Are you a teacher, school administrator or school support personnel? If so, think back over the past three years. How many times has a student in your school lost a parent, sibling or significant family member? How many times has your school community lost a student or a teacher? Chances are fairly high that every single one of you could think of at least one instance where grief reared its ugly head in your school.
Now, think back to your professional training experiences. How many courses did you take about the psychology of grief, common grief counseling interventions or how to support grief inside the classroom? How many grief courses were required for your professional licensure? For most of you, the answer to both questions is probably "none."
The statistics regarding children's grief in schools are staggering. According to Comfort Zone Camp, one out of every 7 Americans will lose a sibling or a parent before the age of 20. That's 15% of children under age 20. Yet, it's not unusual for teachers to feel completely unprepared when it comes to supporting a grieving child in their classroom. Teachers are with our children 5-6 hours each day, 5 days each week, 9 months a year. They are the frontlines of support in the classroom for grieving children yet we arm them with few resources and guidance on what to do and what not to do.
For many people, things that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel inadequate and unprepared often become things we avoid. It seems like this holds true for many teachers and schools across America. Grief is not discussed in many classrooms. Most classroom libraries probably do not have books on death, loss or grief. Group discussions after a death strikes a classroom are likely a rarity. Teachers surely make referrals to the school social worker (if one exists in the building) and figure that it's probably best to not mention the loss to the grieving child or to their peers. After all, they don't want to make their students hurt even more. But, the silence many grieving children receive from their schools following a loss can be deafening.
Below are some tips to help teachers and districts begin to improve their ability to provide support to grieving children within the classroom. Remember, nearly 15% of your students are likely to experience a significant loss before they reach the age of 20.
How to Support Children’s Grief in the Classroom
1. Reach out
Perhaps the most important suggestion I can offer is to take an active role. When you hear of a child's loss, reach out. You will not be inconveniencing the family. You will not be a bother to them. Your genuine concern and offer of support could be something that is remembered forever. While you cannot take away that student's loss, by reaching out you are telling them and their family that they are important to you and that they are valued members of the school community. You don't have to offer anything - just your acknowledgement of their loss and validation of their worth is important enough.
2. Share accurate information
In today's super connected society, news travels at lightening fast speeds. One Facebook or Twitter post can notify a whole community of a death in just a few moments. Sometimes the information that gets circulated is based on speculation and is inaccurate. One of the best ways to address this issue is to formally share the information with the correct details. Ask the student's family what information they would like shared and if they would like someone from the school to share it with the school community. Imagine the stress a student may feel returning to school but not knowing who knows about their father's death. Who do they have to tell? What do they need to say? When someone from the school takes that pressure away from the family and child, they take away what can be a very heavy burden.
3. Involve peers
No matter the grade, one of the most important aspects of any child's school experience is their relationship with their peers. When a student loses a family member, it is important for their peers to not just be notified but to be provided with an opportunity to explore the loss themselves. Perhaps their friend's now deceased parent used to volunteer on Field Day or helped out in a carpool or came to school on the student's birthday each year. For many children, seeing a peer lose an important family member can also trigger worries about the possibility of losing their own loved one. That math unit can wait a day while classrooms take an hour to allow the peers to ask questions, support each other and perhaps even identify a way to help their peer.
4. Formally commemorate
Most schools value formal ceremonies. School concerts, school plays, pep rallies, academic assemblies, holiday gatherings and graduations are common occurrences in schools. Why? Because they bring the community together, reinforce the concept of interconnectedness and allow for shared experiences. Schools should not be saving these formal gatherings only for positive moments. During times of grief, schools can find a way to bring everyone together to commemorate the loss of a member of their own community. Some schools plant a tree, install a bench or hold a naming ceremony when the community experiences a significant loss. Formal commemoration activities can also be done on a smaller scale. Perhaps the student's classmates could put together a book of poems, cards or pictures that the students create and then give the book to the grieving child and family (teachers and parents should proof it first though!).
5. Be flexible
For many children, returning to school provides them with security, structure and safety. It is not uncommon or abnormal for a child to want to go to school the very next day after they have had a loss. School can provide grieving children with an opportunity to be distracted from the loss and sadness for short periods of time. It can allow them to feel normal and feel a connection to the life had prior to the loss. But, for many students, there are moments in the school day when they may find it challenging to focus, attend to a task or even sit still. Be flexible with children, regardless of their age, when it comes to their coursework after the loss. Accommodations such as extending deadlines and allowing extra bathroom breaks will probably not ruin the child academically. However, setting rigid standards, being inflexible or accusing children of taking advantage of their grief situation may set children back academically, socially and emotionally. Yes, I am even suggesting applying this same flexibility to teens.
6. Resist the urge to share and compare
While you may have had a similar loss as a child, it is not always helpful to share such experiences with a grieving child. It can potentially minimize their experience and loss. The same holds true to statements like "I lost my Dad too. I know how it feels." The truth is that no two people experience loss and grief in the same way. Avoid sharing and comparing your own experiences and focus instead on providing genuine support.
7. Anticipate re-grieving
Many adults who have experienced a loss can appreciate that there are certain times of the year where their grief gets re-triggered. Anniversaries of the death, certain holidays and birthdays are all common events that can cause a surge in grief. Children experience this same phenomenon but they also have an added layer of complexity in their grief. As children develop cognitively, emotionally and socially, they begin to understand and view their world differently. They start to apply different questions and interpretations to their world and to any losses they may have had. So, while your 6th grade student may have lost their sister in the 2nd grade, they may re-grieve that loss in completely new terms as they begin to see the world through 6th grade eyes. For them, it could feel as if the loss is brand new.
8. Track community losses
Schools and school districts should consider tracking data around grieving children - even if it is only for certain losses such as parents or siblings. Tracking this data will allow districts and schools to identify patterns that are out of the ordinary. For example, if your small elementary school has 9 students who have lost a parent in a span of 2 years, your school may want to explore the possibility of offering more specific resources for those students and families as well as the rest of the school community. That's a lot of grief to be experiencing for one school in one short period of time.
9. Support the staff
Let's face it, being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs out there. Teachers are tasked with an immense amount of goals, objectives and responsibilities without an immense amount of funding or resources. While grief can enter the classroom through the experiences of the students, it can also enter the classroom through the experiences of the school staff. Teachers, administrators and staff members all also encounter loss and may be actively grieving alongside the grieving children in the school. Explore ways to come together to support each other as professionals.
10. Provide support over time
There is no timeline for grief. There is no such thing as closure. When people lose someone important to them to death they don't ever get over it. Grief is with them forever and while sometimes it's a silent companion, other times it's a loud, unruly, disruptive companion who is difficult to manage. Just as grief will exist over a long time frame, so too should the support from the school. Check in frequently with the student to see what they need, not just in the days and weeks immediately following the loss but in the months and years after the loss as well.
If you are interested in receiving additional training and education on the topic of supporting children's grief in the schools, be sure to visit Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources from Scholastic/New York Life for helpful resources such as lesson plans, handouts and training modules. Also explore the website for the National Alliance for Grieving Children for additional training resources and to identify children's grief centers in your area. If you are in the Massachusetts area and would like to arrange for a grief/bereavement in-service in your school, please send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
I have always been an animal person. If I am being honest, I am just a few pets away from being the stereotypical crazy cat lady of the neighborhood. In fact, there is a high likelihood that the 90 year old version of myself will live in a house with at least a dozen stray cats and five rescue dogs. Animals find me everywhere (ok, maybe I find them). During my high school years, I somehow adopted more than one neighborhood feral cat. I once left a beach party in the Dominican Republic to hang out with the local beach dog. A feral kitten climbed into the wheel well of my tire 8 years ago and she still lives with us. I went to the pet store for cat food one day and witnessed a pair of juvenile cats get separated as one was purchased; so, I adopted the other one. I now have three dogs - all rescues and all a bit quirky.
Why do I have so many pets? It's simple, really. They bring me and my family lots of joy. They teach us invaluable life lessons; things like love, patience, responsibility and care giving. But, they also teach us about something else - grief and loss.
When our senior dog, Sandy, made it clear to us that her time was coming to an end, we had a long conversation with our two boys, ages 5 and 8 at the time. The plan was that our veterinarian would come to our house and euthanize Sandy in front of the fireplace, her favorite spot. We asked our boys if they wanted to be there and arranged for child care in case they didn't. Surprisingly, they both wanted to stay and be a part of it; and so they were. After spending the afternoon loving Sandy, giving her all her favorite things and carrying her to her favorite places in our home, the four of us sat on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace, in a circle around Sandy while the vet and his vet tech helped us to say goodbye. She died in our arms and it was the most beautiful, amazing and heart breaking thing we have ever experienced as a family. Saying goodbye to Sandy after 12 years was nearly impossible; but watching our children say goodbye to a pet they had known their whole lives crushed us.
Death is death. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. For many people, losing a pet is exactly the same as losing a human and for children, the loss of a pet is often their first experience with death. It was for my boys. It was their first family member to die and I so badly wanted to shield them from the grief but I knew that I just couldn't. Death is as much a part of life as birth and one of my jobs as a parent is to help my children understand and process all the things that surround death. Having worked in the bereavement field for many years and having experienced pet loss twice as a parent, once as a sudden loss and once as a planned loss, I have developed some important insights into how best to handle pet loss with children.
1. Remember that every child is unique.
A family friend recently lost their dog and I asked my two children for some advice for their friends. One child said "Talk about him. A lot. It helped me to remember stories and look at pictures." The other said, "Think about happy things - vacations, movies, stuff like that. Don't think about the dog. I didn't like when I thought about her." Their approaches could not be more different and both approaches are ok. Remember that no two children are the same. Siblings will likely grieve very differently. It is normal. How one child handled one pet loss may be different than how they handle another pet loss later in life. Remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to handling loss with children. Let their individuality guide you and resist the urge to compare.
2. Be honest
If you know a pet's health is failing, be honest with your children. Children are smarter than we often give them credit for and they probably have already noticed the same signs you are noticing as your pet's health fails. There is a tendency, especially with smaller pets like fish, birds and hamsters, to lie to children and quietly replace the dead pet with a new pet. I always advise against taking this approach. For starters, your children will, at some point, find out that you lied to them, and while we lie about things like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause, lying about death is a different type of lie and can cause confusion in children later in life. Death and grief are painful but your children will encounter them in their lives. Help them face death, grief and loss head on. Look at it as an opportunity for growth rather than an impossible challenge.
3. Invite them to be part of the process
If euthanasia is being considered, let children know, in developmentally appropriate terms, what is happening in the pet's body and what the plans are for saying goodbye. Let your children know they can ask you and the vet questions (check with your vet ahead of time). Invite them to be part of the process and explain what their involvement could look like. Let them know they can back out of the process at any time and have an escape plan ready for them. While having them be part of the process may be scary for us as parents, it can actually provide children with the concrete information they need to more effectively handle the loss. It also sends them a message that they are important and their input is valued.
4. Have grief books available for them.
There are countless books available for children of all developmental stages about pet loss. Purchase books, borrow some from a friend or take home a few from your local library. Leave the books in a designated spot in your home and let your children know you are always available to read the books with them or they can take one and read it on their own. This approach gives children control and power but also sends the message that you are there to support them. Take some time to read the books first to make sure they will be appropriate for your children. A list of books can be found here.
5. Don't be quick to put everything away
We had to put Sandy's dog bed away immediately. It was too painful for all of us to look at. But, we kept her collar out. In fact, it's still out. Her ashes and collar sit on our mantle, a reminder that she was real, our love for her was big and that she was an important part of our family. We found a way to keep memories of her around without breaking our heart into a million pieces. It might be helpful for your children to leave at least a few things out to remind them of your pet. Talk with your children and get their input.
6. Consider some sort of memorial service
This tip may sound a bit hokey and cheesy. This service is not for your pet, but for your children. Formal services help us to acknowledge and share our grief. Children often need this time to openly and formally express and share their own grief and also observe the grief of others. Children can draw pictures, write out cards, put together a memory board or picture book and say a few words. Invite them to participate but let them know it is not necessary. Let them sort of drive the bus. One child may want to participate while another may not want to be involved. Both approaches are acceptable.
7. Have some quiet family time
There is a tendency to distract and keep everyone busy following a pet loss. While this is a good approach to a point, it may send the message that grieving about your pet is not normal and not allowed. It might send the message that grieving is abnormal and shameful. Some quiet time as a family should be scheduled to allow for some natural grief reactions to occur - things like movies at home, board games, quiet time for reading, etc may be quite healing for everyone. Sometimes, especially when we have active children, our lives move 100 miles an hour and time for things like grieving just slips away. Create some space and time for your children to feel and express their emotions. Bedtime also seems to be a good time for families to share some quiet moments together.
8. Remember that "mad" and "sad" do not equal "bad"
Anger and sadness are two of the most common emotions felt by children following a loss. For many children, these feelings are complex, confusing and overwhelming. As children are concrete thinkers and death is such an abstract concept, expressing their feelings with words can often be a challenge. Thus, it is common for some children to express their grief through actions and sometimes these actions can be labeled as "bad" behaviors. You may see increased acting out behaviors like siblings fighting and bickering more, teasing, negative attitudes and grumpiness. You may also see regressive behaviors such as bed wetting, thumb sucking, asking for help with things like tying shoes - things they were able to do for themselves previously. These reactions are often normal and are temporary. As children have opportunities to express and process their feelings, their behaviors will often return to normal.
9. Communicate with other adults
Depending on your child's age, they may have other important adults in their lives. Send a quick email to those important people (i.e. their teachers and their coaches) to let them know that your child just experienced a pet loss - not as an excuse for behaviors but as a heads up for the child seeming off and also as an extra set of eyes. Let your children know that you are doing so. When Sandy died, my boys were in 2nd grade and preschool. Both boys' teachers were great and pulled the boys aside privately to express their condolences and gave them an opportunity to talk about it with classmates. One did. The other didn't. The younger one did draw about it later on - sometimes during school, sometimes at home. The teacher appreciated knowing about the loss as it helped guide her discussions with him about his drawings and writings.
10. Be real
The trickiest part of all of this is that you, as a parent, are also grieving. Contrary to what many people think, it's ok to let your children see you cry. You do not need to "be strong." Rather, be real and let go of some of the pressure you put on yourself. When Sandy's remains were ready to be picked up, we were not prepared for how intense our emotional reactions would be. When we got everything home and took the urn out of the bag, I broke. Sobbed. Then, we all did. You know what? We were ok. We supported each other and my children were not scarred by seeing me cry. Rather, they had the opportunity to see me safely express my raw feelings and saw me put myself back together. Give your children a good model for grief.
For most people, many of the suggestions provided feel strange and uncomfortable. I get it. It is quite likely that my suggestions are completely opposite of what your gut may be telling you to do. So many of us have been conditioned to not openly grieve, to not talk about our feelings. Think about how we, as a society, view death and grief. We avoid them, at all costs. We provide 3 days off for bereavement and then send the message to those that have lost someone that they should hurry up and move on, get over it, find closure. I firmly believe these messages are wrong.
There is no such thing as closure. We never heal after a loss. There is still a hole in our heart and sometimes something triggers us, sending us right back into the dark depths of grief. That is normal grief. As parents, we can choose to send our children a different message about grief than the message that many of us were given. We can teach them that feeling pain and grief after a loss is normal, acceptable and healthy. We can provide opportunities for our children to express their feelings and can reassure them that grief, although at times messy, uncomfortable and frightening, is normal.
The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
The Pet Loss Support Page
Grief is everywhere for all of us - yet our society does a poor job allowing people to grieve. It is ok to grieve and it is normal to struggle with how to continue living your life while dealing with grief.