It seems that almost every day we hear about a new record high of coronavirus infection cases across states and the nation. Hospitalizations continue to rise and unfortunately, we hear of even more deaths because of the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19 it was estimated that one in 14 children lose a parent or sibling before they reach their 18th birthday. Given the hundreds of thousands of additional deaths resulting from the pandemic, we can expect the frequency of students who are experiencing death in their lives and families to be even higher now.
The reality is inescapable. It is sad, depressing, and disheartening. Yet, our students who have lost a loved one are fortunate to have the caring and support of teachers and other staff to help them find their way through the experience. Of course, family members, clergy, and others in their lives can hopefully provide comfort, support, and guidance, but teachers and other adults at school have a role to play. Importantly, for many students, school may be the most stable and supportive place in their lives. Further, at this time of year students are spending a major portion of their waking lives involved in school-related learning activities, whether in person or remote. Without question, we need to be ready to assist where we can.
Still, teachers and other staff members need to know what to do and how to help. The good news is that providing the support most students need does not require extensive training. We need to communicate our understanding and empathy. We need to be there when students need us. More specifically, experts advise five key considerations that can help us provide what students need as they grieve.
First, we need to listen more and talk less. We might be tempted to share times when we have grieved, want to tell stories about our experiences with the deceased, or try to cheer up the student by focusing on a silver lining, such as reminding the students of past experiences with the person who died. There will be an appropriate time for sharing and reminiscing later. Initially, our students just need to know that we are there for them and ready to listen and support them.
Second, we need to avoid using euphemisms to describe death, especially for younger students. Descriptors such as “passed” or “eternal rest” can be confusing and lead to misconceptions about what has happened. Using the words “died” or “death” can help students to grasp the reality that the person will not come back and communicate our understanding of the situation. These situations are confusing enough on their own. We must be careful not to add to the student’s distress.
Third, we can anticipate a variety of behavioral responses resulting from a student’s grief. Some students will withdraw, want to avoid attention, and have difficulty maintaining focus while others may act out in anger, defiance, and blaming. Our patience and understanding are crucial, but we also need to monitor their behavior, especially if it is sustained or escalates. Further, we need to realize that our relationship with the student is even more important during this time. When students act out, we must be careful not to place our relationship on the line. Our students need reassurance that we understand and want to help. Abandoning them cannot be a threat or suggestion we employ.
Fourth, we can give students opportunities to experience a sense of control. The loss of a loved one can leave students feeling adrift without the ability to influence what is happening to and around them. By giving choices about activities, tasks, and other elements of classroom life, we can help students to regain some reassurance. For some students, an invitation to take on minor classroom responsibilities and roles can offer a sense of control, but we need to be sensitive to how the student perceives our offers and expectations.
Fifth, we need to reach out to families of students who are experiencing grief. Families often see a larger context for what the student is experiencing and what they need. They may even have suggestions for what we can do to help. Families will also appreciate the caring and concern, and the contact can be helpful if further support and services become necessary.
We never want our students to suffer and grieve. Yet, loss is a part of the human experience. Our presence, caring, and support can make a crucial difference.