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(p. 209) Supporting Grieving Students 

(p. 209) Supporting Grieving Students
Chapter:
(p. 209) Supporting Grieving Students
Author(s):

David Schonfeld

, and Thomas Demaria

DOI:
10.1093/med-psych/9780190052737.003.0012
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Nearly all children experience the death of someone close to them—approximately 90% of children experience the death of a close friend or family member, and approximately 5% experience specifically the death of a parent (Schonfeld, Demaria, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, & Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council, 2016). Although common, such losses nonetheless can have a significant and profound impact on children’s social and emotional development, as well as their academic functioning.

After a significant loss, children must cope with both the absence of the person who died and other significant secondary losses and disruptions following the death, such as relocations of home and/or school, changes in family economic stability and social status, and the intense distress or even impairment of caregivers and other grieving family members. These challenges can extend their period of intense mourning.

Schools are particularly well suited to provide supportive services to students and staff after a loss that affects the school community; they also provide one of the best settings to offer support after a personal loss affecting an individual student’s family. Schools are a familiar environment serving most children and youth in a community, equipped with a variety of ongoing supportive services for all students. Schools can also closely monitor students struggling after a loss throughout their school years. Most teachers and other school professionals, however, may not feel competent and comfortable with providing support to a grieving student. Less than 10% of educators report that they have had any training on assisting grieving children, and this lack of training is the primary reason they avoid reaching out to and supporting grieving students in their class (Blad, 2015; Reid & Dixon, 1999). In addition, teachers and administrators may view attention to social and emotional needs as secondary to the primary role of promoting academic achievement.

Children and youth who are grieving often have similar types of needs for acknowledgment, understanding, and support. Nevertheless, grief represents a (p. 210) personal and unique experience for each child. An individual child’s experience may be influenced by the nature of the death, personal relationship or perceived connection with the deceased, prior experience with loss, age and level of understanding about death, preexisting coping mechanisms, comfort with expressing strong emotions, available support systems, and level of empathy for the needs of others.

Many children and youth who are grieving show few outward signs during their time in school and may even deny they are having any difficulties. From an early age, children learn that questions or discussion about death make many adults uncomfortable and learn not to talk about death in public. In the context of a recent death, children may also want to avoid placing an added burden on grieving family members. When children ask questions about death or make related comments, surviving family members may become tearful and/or obviously upset. Children may misinterpret these expressions of grief triggered by their questions and comments as evidence that the questions or comments themselves were hurtful or inappropriate. They subsequently may remain silent and grieve alone, without support. In addition, when children lose a parent, caregiver, or other close family member, they are often fearful that others they count on for support may also die and leave them all alone. Children may find it particularly unsettling to observe their surviving caregivers struggling and often respond by offering support or assistance rather than asking for help themselves, which may lead the family to assume that the child has no need for assistance. Caregivers who are struggling with their own personal grief may find it difficult to recognize their child’s grief or attend to the needs of others. Many children, therefore, may not want to burden their family and instead postpone expressing their grief until a later time or seek support from peers and staff at school who have some emotional distance from the family’s loss.

Children’s Developmental Understanding of Death

Children and youth understand and ultimately cope with death through four main concepts: irreversibility, finality, causality, and universality (Box 12.1).

Reprinted from Schonfeld (1989).

An incomplete understanding of any of these concepts may complicate children’s adjustment to a loss, often resulting in additional guilt and shame (Panagiotaki, Nobes, Ashraf, & Aubby, 2015; Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010; Speece & Brent, 1984). Most children learn these concepts between 5 and 7 years of age, though younger children who have experienced a significant loss and/or received information on the topic may acquire a substantial understanding well before 5 years of age. While older children and adolescents generally understand these concepts, they may have questions when faced with a personal loss experience (e.g., they may understand the finality of death yet still feel as if they can talk to someone who has died or they may recognize that death is inevitable yet comment that they remain shocked that someone so close to them could die). If (p. 211) they have not previously experienced a death, accepting the true inevitability of death can be painful, confusing, and a challenge to their previous assumptions. Adolescents often turn to peers for support and assistance since they may receive limited explanations about death or emotional support from adults.

(p. 212) Misinterpretations or misconceptions about death can complicate a child’s adjustment to loss. Literal misinterpretations are common among young children—for example, children told about the body being placed in a casket for viewing may assume the head is placed elsewhere and become fearful of attending a wake. Magical thinking, seen especially in young children, lead those who are grieving to assume responsibility and feel guilt for the death of a loved one because they thought bad thoughts or said something out of anger.

Children and youth unable to communicate verbally may show their grief through nonspecific signs or behaviors, such as weight loss, regressive behaviors (e.g., bed-wetting), or self-injury (e.g., head banging). Children with intellectual disabilities will generally benefit from explanations geared toward their level of cognitive functioning, followed by questions to assess the degree of comprehension of the concepts of death and gentle inquiries to assess for any misunderstandings. For example, to explain finality to a child with a developmental age of approximately 5 years, you might say, “When people die, their body stops working forever—they can’t see, hear, move, or feel pain. They are no longer hungry or scared. Since the body doesn’t work anymore, we can bury the body underground or turn it into ashes.” Children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, may benefit from practical suggestions about how to communicate their feelings and needs and adapt to the change in their social network, as well as additional support to promote coping.

Complicated or Prolonged Grief

Exposure to traumatic events associated with a death can further complicate the process of bereavement by diverting focus from the loss of the loved one to the circumstances surrounding the death (McClatchey, Vonk, Lee, & Bride, 2014), resulting in what some researchers have referred to as “traumatic,” “complicated,” or “prolonged” grief. Cohen and Mannarino (2011) posit that children with traumatic grief often re-experience traumatic aspects of the death, such as picturing the imagined or real details of the death or imagining the pain their loved one experienced in the moments before dying, and as a result avoid reminders of the deceased person. Although common for children to initially focus on the way their loved one died during the initial bereavement period, violent or otherwise traumatic deaths create higher risk for coexisting trauma symptoms that may impede children’s ability to adjust to the loss.

Prolonged grief disorder has been suggested to represent a prolonged period of grief (e.g., more than 6 months following the death) (Spuij et al., 2012). However, the natural trajectory of grief in children of different ages and developmental stages is not well studied and may be influenced by family and cultural influences and other factors. The preexisting loss experiences of the child, personal vulnerabilities, and context of the loss will also determine the extent of the bereavement period, especially as the child encounters other secondary losses.

(p. 213) Guilt and Shame

Egocentrism and magical thinking, characteristic of the thinking of young children, often lead children to assume that there was something they did, did not do, or should have done that caused the death of someone close to them, leading to the association of guilt with the death. Even older children, and indeed adults, often feel guilty when there is no logical, objective reason for them to feel responsible for a death. Children may assume some responsibility because it provides them with an illusion of control by helping them believe that by taking actions they failed to take before, they can prevent the future deaths of others about whom they care deeply. The alternative to this kind of thinking is an acceptance that we have limited influence over tragic events, an acceptance which often makes children feel helpless and overwhelmed after a close personal loss.

Guilt, common among all those experiencing grief, is more likely when the preexisting relationship with the person who died was ambivalent or characterized by frequent discord (e.g., an abusive, absent, mentally ill, or incarcerated parent or caregiver). Guilt might also stem from developmentally common situations—such as an adolescent who clashed with her father’s attempts to limit her independence or a child whose behavior caused her mother distress. In some instances, there may be some logical reason to experience guilt feelings—such as when a child accidentally discharged a firearm, killing a sibling. Grieving children and youth experiencing feelings of guilt benefit from recognizing that their guilt is unwarranted or at least that their intention related to their actions was not to cause harm and therefore any perceived contribution was accidental. Persistent or intense guilt (e.g., when children have a logical reason for feeling responsible) may require counseling to help children forgive themselves over time for their perceived wrongdoings.

Children who have lost a loved one will often feel some shame because they perceive judgment from others because of the actions of the deceased, which may come to light after a death. Young children who do not appreciate the inevitability of death for everything that is alive may view death as a punishment for selected individuals based on something they did wrong. Deaths that carry a social stigma, such as deaths involving suicide, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or criminal activity, are therefore even more difficult to discuss.

Children and adults may choose not to even inform the school that a significant death has occurred, in part related to feelings of shame, embarrassment, or guilt. School-employed mental health professionals, such as school psychologists, can help children and youth express their guilt or shame associated with a death and begin to challenge their faulty assumptions about personal responsibility, normalize their feelings, and promote a refocusing on the child’s grief associated with the loss.

(p. 214) Cultural Considerations and Sensitivity

People’s unique personal, social, cultural, and religious backgrounds shape the expression of grief and traditions for mourning (Holte Kofod, 2017). One culture may expect its members not to speak the name of the person who died. Another may encourage families to name the next child born after the deceased. People of one culture may believe that each tear shed creates another hardship for the deceased so remain quiet and reserved at funerals. Those of another may believe the extent of love for the deceased is demonstrated by the degree of emotions expressed at the funeral. Cultural perceptions and concepts provide a framework for bereavement including practices related to the use of rituals, how individuals understand their world, information-processing, and decision-making after a death. Cultures may also help define who is considered a family member and the intensity of typical emotional expression following a loss (Schoulte, 2011). Rosenblatt (2017) challenged the concept of complicated grief by noting that in many cultures it would be strange for someone 6 months out from a major loss to be grieving with little or no emotional intensity.

Religious affiliation and practices also influence the perception and management of grief. School-aged children may use these religious beliefs and practices to help them accept the situation with the support of others and to find some meaning despite seemingly incomprehensible circumstances (Jerome, 2011). Children of any age may find comfort in a family’s faith-based beliefs. Educators can encourage children who ask faith-based questions about death to discuss their questions with family members. Some religious concepts, though, may be too abstract for young children to fully comprehend and may result in misinterpretations that cause further distress or confusion rather than promote healthy adjustment (e.g., a young child told that a sibling was such a good infant that God called her back to join him in heaven may begin to worry about being too good himself).

Despite recognizing both the universal nature of grief as well as various cultural and religious differences, knowledge of the common practices of a particular culture may not accurately predict how a family or individual from that culture will behave, especially those from families of mixed or blended backgrounds and communities. Cultural identification, including the degree of enculturation (learning about a culture) and acculturation (taking on another culture) may mitigate the influence of cultural beliefs and practices and vary significantly between different generations (including between children and their parents). Indeed, Danieli and Nader (2006) cautioned that mental health professionals may misdiagnose clients if they attribute too much of their behavior to cultural differences.

Primary, Secondary, and Cumulative Losses

Children and youth generally adjust over time to the death of someone close to them, though not within a finite time period. Attachment loss will continue throughout a child’s development, especially as the child becomes more aware of the consequences of the loss and his or her continuing bond with the deceased. (p. 215) When children and youth experience a death of someone close to them, they lose both the person who died (i.e., the primary loss) as well as everything that person had contributed or would have contributed to their life (i.e., secondary losses). Each new developmental stage and milestone, as cognitive development advances and experience widens, may prompt a resurfacing of their grief and a more mature understanding of the death and its implications.

Common secondary losses experienced by children include the following:

  • change in lifestyle (e.g., altered financial status of the family after the death of a parent)

  • relocation resulting in a change in school and peer group

  • loss of interaction with friends or relatives of the person who died (e.g., friends of a child’s sister no longer visit after the sister dies)

  • loss of shared memories

  • decreased special attention (e.g., a child may no longer value participating in sports activities without his parent there to cheer for him)

  • decreased availability of the surviving parent or caregiver (who may need to work more hours or who becomes less available emotionally because of depression)

  • decreased sense of safety and trust in the world

Subsequent and cumulative losses hamper resiliency and compromise the ability of children to return to baseline functioning due to prolonged fears about safety and security. In communities characterized by high rates of violence, poverty, and frequent deaths of peers and young family members, supports are generally not present or are insufficient to meet heightened fears. Children in such environments do not somehow “get used to death” or become desensitized; instead, they become progressively more vulnerable to future stresses and loss. Children and youth in these circumstances may come to conclude that adults in their communities cannot be trusted since they are unable to provide for their safety and are unwilling or unable to provide support. Children and adolescents in these environments may instead turn to peers (and gangs) to seek such support, which may contribute to high-risk behaviors that jeopardize their safety. They may also engage in risky behaviors out of fear for their own mortality and the need to challenge these fears by engaging in the same behaviors they know to be dangerous. This counter-phobic behavior and reactive risk-taking place them at further risk of personal harm (Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010).

Grief over Time

Over time children usually become more capable of understanding and adjusting to their loss. The work of grieving becomes less difficult and requires less sustained energy. School psychologists and other school-employed mental health (p. 216) professionals can invite students and their families to reach out for assistance and advice as they adjust to the loss over time and can proactively schedule follow-up appointments to coincide with events or time periods that may serve as grief triggers, such as the first-year anniversary of the death.

Supporting Students After a Death of a Member of the School Community

After a death in the school community, an important first step is the identification of students who may be at higher risk of emotional distress. This might include students who

  • are friends of the deceased

  • had a complicated or difficult relationship with the deceased (for example, someone who recently ended a romantic relationship with the deceased)

  • believe they are somehow responsible for or contributed even indirectly to the death

  • may share a relevant affiliation or connection

  • are friends of a sibling of the student who died

  • have experienced prior losses or emotional difficulties

Follow the Student’s Schedule

A school psychologist or other mental health professional in the school might obtain class rosters or follow the class schedule of the student who died to assess who may benefit from additional support. Peers can be consulted as they often know which students are most deeply affected by a death through personal knowledge of the issues or content posted on social media.

Remove the Names of Deceased Students from Relevant School Lists

Schools should remove the name of a student who died from the routine communication list for the school so that the family does not inadvertently receive inappropriate notices. Families may still want to maintain a connection with the school/district as much of their social life likely revolved around the school and school events, so consideration should be given to how to maintain ongoing communication; parents can be asked directly how they wish to stay connected.

Prepare Staff to Support Grieving Students

How staff are informed about the death of a member of the school community can influence how they manage their own reactions and support children in the classroom. Staff who receive open, clear, and consistent communications about the loss will be more likely to utilize this relational style with their students. Staff often request resources to review to help them feel more comfortable in talking with (p. 217) grieving children. Arranging for in-service trainings and locating credible professional resources during times of crisis can be challenging; such relationships are best established outside the context of a crisis. Training or professional development is best offered before the (next) crisis. Learning new strategies and approaches may be very difficult when staff are distracted by their own emotional reactions. Offering accessible Internet-based resources which the staff can use when they are ready can help alleviate their stress from the competing demands of providing academic instruction while supporting the needs of grieving children. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students created a free school practitioner-oriented website (www.grievingstudents.org), with over 20 video training modules on topics ranging from how to talk with grieving students to responding to a school crisis event. Module summaries, handouts, reference materials, and guidance documents providing step-by-step practical advice are available for free download and endorsed by over 90 professional organizations (e.g., the American School Counselors Association, the National Association of School Nurses, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the School Social Work Association of America) as well as free resources for parents and other caring adults (e.g., Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2009).

When a Member of the School Community Has a Potentially Life-Limiting Condition

Children with serious and potentially life-limiting conditions (e.g., cancer) are frequently enrolled and active in regular educational settings. Such children may continue in school until very close to the time of their death. The goal is to maximize the ill student’s current quality of life and minimize potential stressors. Sometimes the greatest gift a school can provide such students is the opportunity to feel a sense of normalcy since being with friends, school, and learning are priorities in children’s lives.

Teachers are often challenged by the tasks of considering how to both support a seriously ill student and help classmates understand and cope with the illness of their peer. Interventions and strategies should aim to help everyone understand the student’s current condition and level of functioning rather than prepare the class for the student’s death. Nevertheless, students may benefit from anticipating and understanding likely near-term changes, such as fatigue or the need for extra infection-control measures due to a weakened immune system. Sometimes children may become overly concerned with their own health, even in the context of common illnesses such as when they, their family, or friends get sick with a cold or the flu. This underscores the need for students to understand the cause of their peer’s illness.

Some students may isolate or even tease their ill peer if they have difficulty understanding what is happening or why their classmate looks different or acts differently. Part of the ongoing discussion about the student’s condition can include suggestions to help the ill student. Permission should be first obtained from (p. 218) the ill student’s parents or guardians about what information may be shared with the class. The medically challenged student should also be asked what information can be shared and how he or she would like this done. Informing parents or caregivers about what their children are learning in class is very helpful so that they will be prepared to answer their children’s questions and respond to their concerns.

Talking with Students

Grief is, in many ways, a private experience enveloped in a social context. Students may feel overwhelmed by the intense emotions associated with their grief which they cannot yet express, while at the same time trying to manage well-meaning requests by peers and adults who offer the opportunity to discuss the loss. The personal and intimate nature of the grief experience, however, may result in students and their families believing that they may not be understood by others. Students may hesitate in seeking professional assistance because of their misunderstanding of the commonality of the grief experience and a lack of awareness of the various forms of grief support available.

Adults are often worried that they will say the wrong thing and make matters worse. Avoiding discussion is rarely helpful and often isolates children at a time when they are most in need of support and assistance. Children may also misinterpret silence by adults about the death as an indication that adults are unaware, unconcerned, or unwilling to help. In talking with recently bereaved children, well-intentioned school staff, in an attempt to reduce the visible distress, may inadvertently encourage grieving children to hide their emotions or attempt to “cheer them up” by offering examples of how the situation might be worse (e.g., “at least he’s still not in pain anymore”). They may also offer narratives of their own personal losses that inadvertently draw attention away from the grieving child’s loss and personal experience. Grieving children may also be confused when others say they are “sorry” for their loss when the other individual isn’t in any way responsible for the death.

Caring adults often worry that asking children about a recent death of someone close to them may upset them. Inviting children to express their feelings allows them to express their sadness and does not cause their distress. In contrast, avoiding the subject may create more problems. A conversation with a grieving child can be started by simply expressing your concern and asking open-ended questions about how the child and family are coping.

Academic Supports for Grieving Students

Grieving students often experience at least temporary academic challenges after the death of a close friend or family member because of difficulty concentrating and distractibility, limitations in learning and/or remembering new facts or (p. 219) concepts, as well as anxiety, sadness, and sleeping difficulties which limit their ability to focus. The family member who died may have helped the student with homework, been critical in communicating the student’s needs to teachers, or otherwise promoted the student’s academic success. Many bereaved students experience a reduction in school grades and an increase in school dropout rates (Broberg, Dyregrov, & Lilled, 2005), and teachers commonly perceive grieving students as struggling with learning, showing reduced achievement on tests, and experiencing learning setbacks (Dyregrov, Dyregrov, Endsjø, & Idsoe, 2015). The academic effect of bereavement may be prolonged, and intermittent support may be needed throughout children’s school career (Abdelnoor & Hollins, 2004).

Students with learning problems that predated the loss may experience a noticeable decline in their academic performance. Some students, however, may instead respond to a death by overachieving in school as a way to minimize the imagined possibility that they would be “punished” again by experiencing the death of someone else close to them, to demonstrate to their family and school staff they are not significantly impacted by the loss and are coping well with their grief, or to focus on academic work or extracurricular activities as a means to distract themselves from their acute grief. For these students, the effect of their loss may be delayed or not observed in their behavior.

Schools can offer academic supports proactively and modify school expectations and requirements as needed before students begin demonstrating academic problems or failure, a loss of confidence in their ability to succeed in school, or behavioral difficulties because of their frustrations. Some helpful modifications of academic requirements might include the following:

  • changing specific assignments (e.g., substituting a group assignment if concentration is difficult when working alone or substituting a written report for an oral assignment if the student feels self-conscious at this time)

  • changing the focus or timing of a lesson (e.g., postponing a lesson on drug abuse prevention if a student recently experienced the death of a peer from a drug overdose)

  • rescheduling or modifying a test (e.g., allowing testing to be untimed or held in a quiet or less distracting environment)

  • reducing and coordinating homework and extracurricular activities across instructors and groups so that the overall workload is manageable despite the student’s reduced ability to concentrate or time to study (Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010)

Ongoing monitoring should occur so that a balance is made between maintaining reasonable expectations and providing additional support and accommodation for grieving students. Although adaptations in workload and modifications of expectations are often needed, schools should avoid dramatically lowering academic standards or expectations for an extended period.

(p. 220) Management of Grief Triggers and Anniversary Reactions

Children can be reminded about the person who died at any time and experience intense feelings including grief, guilt, shame, anxiety, and anger associated with their loss. Although “grief triggers” are most common in the first few months after the death, they may happen months or years later, although the strength of the emotional response usually lessens with time.

Anticipate Grief Triggers

Some grief triggers, such as a Mother’s Day activity in class or a father–daughter dance at school, are easier to identify, while other grief triggers are often difficult to anticipate. Anniversaries of the death, birthdays of the deceased, holidays, special events, and major transitions (e.g., changing schools, graduating high school, moving homes) are also times when the student may feel a loved one’s absence acutely. Educators can help the student anticipate and cope with upcoming reminders and discuss alternative ways of remembering the deceased through commemoration and memorialization activities. For example, before beginning an exercise such as creating Mother’s Day cards, the teacher can explain to the class that some children may not have a mother who is currently alive or living with them, but they can still participate in the activity by creating a card in their mother’s memory or choosing instead to focus on another important adult in their life at the time. School staff can provide additional support to students who they know have experienced a personal loss and invite them to talk or share feelings around these times, as well as making accommodations to certain assignments.

Prepare for a Triggered Grief Response

Creating a “safety” plan ahead of time is often useful, wherein students know they can leave the classroom for a brief period of time if they are becoming overwhelmed by their feelings. If children know that they have the option to briefly remove themselves from the activity, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed or afraid they will cry or express other embarrassing emotions and therefore more able to remain present and engaged in the lesson. Educators can encourage students to practice the various coping and self-regulatory strategies during this time (e.g., writing a letter, talking to a trusted adult, drawing, journaling, practicing relaxation skills), rather than simply allowing the student to sit outside the classroom alone.

Peer Engagement

Following a death, grieving students may become self-conscious or embarrassed. They may worry about their appearance or wonder if they are expressing too (p. 221) much (or too little) emotion. They may not know what to say or how to act, even with their friends. Unfortunately, their peers who are uninformed or unprepared may unintentionally isolate or tease a classmate after a death. This can worsen the isolation grieving students already feel. For example, Cain and LaFreniere (2015) found in their sample of 35 parentally bereaved children aged 6–15 years that 20% “experienced direct, raw taunting about their loss.”

Most children want to help their friends yet often have limited experience supporting a friend who is grieving. They may make insensitive comments, ask repetitive or detailed questions about the death, or even tease the grieving peer. They may distance themselves from the grieving peer to cope with their own anxieties or discomfort. Educators can help students develop skills to support a peer who is grieving by correcting misinformation and misunderstandings and helping students understand how their peer may act differently at certain times. Educators should reflect to others that grieving peers may seek to be alone at times when processing their grief, especially during intense distress, though at other times may want and benefit from peer engagement and support.

Coordinating with Families

Death is often an overwhelming experience for families as family members begin to gradually realize that the many functions previously performed by the person who died now must be taken on by surviving family members, while many new and complicated needs and issues (such as how to support a grieving child and manage family finances) also require their attention. The needs of children are often not attended to because family members become distracted by their own grief and other priorities.

Parent adjustment and management of stress have consistently emerged as significant predictors of the emotional status of children and youth following traumatic and stressful events (Khamis, 2016; Samuelson, Wilson, Padrón, Lee, & Gavron, 2017); thus, helping the family indirectly helps the student. Adults in the family may benefit from receiving support so that they do not depend unduly on their children for emotional support, and so they are better able to discern and address the needs of their grieving children. However, parents and caregivers may not think of the school as a resource for information, guidance, and support. An outreach phone call to the family can help set the stage for planning and providing support for students when they transition back to school. Some families may at first decline offers to speak or receive assistance and appear angry and resentful of offers of support from school professionals. The expression of anger is often an attempt to regain control when families are not feeling safe or distrust the intentions of the school, giving all the more reason to work on establishing a trusting relationship. The offer of support can be extended over time, should the family become ready at a later time.

Monitoring Student Adjustment

Students increasingly utilize social media as a means to share their thoughts and feelings about those who have died. Therefore, schools should ask students to (p. 222) bring any comments that are worrisome, destructive, or troubling to the attention of an adult—for example, suicidal or homicidal intentions communicated by the grieving student, as well as comments posted by peers that are highly critical about the deceased (Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010).

The ongoing functioning of the child whose parent died may need to be routinely assessed following this crisis period as early-life parental death has been associated with suicidal behavior, depression, and other mortality risks in adulthood (Berg, Rostila, & Hjern, 2016; Hollingshaus & Smith, 2015). Over one third of adults who have experienced loss as a child report that they have never fully recovered (Koblenz, 2016). This underscores the importance of providing support over time to ensure that coping and adjustment are proceeding, rather than attributing distress and negative adjustment to a normative experience and expecting ultimate resiliency simply through the passage of time.

Many students will not display overt reactions to their loss and instead internalize their distress, so ongoing assessment of a student’s psychological processing of loss may be indicated, such as through periodic discussions with the student, checking in with parents and caregivers over time, and seeking the feedback of educators and others working with the grieving student. Because of their developmental immaturity, the student may not be able to both understand and communicate his or her needs, which may perpetuate feelings of emptiness that may not be processed until much later in life, if at all.

Supporting Transitions and Coordinating Services

Students may receive a significant amount of attention by school staff during the initial months following a loss; however, such support often diminishes too quickly as children display fewer external signs of their grief (despite significant persistent internal distress). The ongoing consistency of positive and supportive relationships with school staff provides significant support to grieving students, as do their attachments to both their peers and school. Transitions, although necessarily, may inadvertently result in a disruptive change in teachers, routines, rules, schedules, and peer groups which a grieving child relied on for security. For grieving students, these transitions can be more distressing because of the loss of these “anchors” which the child relied on for emotional stability.

With the student’s knowledge and the family’s permission, school professionals can communicate the student’s needs and share strategies that have been effective at providing a continuity of support. When a student is changing grades or classrooms in the same school, the information can be shared with the new teachers. The team can explore ways to provide some consistency in the support the student receives, such as ensuring continued outreach by a trusted coach or extracurricular instructor over multiple years to compensate for a discontinuity in classroom educators. For transition to a new school, the team can share (p. 223) information with teachers, administrators, counseling staff, and school health personnel in the new school. Parents and caregivers may not realize that this information is not automatically shared with a new school. The school team can also help the family identify ways to prepare the new school to best support their child. In some cases, students may benefit from meeting with the new team before the start of the new school year to discuss options for ongoing support (Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010).

Funeral Attendance

Grieving children often benefit from participating in funerals, wakes, “sitting shiva,” prayer services, and other activities after the death of a close family member or friend (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2018). Grieving children who attend such services are comforted by the support of friends and family, learn more about their own grief when they see the different ways people grieve, and appreciate participating in an important event or ritual. Children who are not included may feel hurt, discounted, excluded, or unimportant and often imagine scenarios that are far more frightening than what actually occurs. They may wonder what could possibly be so awful about the services or what is done to the body of their family member or friend when they are not allowed to be there. In addition, children who may be fearful about their future may suspect that important information is being kept from them during the funeral. This may result in a loss of trust in adults, who may instead believe their actions are protecting the child.

Prepare Students for What to Expect at a Funeral

Adults should explain to the children, in developmentally appropriate terms, what to anticipate during these services and invite them to ask questions and participate to the level they wish. It is particularly helpful to assign a mentor to grieving children, such as an adult who is not actively grieving but has a strong relationship with the child (which may be a school staff, neighbor, or distant relative), to monitor and support the child during any ceremony. This allows the grieving child’s needs to be readily identified and met and his or her level and nature of participation adjusted to his or her preferences in real time.

Give Other Students and Staff the Choice to Attend or Participate in Funeral Activities

Peers of the grieving student as well as school staff may wish to participate in the services. The family of the grieving student should be consulted to determine the family’s preferences about participation of school staff and peers. Individual (p. 224) families of the bereaved child’s peers should decide with their children whether they should attend, emphasizing that there are many ways in which people grieve and that attendance at a funeral service is only one way of mourning a loss or supporting a grieving peer. In explaining the choice, school staff and the child’s family should first provide basic information in simple terms about what children can expect from the experience including anticipated cultural and religious rituals as well as expected behavior of adults and children. Adults should encourage children to ask questions at any point over the days leading up to, as well as during and after, the service.

Allow for Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Want to Attend a Funeral

Students and school staff should not feel any obligation to attend a funeral, but may feel social pressure to do so after the death of a classmate or school staff. If the child elects not to attend, families can work with children to identify alternate ways for them to recognize the death and support grieving peers or staff, such as writing a condolence card or inviting a grieving student to join them at lunch later in the week. The school should prepare proactive messages that support the decision to not attend services, along with providing alternative activities for those who prefer to stay at school, such as a classroom project or discussion that does not involve the core curriculum and will not need to be made up by those attending the services. Unfortunately, some students may feel compelled to attend because of their fear of reprisals from other students, especially following the death of a peer. Other students with no strong connection to the deceased may appear to be seeking a day away from classroom instruction, resulting in concerns about children who choose to attend as well as those who choose not to. Students who do not have a strong relationship with the deceased student may nevertheless use this as an opportunity to grieve their own personal loss, to become more familiar with the social customs associated with mourning, to offer support to their peers who are more personally impacted, or to seek a stronger sense of community that occurs at a time of loss.

Commemoration and Memorialization

Memorials and commemorative activities can be very helpful in the recovery process in many ways. They can help students to

  • communicate at a public level their connection and attachment to people who died

  • express and cope with difficult feelings that may otherwise seem overwhelming and difficult to deal with on their own

  • (p. 225) realize that they are not alone in having strong feelings

  • draw on the support of peers and adults in the school community

  • begin to find some meaning in the loss

  • feel reconnected to beliefs that may have been shaken by the experience

  • learn coping strategies that have worked for others

  • share their own coping approaches with peers

The wish to develop memorials and engage in commemorative activities soon after a death that touches many members of a school community is common, though the school must consider the timing and process of developing these meaning-making and legacy efforts (Schonfeld & Demaria, 2018).

Avoid Impulsive Decision-Making Around Memorials

While initial thoughts about memorial and commemorative activities can start early during the recovery process, sufficient time should be allowed so that members of the school community can identify and understand their thoughts and emotions about a death. When students and staff rush to plan commemorative and memorial activities, this activity can divert attention from addressing the acute emotional needs of the broader school community and may give the false appearance that the school is attempting to reach closure prematurely.

Create an Inclusive Planning Process for Memorials

What is specifically planned for a memorial or commemorative activity is far less critical than how the school goes about the planning process. The planning process must be inclusive, with students playing a central role. When schools do not immediately engage students in the planning process, there is a greater risk that spontaneous, informal memorials will appear in the school or within the community at a location associated with the death. Spontaneous memorials constructed in the community can be problematic, especially if they are placed in dangerous locations, such as busy intersections or railroad tracks where a student died. These also may become sites for future risk-taking behaviors, including substance abuse. For example, if a school identifies that a spontaneous memorial has been created by students in a wooded area near a railroad track at the site of a student suicide, they might consider promptly relocating the spontaneous memorial to an alternate site that can be better monitored and where adult support is more readily available, thereby reducing the risk that students feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable may engage in heavy drinking or drug use while in close proximity to a means of lethal suicide.

(p. 226) Consider Symbolic Activities to Commemorate the Deceased

The goal for memorialization and commemoration is to remember what was lost or altered by the crisis and what survivors wish to preserve, rather than to remember the moment or method of the loss. Schools should give careful consideration to ensure that any policies and procedures followed to memorialize or commemorate a death do not establish a difficult precedent and support both the short- and long-term needs of the students who are grieving, as well as addressing safety concerns. Thoughtful and simple symbolic activities, such as adding a song that the deceased student liked to the program for the choir’s concert, are often more meaningful and expressive than formal, traditional means of memorialization (e.g., placement of plaques in the hallway or planting a tree) (Schonfeld & Quackenbush, 2010).

Acknowledge Deceased at Graduation and in the Yearbook, Though Avoid Using Those as Opportunities for a Tribute

The graduation ceremony is time to focus on the celebration of the successes of graduating students and is therefore not an opportunity to provide a fitting tribute to those who died. However, it can be a time to briefly acknowledge those members of the school community who are unable to be present due to death. A list of those who died who will be acknowledged at the graduation ceremony can best be generated collaboratively between school staff and the student class and should include students and school staff who died regardless of the reason for the death (e.g., accident, suicide, medical illness). Families of those who died, as well as students and school staff, should be informed beforehand if this is going to be done.

Similarly, the school yearbook is a lasting record in which the experiences of the graduating class are memorialized. As with the reading of the names at a graduation ceremony, an entry in the yearbook, rather than a special tribute section, can be used to record the names of all students and other members of the school community who died during the time the student cohort was in the school or school system. Honoring one particular student or member of the school staff in the yearbook can be problematic as the families and friends of other less popular individuals who died may resent that their loved ones did not receive the same recognition.

Responding to a Death by Suicide

The death by suicide of a member of the school community is one of the most challenging events that can be faced by schools because of a flood of competing priorities, including the needs of peer survivors, family members of the deceased, (p. 227) school staff involved with the deceased student, administrative and counseling staff worried about attribution of blame for the death, and vulnerable students in the school who may seek to emulate the death by suicide. Suicide carries a stigma in society and leaves survivors often with strong feelings of confusion, guilt, shame, regret, and anger. Family members will often ask that the school not disclose suicide as a likely cause of death, especially when the cause of death has not been confirmed by the medical examiner. It is generally best to respect the family’s wishes, while still addressing the topic as it is raised by students (e.g., “John’s family has indicated that they believe his death to be accidental and the cause of his death is still under investigation. Nevertheless, several of you have raised questions about suicide. Although we don’t know about the cause of John’s death, suicide is an important topic and affects many youth, so I think it would worthwhile to discuss this briefly now.”). Suicide and/or death by suicide can then be discussed as an important topic. In this way, the parents’ wishes can be respected, while attending to the students’ comments and addressing the topic.

Communicate Honestly and Openly About Suicide

Clear and open communication about suicide can address the needs of many of those at risk. The first message that should be communicated to students, families, and staff is that suicide is often the result of underlying depression or other mental health problems; it may also be related to alcohol or other substance abuse. It is important to emphasize that suicide is not generally a logical decision made by someone who is thinking clearly and able to consider a range of solutions to problems.

Identify and Monitor Students at Heightened Risk Following a Peer Suicide

Ongoing monitoring of those impacted by a death due to suicide is critical, including students identified as being at risk such as close friends of the deceased or classmates, those who participated in extracurricular activities with the student who died, those who had a conflicted or strained relationship with the deceased (e.g., ex-girlfriends/boyfriends or someone who bullied the deceased), students with a history of depression or similar problems, those who may have made a suicide attempt in the past, those who have experienced a death by suicide in their lives in the past, and teachers who had taught the student recently or in the past. A referral for mental health services may be warranted if significant risk factors emerge or if reactions to the death (e.g., continued decline in school performance, difficulty meeting demands at school, impaired functioning at home and with friends) persist without significant improvement. Response to a death by suicide should not only include the immediate response but also long-term follow-up and (p. 228) support, such as at the time of special school events (e.g., homecoming, parent day, graduation) or special dates (e.g., birthday, death anniversary) when intense emotions may recur.

Avoid Glamorizing Death from Suicide

Deaths of students or staff from suicide should be acknowledged by the school, while avoiding glamorizing the means of death so as not to inadvertently encourage disenfranchised students to view suicide as a means to gain wide attention or to deliver a message broadly. The emphasis should be placed on acknowledging and supporting the grief of those who are surviving, while providing suicide post-vention, including education about the need to speak to trusted adults when students are aware of risk factors in peers or are concerned about their own emotions or behaviors.

Professional Self-Care

Being with grieving children can be unsettling for empathic adults who want to protect children from painful emotions. Compassion fatigue may develop if school staff do not find a way to engage in self-care so that they can emotionally process and find meaning in their encounters with grieving children. Children’s grief may also trigger reminders of professionals’ own losses or raise thoughts or concerns about the vulnerability of their own family. In addition, disruptions in the relationships among members of the school community due to a crisis event can strain friendships and working relationships, and leaders may demonstrate resistance to advice or difficulty in planning an effective recovery.

School-employed mental and behavioral health professionals (e.g., school psychologists) may feel isolated because other school staff may feel uncomfortable with the role of providing support to grieving children. By establishing a multidisciplinary support team for a grieving student, the burden of providing all of the support to the grieving student can be shared by the team, rather than resting solely with the school-employed mental health professionals.

School leaders also benefit from the support of others in the aftermath of a school crisis, yet the support they receive may be limited if they have to rely only on staff in their school district to meet this need. The development of relationships with leadership in nearby school systems; involvement in professional organizations for superintendents, principals, and other school administrators; drawing on expertise in other professional organizations such as the National Association of School Psychologists; familiarity with best-practice strategies; and utilization of outside consultants (e.g., National Center School Crisis & Bereavement, www.schoolcrisiscenter.org) can help provide guidance to allow more time for self-care.

(p. 229) Conclusion

Educators who provide support to grieving children and families often have a meaningful and lasting impact. A relatively modest effort to provide compassion and support can have a dramatic effect. It can help reduce the amount of time grieving children feel confused, isolated, and overwhelmed. Educators will not be able to take away the pain and sorrow (and should not see that as their goal), though they can significantly reduce the suffering and minimize the negative effects of loss on children’s lives and trajectories.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. How should a school psychologist best address a teacher who believes that grief support is not part of a teacher’s role in the school?

  2. 2. Should a school psychologist ask to see a child who lost a family member when the child has not been showing any adjustment difficulties?

  3. 3. What types of academic supports are most likely to be useful for grieving students?

  4. 4. How should a school mental health professional address guilt in a child grieving the death of a close family member?

  5. 5. What advice would you provide school leadership that is planning to build a memorial at the site where students were killed?

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