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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Helping Students Deal with the Loss of a Parent

By Peter DeWitt — August 17, 2011 6 min read
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“Approximately 1 in 20 children experience the loss of a parent before they reach the age of 18" (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990).

We have many students who are confronted with the loss of a parent, whether it’s through drugs, alcohol, accidents, suicide, disease or war. Although it is a sad subject to focus on, it is important that as educators, we understand how to help students get through this very difficult situation. They will remember where they were, who they were with, and how the adults around them helped them deal with the loss of a parent.

When a parent passes away, no matter whether expected or unexpected, it is a very traumatic experience. Those individuals who have lost a parent need to take time to go through the grieving process, and depending on their age, have past experience to draw on as they take time to heal. Children who experience the loss of a parent do not have that luxury. They do not have a great deal of experience to draw on, and have to learn to cope as they deal with their grief.

Compounded in their grief is that they have to watch their surviving parent learn how to move forward on their own. All of this storm and stress have a significant impact on their ability to engage in the school day and they are at a very delicate time in their lives. It is at this time that they need a supportive adult the most.

A Teacher’s Impact

Teachers spend ten months or longer with their students, depending on the grade they teach or whether they loop with their class. The teacher-student relationship is an integral part in the development of a child and those teachers can play a major role in the healing process. Unfortunately, some adults do not know how to interact with children after they have lost a parent. Adults need to find the delicate balance between offering sympathy and empathy.

Children who are dealing with the death of a parent feel different than the rest of their peers because they feel very alone. They experience emotions they have never felt and question everything from how this could be happening to them to their spirituality. Every part of their day is impacted. School, although the place they must attend every day, is more of a distraction than something they are yearning to go to.

Home does not always offer an escape for them after a long school day either. When they go home they deal with the grief, and perhaps even depression, on the part of their parent that is still living. As they try to fall asleep at night, the parent they lost and their surviving parent that is grieving weighs heavily on their mind.

Children who have lost a parent are often more concerned about losing the other parent in a tragic way. They are more likely to have emotional or behavioral issues and are often more likely to suffer from depression and self-esteem issues. Many of these children are at a risk of turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. However, teachers have the opportunity to offer these children support.


It is important to find diverse literature for your classroom. As important as it is to make sure that you are offering culturally diverse literature to your students, it is just as important to offer literature with diverse family structures and find books that deal with the loss of a parent.

Finding these books is not always easy because many of the large publishers do not like to offer stories about death. Unfortunately for the larger publishers, books on death do not sell as well as other more fun topics, so they do not publish books about death and dying. However, smaller publishing companies that have a grief focus do have great books that can be read in class.

I think we can all agree that books about death are sad. However, we use books in our classrooms for a variety of reasons, and some of these books mean different things to different students. For a student who lost a parent, a book about death could offer an important resource and make that student feel as though they are not alone.


Organizations like the Centering Corporation can play an important part in the grieving process for children and their families. They offer books, journal articles and other resources on the subject of grief and loss.

School staff should always reach out to the families experiencing a loss to provide them with resources for family counseling, literature to read at home, or services that can help families deal with the financial issues related to death. In addition, the teacher should always make sure they have parent permission to discuss the loss of a parent with the child. When done with sensitivity, these interactions can have a positive impact on the grieving child.

The following are other tips on helping children deal with grief.

• Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. The bereaved should feel free to express their feelings, without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.

• Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.

• Let the bereaved talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.

• Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what they’re feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to theirs (Helpguide.org).

The Beginning

One of the most difficult realities for children who have lost a parent is the fact that many of the supporters who were present during the ceremonies that occur when someone dies, go back to their own lives. The child of a parent who passes sees long lost relatives during the funeral and burial, but soon after the ceremonies have ended those relatives disappear and do not always remain in contact. It’s important that children have a strong support system to help them cope.

As educators, it’s important to understand that the grieving process does not have a time limit and these children may become disconnected from the school system. It’s important to find ways to reconnect these students with the daily activities of school because they need to move on and experience life.

It is difficult for children to lose a parent at a young age but they can and will move on in life. This is a time when sympathy needs to turn to empathy because these children have the opportunity to learn coping skills and resiliency. Unlike many of their peers they may only have one parent at home, but like their peers they can learn to live a very normal life.

Please click here to read Catcher’s Mitt which was published in Grief Digest.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.