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Finding Common Ground

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

How Do We Help Children Who Lost a Parent?

By Peter DeWitt — October 07, 2012 3 min read
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This blog will not be popular. It won’t be Tweeted hundreds of times or sent out to friends through Facebook. Many who begin reading it will most likely stop before they ever get to this point because they will have scanned the title and decided to move on. Readers will say, “Too sad,” and never read the rest because they don’t like to talk about losing a parent.

A friend posted on Facebook that one of her friends lost his battle with Leukemia. In looking at the pictures, he could not have been more the 40 years old. He left behind a wife and three small children who looked to be less than twelve years old. As much as some adults may not want to talk about it, the loss of a parent is a reality for some of our students.

1 in 7 Americans lose a parent or sibling before they reach the age of twenty” (Comfort Zone Camp). Some kids know that it will happen because their parent fought a long illness while others aren’t prepared because they never saw it coming. Perhaps their parent was killed in the war. Regardless of the circumstances these students enter our schools and we expect them to learn.

Students can’t turn off a switch when they walk into school. Losing a parent clouds their view of the world and if the family doesn’t deal with it properly, some of these students will enter into risky behavior. There is a void they are trying to fill and some will fill that void in very self-destructing ways if they don’t have the right support. At the same time that students believe no one can understand their pain, they want someone to talk with about it. They want to know someone understands, at least a little, what they are going through.

Weddings and Funerals
What is hard for some children is that at a funeral they see family they may never have met or have not seen in a very long time. Those children may be taken aback by the support their family receives and believe that this kind of support will constantly surround them. The truth is that kind of support does not always stay with them after the funeral is over. Family and friends go back to their lives as the family experiencing the loss tries to move on with their life.

Sometimes, to make matters worse, the friends that the parents used to spend time with may go away as well. That sense of loss and void can go on for decades. The important thing to remember is that sympathy lasts for awhile but empathy is most important. Students who experience loss need to be held to the same expectations as others because sometimes those expectations are a positive focus for them. They need to know, that even after devastating circumstances they can grow up and have great lives. It’s often said that those who we lose never really leave us because we hold them in our hearts.

In the End
Just like students who enter our schools with some type of academic need, students who experience loss need our differentiation as well. For example, perhaps finding children’s books where there is only one parent in the story could be helpful. Students who only have one parent at home for whatever reason need to see stories that depict their life too.

I lost my dad when I was eleven. He was 53 and fought a three year battle with cancer. All my grandparents had passed away before him so it was up to my mom to help my four siblings heal while she dealt with losing a husband when she was 47. When you’re eleven, 53 sounds old. When you’re in your 40’s, like I am now, you realize that 53 was not old at all.

The reason I tell you about my circumstance is that I believe it can offer a window into the world of a child who lost a parent. The things my teachers didn’t know how to do are the things I tried to do as a teacher when I had students who lost a parent. Simply offering an ear to listen or finding books that depict the lives of the children in your class will go a long way to helping them heal. It doesn’t mean that teachers and administrators have to be experts on the subject of grief, but they do have to be empathetic to the needs of a child who is dealing with death.

For more resources on grief visit these following websites:
Children Grieve
The Centering Corporation
Resources by the Centering Corporation
The Comfort Zone

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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.