What Our School Learnt About Children’s Grief
Schools are special communities. They exist purely for the growth and care of young people and they are held together by trusting relationships. When a death occurs in a school the impact can be enormous. Children have little understanding of their own emotions and limited ability to self-regulate. So, it is vital that the adults in the community are well prepared and equipped.
Linda was Head of Boarding at Santa Maria College. She died in 2016. Although we knew she was sick, most of us didn’t really realise she was dying. Linda was a much-loved part of our community. She gave good advice and great hugs. It was a difficult time, especially for the girls who were nurtured by Linda in the boarding school and their families.
Fortunately, Santa Maria was well resourced with an abundance of compassion and suitably equipped staff to support our community. However, there were things we learnt about grief in children that many of us weren’t aware of before. They may help you in the future.
What we want you to know:
1. It’s important to be honest and open
When talking to kids it is important to be honest. Answer their questions as plainly as possible. If you don’t, they will make up their own answers. If a child feels as though you are being honest, they are more likely to trust you with their grief. Beyond Blue says that by the age of about nine a child is able to understand that death is permanent, inevitable and that the person isn’t just sleeping for a long time.
2. Children will move in and out of grief
Grieving is not a predictable and constant thing. For some it will pass quickly, for others it will linger. Some will be revisited by their grief, intensely, months later or even later in life. The triggers may not be obvious to other people.
In the short term, kids will fluctuate between deep upset to laughing and playing as if nothing has happened. That’s normal. We all need a break from feeling sad, kids in particular. Never stop a child behaving like a child just because you have a social construct of what grief should look like. They don’t love the deceased any less just because they want to play with their friends.
3. Rituals create a focus for grief
Rituals are symbolic or ceremonial acts that are used to give shape to ideas and feelings. They provide some parameters around our grief, while at the same time giving it expression. Death in every culture has its rituals. The very notion of a funeral is ritualistic.
When Linda died, it was important to establish rituals for the short and long-term in our community. Being a Catholic school, prayer and Mass were obvious immediate choices. The boarding students also wrote special notes and read them out loud in a private ceremony. Letters and drawings are a great tool for expressing grief and are often employed by therapists. The Boarding community shared a lot of hot chocolate and food and stories about Linda. The food and hot chocolate were important. They nurtured the girls in the same way Linda nurtured them.
In the longer term, a memorial was created in the gardens at the very centre of the boarding school, a reflective space. Every year the girls in the boarding school enter the local Run For A Reason. They wear orange ribbons and raise money for the Leukaemia Foundation in Linda’s honour. They also wear orange on Linda’s anniversary. In your own family, you can create your own special rituals.
4. Grief affects functioning
Grief affects people in all sorts of ways. In the case of children, they may not be able to articulate what they are feeling or what is happening to them. Therefore, we need to keep a gentle eye on them and be aware of any changes. We don’t always have to address those changes, most will be normal and will pass, but we should remain aware.
- Cognitive – You may observe a regression in learning for a while. Kids may have problems remembering information and tasks.
- Emotional – Children may be moody, irritable, anxious, angry and disorientated. The world is suddenly unpredictable and they are aware of their vulnerability. They are having feelings they haven’t experienced before. We can help them adjust by giving them words and labels for what they are experiencing.
- Physical – Some children may become quite clingy, they may avoid challenging tasks and bad dreams are common. There may be some regression in behavioural development, such as going back to temper tantrums.
- Spiritual – It is normal for kids to wonder about their own mortality. They may question their religious beliefs and the purpose of life. It is also possible that they feel more grateful for life. We all see death through different lenses.
5. A school must be a safe place and it must be flexible
Over the years I have known many children to come to school the day after a parent has died. They just want to do normal things. They want there to be some routine and normality in the midst of all the emotional chaos. A school has to be a safe place for kids who are grieving. It is up to us to make sure kids are treated in a way that affords them the support and flexibility they require. It isn’t for us to decide how much a child should be grieving or whether they are grieving appropriately.
After Linda’s death, key staff met with students in the boarding community daily and students had the freedom to leave classes and events as they required. This article from Beyond Blue provides other ideas on how a school can support a grieving child and their family. Schools are communities, we should be offering our support and the resources we have to families, in a quiet and humble manner.
It is emotionally taxing to care for children who are grieving, especially when you may well be grieving too. I remember at a previous school when a loved staff member died, we were so worried about the kids’ wellbeing that we didn’t stop and consider our own needs. Consequently, at the funeral, the students were all fine. Not so the staff! The kids were naturally surprised by the outpouring of grief from their teachers. Make sure you care for yourself physically and emotionally.
When Linda died, we grieved together as a community. In most instances, this isn’t going to be the case. Your family will be grieving alone while the world around you just keeps on turning, no matter how much you want it to stop. Ultimately, what your child needs is to see you grieve in an honest, healthy way, without burdening them with your needs. They need to see that grief is okay. It’s normal and it will take time. And through it all, you will be there to listen and care for them.
This short video from Refuge in Grief helps explain why acknowledgement of grief is so important in relating to a person in pain.