When A Student Grieves

February 01, 1991 5 min read

PHYLLIS VAIL, A 6TH grade teacher in western Maine, learned one weekend that the parents of one of her students had just been killed. Suddenly realizing how unprepared she was to help a grieving child, Vail wondered what she would do on Monday morning.

Vail’s wrenching problem is a common one among teachers. A few years ago, most teachers would not have been expected to broach the subject of death in their classrooms; it wasn’t considered a suitable topic for children, let alone school. But that attitude is changing. Some experts suggest that the erosion of the nuclear family--the traditional source of comfort for grieving children-- is, at least in part, responsible for the shift. One thing is certain: Schools and teachers are being called on more and more to help children handle the pain of loss.

This is particularly true in the nation’s urban areas, where increasing drug and gang violence has forced many children to deal with death that is sudden and shocking. According to Anne Kliman, director of the Situational Crisis Service Center for Preventive Psychiatry in White Plains, N.Y., and a pioneer in grief education for children, this kind of death is much more difficult for youngsters to cope with than the death of an aged loved one from natural causes.

What, then, can a teacher like Vail do? Some support and advice is usually available within school systems. Services range from books in the library to special crisis-intervention teams that provide advice and training. In addition, many local hospices and hospitals offer grief-intervention programs that can help teachers.

The Good Grief Program at the Judge Baker Guidance Center in Boston, for example, provides films, resource lists, conferences, and inservice programs to schools. Sandra Sutherland Fox, director of the Boston program, recommends two practical ways teachers can help with grief.

First, without altering the curriculum, teachers can give children what Fox calls an “emotional inoculation.’' To do this, she says, teachers should “expose children to small doses of what would be toxic in large ones, in order to prepare them for the inevitable moment of loss.’' Fox tells of a Latin teacher who, when discussing Julius Caesar, orchestrated a class discussion about the impact of violent death. She also recalls an elementary school teacher who used a discussion of Charlotte’s Web to talk about death as a natural occurrence. The key, Fox says, is for a teacher to find opportunities in the classroom to let students know that it’s all right to talk about death.

Second, teachers can help students with what Fox calls the “tasks’’ of mourning: understanding, grieving, commemorating, and going on.

Understanding. Children need developmentally appropriate answers to their questions about what has happened. Becky Waters, a guidance counselor at the Edna Libby School in Standish, Maine, frequently introduces discussions about death with a brainstorming session that allows students to express their ideas--and misconceptions. After asking one small boy to describe his feelings about a classmate who had been killed by a car, Waters discovered that the boy thought his friend’s body would be lying beside the road, like a raccoon’s that he had seen. Fox has found that the most simple and easily understood way to explain death is to say “the body stopped working.’'

Grieving. Once understanding is achieved, children need to feel safe enough to express the grab bag of emotions--anger, sadness, guilt, etc.-- that accompany loss. Fox suggests that teachers not only focus on the grieving child but also recognize that other children in the class may be experiencing pain and confusion, as well. Discussing one child’s loss allows other children to remember their own and to experience a healthy mourning. Kathy Heer, a school psychologist at West Potomac (Va.) High School, calls this phenomenon a “chain reaction.’'

The Good Grief Program in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is modeled after the Boston program, offers different therapeutic approaches for different age levels. Director Linda Glick suggests that teachers anticipate ageappropriate behavior. Very young children, such as Head Start pupils, she says, may talk about death but not understand it. These children, she adds, “tend to act out in all kinds of obnoxious ways.’' Kliman notes that many children of this age “don’t believe that death is irreversible’’ and may think they can reunite with the lost person.

While younger children are often open about their distress, teenagers may not seek comfort so readily. Alice Knight, a retired home economics teacher who is active in peer counselor groups in eastern Maine, cautions, “They’re in so much of a shell at that age that you don’t want to break their image by touching on something they can’t handle.’' For these students, peer counselors or bereavement groups may be helpful. Betty Klein, the director of guidance at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, says that peer counselors trained through the Good Grief Program have been very useful in identifying grieving kids and helping them work through their feelings.

Commemorating. Fox believes that for the mourning process to be effective, the griever must participate in some sort of commemorative act. Teachers might encourage their students to choose a way to remember a deceased classmate, and then lead the children through that commemoration.

Going on. The final stage in the mourning process is accepting what has happened and realizing that living is not a betrayal of the dead person. It might be helpful to gently encourage a grieving student to attend some function or participate in an activity that he or she once enjoyed with the deceased. Sometimes, teachers can help by simply telling the student it’s all right to have fun.

Phyllis Vail was fortunate. When she came to work on the Monday after her student was orphaned, she found that her school district had a crisis team in place. The team worked with Vail and other teachers and helped them lead classroom discussions that responded to children’s questions and worries. After her students returned to their class work, Vail waited until she thought it was appropriate and then raised the subject of death with them again. They talked about how they should act when their friend returned to school.

Later, Vail held another brief discussion to explain the funeral. She also stayed in close touch with guidance counselors, intervention-team members, and the child’s surviving family members. Once the student returned, Vail took advantage of natural opportunities to check in with him. By paying attention to the child’s tragedy and its impact on her class, Vail helped all her students prepare for life’s tragic losses.

Marcella Spruce is a teacher and an education writer based in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as When A Student Grieves