Teachers play a key role for children who have suffered grief and trauma following the loss of a loved one. Because death is a scary and difficult topic, many people prefer not to discuss it. As a result, society struggles with supporting bereaved people.
This lack of support is particularly dangerous in the case of children and youth, as studies have shown that there are increased health risks for the bereaved, especially when they are young. For example, teenagers who lost someone close to them are at higher risk of mental health issues such as depression, PTSD and drug abuse.
If you're a teacher, it's important to learn how to talk to your students about death and grief. This guide will help you understand the best ways to support grieving students and their families.
Help students come to terms with what has happened
Children can be confused by the use of words such as "passed away" and it may make it difficult for them to understand what has happened. Instead of using vague concepts, use the words "died" and "dead." Children, especially young ones, may not understand that death is irreversible, so using the correct words will reinforce the reality of death for them.
When someone close to them dies, children may feel guilty or ashamed, and sometimes may think that it had something to do with them. By reinforcing the reality of death an explaining that there are physical reasons why people die, you can help young ones decrease those feelings.
Allow students to express their grief
When talking to bereaved students, you should allow them the opportunity to express their grief. Don't try to cheer them up but be there for them and listen to what they have today. Even though it's a common reaction to share personal experiences when someone is talking about grief, it's important to listen more and talk less.
Don't forget to reassure children that they are not in any way responsible for the death of their loved one. Remember that feelings of guilt are present in almost all bereaved children.
Get informed on trauma symptoms
If a student is grieving a person who died in an accident, for example, they are highly likely to have symptoms of trauma. The same goes for students who witness a murder or with deaths that traumatize the school community. Examples of the latter include the sudden death of the principal in a car accident or multiple children from the school being injured or dying in a school bus accident.
These are times where the entire school administration needs to immediately take action and recognize the impact the trauma has on the students. Bringing in outside help, from a local mental health community, for example, is always a good idea in collective trauma situations.
Organize class activities to help with grief
Whether it's one or more students who are grieving, you can organize class activities to help them express and deal with grief. Some examples of helpful activities include art activities, journal writing, movement or dance activities, music, and physical activities.
Creating memory boxes and books of thoughts are good ides of projects that can help children understand how to process grief. If the person who died was one of their peers, you can encourage children to remember their friend by creating a safe place where to safekeep things that belonged to them and writings or drawings they can make for that person.
Be proactive and go beyond the classroom
You can try and talk to your students about death in a proactive way, not just when one of them has lost someone dear. For example, you can prepare a visit to a funeral home in order for students to learn about funeral planning. This is a useful skill to have, and students will get the opportunity to ask questions to understand the process better.
Talking about death is never easy, especially when it's a conversation you need to have with a child. However, it's important not to ignore the issue and help your students navigate their way through grief. As a teacher, you play a valuable role by listening to students talk about their feelings and guiding them to available resources if they have a hard time coping with loss.