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Grief Goes To School

When I returned to junior high school after my Dad died, three things happened. Only one of my teachers took me aside to talk about what happened and

mentioned it to the classroom; some of my friends I’d known for years weren’t sure how to approach me anymore; and I, myself, had no idea how to talk to two other classmates who had recently experienced a death loss. It was something that happened to “other people”…until it happened to me. My sense of community and belonging disappeared as I searched for a beacon of light to follow along the dimly lit but much trodden grief path.

With the hustle and bustle of a new school year beginning, it’s easy to overlook the needs of students who had someone significant in their lives die over the summer break. Or perhaps even before that. Grief doesn’t punch a timecard and a recent loss is not required to still be in need of and deserve support.

To help make providing this support less daunting, the Children and Youth Grief Network (CYGN) offers conversation-starter questions that can be used in the classroom - and at home. If you’re an educator, parent, or caregiver it is guaranteed that your students or children in your care know or are one of our grieving youth.

Let’s first acknowledge the discomfort of approaching our own grief as adults – it can be highly intimidating. Teachers and educators are humans too. Not only is it normal to be afraid to say the wrong thing to a grieving child, we don’t always know how to handle our own feelings in the process. It’s OK if we don’t have all the answers (and most likely, we won’t) but we have the opportunity and duty to model safe exploration of our emotions from death loss.

Hard work? You bet. Worth it? 100%.

Here we share some thoughts from our own experiences around the CYGN’s five grief discussion starters:

What is grief?

Children can have a difficult time describing their emotions if they haven’t heard the word grief before or if the experience is new to them. By simply asking “what is grief”, kids can share their understanding of grief and how it feels for them. It’s almost as if this gives them permission to ask questions they haven’t previously had a chance to voice or may not have known are OK to ask.

How might a person cope with grief?

It’s important for kids and youth to know that everyone grieves differently. For example, some kids experience very real physical symptoms alongside their emotions. Kids also need to know that not everyone is sad when a death occurs. Sometimes a child has had a difficult relationship with the person who died and may feel a sense of relief or guilt. They may not be sure this is an appropriate and natural response because maybe they’ve learned that sadness is the only valid grief feeling.

How do you know if you are, or someone else is, grieving?

Not everyone cries, much as the stereotype implies. Exploring what grief looks like – and doesn’t always look like – empowers students to recognize reactions and emotions are as unique as the person experiencing them.

How might you help a grieving friend or classmate?

Before a bereaved child returns to class after his loss, teachers can help classmates show they care and acknowledge the loss through creativity. Making cards with personal notes of support is one activity that will help the grieving student know his loss has been acknowledged within the class, thereby removing the awkward “who knows what” or “do I have to tell everybody someone I love died?” This activity also lets classmates contribute in a meaningful way that encourages them to learn the importance of sensitivity and understanding when interacting with a grieving friend or classmate.

Who can you talk to about your grief feelings?

Helping kids identify who they feel safe sharing their experiences with offers them the confidence to build a personal support system, rather than being left to fend for themselves emotionally. This discussion may also include suggestions on whom they might feel comfortable sharing with if it’s not immediately obvious to them who that could be.

Encouraging kids to develop into healthy, well-adjusted, community members doesn’t happen by accident or believing our youth are resilient on their own – it happens through attention, authenticity, and genuine caring modeled by adults in their lives. Our classrooms can be the light that accompanies our bereaved youth on their path.

For more ideas to support grieving kids and youth, check out the CYGN and the Children’s Grief Foundation of Canada for a list of resources and to connect with them on social media.

Bernie’s Buddies is a kids’ and youth peer support group. Our intent is not to replace conventional therapy or counseling, but instead to provide grief resource options. If a child in your care is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact 911, The Distress Centre, or Kids’ Help Phone immediately.

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