students experiencing similar losses have proven useful on campuses.
- Support Groups: While bereavement centers are formal, colleges can set up informal support groups that are sub-groups of other activities or classes students are involved with. This helps grieving students find especially like-minded people to talk to.
If you’re a professor, make sure you have a clear bereavement policy in your syllabus. Let students know how to reach you, what information you need from them, and what school policies students need to follow in addition to your own.
Teaching assistants often work with smaller groups of students, and they may be better able to form close bonds with their charges. As part of their teaching assistant training, they should learn to handle crises, communicate concerns to their mentors, and build strong relationships with students.
How Parents Can Help Their Kids Cope With Grief
If you’re a parent, the last thing you want is to see your child hurting. It can be even harder if you’re hurting as well. However, as with many issues, taking a proactive approach is best.
Grollman states, “Since the subject matter is so sensitive, the first discussion should ideally take place before a death occurs and should not concern the eventual death of a specific person close to the child.” He suggests using concrete, recognizable examples of the life cycle, like those of trees and leaves, to help explain death.
Telling Your Young Child About a Death
When a death happens, Grollman emphasizes the importance of telling the child as soon as possible. Otherwise, they could find out from someone who is ill-equipped to handle giving the news or may not realize they’re telling the child for the first time.
He also says to avoid euphemisms. Phrases like “passed away” or “lost” are too abstract, can cause anxiety, and may make death seem impermanent or like the person chose to leave and not return.
What happens next varies by the child and their relationship with the deceased person (or pet). The child may have a billion questions, shut down, melt down, or even say, “okay, can I go play now?” None of these are wrong, but don’t assume the issue has disappeared if the child seems to move on quickly.
Supporting Young Children While They Grieve
Once your child knows about the death, follow their lead. Here are a few things to do, no matter their age or reaction:
- Be Available: Encourage them to talk to you about their feelings, but don’t force them.
- Be Honest: Don’t hide your own grief or feelings. Hiding your feelings may make them feel ashamed of their own.
- Aim for Normalcy: Maintain your child’s routine to help them cope with the loss.
- Share Memories: Don’t pretend the deceased never existed. Instead, talk about them when it seems natural to do so, and invite your child to do the same.
- Tell Their School What You Need: Contact relevant adults at the school (teachers, coaches, counselors, etc.) to let them know about the situation, how your child is doing, and what accommodations they may need.
- Tell Friends’ Parents: Particularly if your child is young, chances are their friends’ parents would appreciate being informed so they can support you and be ready for conversations with their child.
If this sounds overwhelming, that’s completely normal. Find your own support system of friends and family and ask them to take over some responsibilities. For instance, if the death was of your spouse or parent, you may not want to have to make all these phone calls. Ask a friend to spread the word to your child’s friends’ parents instead.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to seek counseling for yourself, your child, or your family. You can ask your child’s school counselor to work with your child or recommend counselors in your area. Many people find family and individual therapy incredibly healing.
How Mental Health Professionals Can Help Young People Experiencing Grief
As with parents and teachers, mental health professionals should take the grieving child’s lead. Every child reacts differently and, often, in ways they (and their parents) don’t understand. For instance, in Counseling Today, Cheryl Fisher recounts the story of an eight-year-old boy who exhibited chest pain and other symptoms without a physical cause—only to discover his grandfather had recently died of lung cancer. The psychosomatic symptoms were his way of coping.
Depending on the child’s age and your professional opinion, communicate with the parents about what they need and what to expect down the road. Maintaining open communication with both the child and the involved adults is key to success in treating young people’s grief.
If you work with college-aged students, your challenges may be different. Most likely, the young person is there by choice (unless required by their advisor or another school official), but they may be nervous or feel like they’re already stretched too thin to fit in counseling. More than 50% of students state their college priorities and social lives change after experiencing a death. Many say they don’t feel like they can easily attend classes and grieve simultaneously.
If you work on a college campus, compile data from bereaved students and advise your college’s administration about how they can best support students recovering from a death of a loved one.
How Kids and Young Adults Can Help Themselves While Grieving
If you’re a kid or teenager who recently experienced the death of a loved one—whether a family member, friend, or pet—whatever you’re feeling right now is okay.
You aren’t a bad person for letting your life keep going. You’re also doing nothing wrong if you’re struggling. But it’s important to know what resources are available to you.
If you have a support system within your family, try to rely on them. Leaning on one another during tough times can be beneficial.
You’re allowed to tell people what you need or want. If your friends are being extra cautious around you and you want things to be normal, tell them. If you need to talk, find a friend you trust and let them know.
Schools are packed with adults who are there specifically to help kids. If you have a teacher you trust or like, even if they’re not currently your teacher, go to them to talk and ask for help.
Many schools also have counselors and social workers trained in helping students in crisis. The phrase “social worker” may scare some people, as it can be associated with things like the foster care system, but school social workers aren’t there to police families. Like school counselors, they’re there to listen. In addition, they have outside resources available to help you and your family.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and ask for what you need.
How College Students Can Help Themselves While Grieving
When a death occurs, contact your professors and advisor to let them know about the situation. Tell them dates you won’t be able to attend school and any other details they may need to know. If you feel the situation may result in you needing to take days off unexpectedly, let them know that as well.
Also, take some time to review your school’s policies on bereavement. If your school has a policy and one of your teachers attempts to override it, talk to them, your advisor, or the head of their department.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed either by a single class or the situation, rely on your advisor. Their job is to ensure you succeed in school.
Additionally, check into your school’s on-campus mental health services. Most colleges offer some sort of counseling center. If yours doesn’t, ask your advisor for resources.
When it comes to friendships, your friends likely want to help, but they may not know how to. When someone says, “I’m here if you need me,” believe them. If you need someone to take notes for you during class, make sure your cat gets fed, or let you cry it out, find those friends who can support you however you need.
Be mindful of the choices you make immediately after a death. College is often a time of partying. There’s nothing wrong with blowing off steam, but if you catch yourself overdoing it—or completely withdrawing—talk to your advisor or a counselor to get help.
Resources for Dealing With Grief
A Guide to Depression and Suicide Among Students
Our article discusses signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts among young people and how to intervene when needed.
An Empty Seat in Class: Teaching and Learning After the Death of a Student
This book, written by a teacher after the death of a student, explores the topic in a frank manner and provides advice and understanding for school staff.
Bereaved Children and Teens: A Support Guide for Parents and Professionals
Drawing on 14 experts from across North America, this book explores how to help grieving young people through various lenses.
This online therapy site pairs people all around the world with mental health professionals, including those who specialize in grief.
HelpGuide – Grief & Loss
This major mental health website provides a section of resources specifically for handling grief.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
This 24/7 hotline provides emergency help for individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts or who are afraid someone around them is. They also have a wealth of information to help visitors understand mental health issues.
Scholastic – Coping With Grief in the Classroom
Scholastic provides a quick overview of what teachers can say to grieving students, including a “Say This, Not That” section.
National Alliance for Children’s Grief
The NACG focuses on raising awareness about children’s and teens’ needs after a death.
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