This school year countless children and teens are returning to the classroom in the U.S. after the death of a close family member. According to statistics 4% of single parents in the U.S. are widowed, and 13.9% of those widowed parent households have children 12 and under. Additional children headed back to school have lost a sibling, grand parent or significant loved one.
These mourning children and teens will not only be facing the stresses of a new school year; they will have the additional stress of dealing with all the changes in their lives caused by the death of their loved ones. Unfortunately many of these children will not receive adequate support and comfort to meet their special needs.
What do mourning children returning to school need? First of all they need to feel safe, secure and cared for. After a death, the world becomes a scary, unpredictable place for any age mourner, but especially for a child. They need a good support system of adults and authority figures.
Second, children in grief need to feel a sense of normalcy. When a death occurs, the mourning child often feels that they are no longer like all the other children in their school. In addition children in grief need to have a predictable schedule and to be involved in normal activities for children of their age.
In order to get these two primary needs met, grieving children must not only have a good support system in their home and community, but they need a good support system in their school as well. Here are some practical suggestions for parents or caregivers for grieving children to help create that good support system at the school.
- Educate yourself on the grief process and the special needs of mourning children before talking with your child or anyone at the school. This will help you to formulate an effective plan to meet the special needs of your child as they return to school.
- Inform the school staff of the child’s loss. Include at least the principal, teacher, school counselor and school nurse on the list of people you inform.
- Schedule a private session with your child’s teacher to discuss any concerns that you have about his or her return to school and the classroom.
- Discuss with the teacher and other staff what information can be shared with the child’s friends and fellow classmates concerning the loss. Prior to this discussion assure your child that you will share only information that is necessary for others to know. Ask the staff to prepare the other students by explaining that your child has had a loss and needs understanding and support from them.
- Encourage your child to talk with his or her teacher (and the school counselor if possible) to share the loss and their experience in their own words.
- Assure your child that they don’t have to answer every question if they feel uncomfortable doing so. Tell her or him that they have a right to privacy when questioned by anyone at the school.
- Assure your child that the teacher, counselor and other staff will be available to approach when he or she feels that need to talk.
- Set up a plan for when your child may be overwhelmed by his or her grief at school. One suggestion is to arrange between the child and school staff for special permission for the child to leave the classroom and go to a designated safe place to receive support and comfort. The child should understand that this permission is not an excuse to get out of everyday school work or responsibilities.
- Make sure the school has your phone numbers and contact information in case of emergencies.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” available online at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Never-LPC-S-Larry-Barber/dp/1613796005 ), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-never-dies-lpc-s-ct-larry-m-barber-ct-larry-m/1104364890?ean=9781613796016).
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa”
Both English and Spanish versions are available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.