Teaching Opinion

Response: Many Ways To Help Our Students Grieve

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 25, 2014 13 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we best respond to student grief after losing a loved one?

In thinking about this question, it seems to me that there is much more written about how a school can best cope with the loss of one of their students than with suggestions on how a teacher can help a student dealing with the loss of a family member or friend. The first instance is obviously tragic and traumatic, and needs to be discussed. But since the second instance tends to happen far more frequently, I hope readers will find this post helpful.

Several exceptional educators have contributed to today’s column, including Mary Tedrow, Stephen Lazar, Larry Swartz, Dr. Sherrel Bergmann and Dr. Judith Brough. In addition, I’ve included responses from readers.

You can also hear Mary and Stephen elaborate on their written contributions in my weekly ten minute BAM! Radio program.

Before I turn today’s post over to my guests, I’d like to share a few suggestions of my own.

First, readers might find these two resources helpful:

The Best Resources For Helping Students Deal With Grief

The Best Resources On Talking With Children About Tragedies

Secondly, for years I’ve thought (and continue to think) that this article, How to: Help Your Students Deal with Grief and Loss by Kit Richert, was/is one of the most useful, and concise, pieces on the topic that I’ve seen.

Finally, Remembering With Love is a book I give to my mainstream high school students who are experiencing grief, and provides short, page-long vignettes. It’s designed as a guide throughout the first year of loss (first month, first holiday, etc.). In fact, over the past twenty-two years, I’ve probably given over seventy copies away to students, colleagues and friends who have suffered a loss.

There’s a story behind this...

My first wife died twenty-two ago. Linda’s profession was being a...bereavement counselor. Because of her work, there was obviously no shortage of bereavement resources around our house. I went through them all, and nothing seemed to really fit. One day, I was just browsing through a bookstore and found Remembering With Love. I found it very helpful, and I believe that everybody -- students and adults alike -- whom I’ve since given a copy has felt the same way.

In addition to reading the ideas offered by today’s guests, please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section on how you have helped students experiencing grief, or of other resources you’ve found useful.

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary K. Tedrow is a National Board Certified Teacher of English Language Arts/Adolescence and Young Adulthood with 24 years of classroom experience. She is also a Co-Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, the Porterfield Endowed English Chair and John Handley High School, and a charter member of the Center for Teaching Quality Teacher Leaders Forum:

Parents and teachers, those responsible for nurturing children into caring and responsive adults, continually question what should be shared or avoided when talking with children. Above all, we hope to “do no harm.”

In the midst of raising three children and wrestling with what to say and when, I stumbled across this advice from Fred Rogers, host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

This advice, which I distilled to “If it happens to people, we can talk about it,” has driven my parenting and teaching philosophy ever since, particularly when it comes to acknowledging difficult topics with children.

And death is the most difficult topic of all.

If we are unwilling to mention grief in the presence of our students, it becomes an “unmentionable topic,” one that must be too scary, too overwhelming for adults and, ultimately, much, much too big for children. Avoiding the difficult means leaving children adrift to figure it out alone.

We owe it to the children in our lives to be honest about the feelings that occur when someone we love is lost.

Speak to your students. Offer your condolences and a listening ear to the one who suffers. Let students see your own grief and your ability to cope with it. It will help everyone. When the topic is initiated it provides a space for the child to express worries and concerns.

Teaching is really about building relationships that touch and change our children. So remember Mr. Rogers further advice, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.” Be honest. Kids will know when you are making it up.

Response From Stephen Lazar

Stephen Lazar, a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, is a co-founder of Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City where he teaches students Social Studies and English, is Assessment Coordinator, and union chapter leader. Lazar works with Social Studies teachers across NYC and the nation to support to support inquiry-based instruction, project-based learning, and Common Core implementation. He is profiled in Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave, by Barnett Berry, Ann Byrd, and Alan Wieder:

I can sadly only answer this question from my personal experience. When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my closest friends passed away the Monday before Thanksgiving. Josh had been diagnosed with a very treatable form of leukemia only a week prior. On Friday he went into surgery to insert the catheter. He never became fully conscious again before dying of a brain hemorrhage.

Half a life time later, there are still dozens of memories that might as well have been yesterday. Included in them are the actions of three teachers.

I had first period Geometry with Josh, where he sat in front of me. Mrs. Ricci came up to me as class started my first day back after Thanksgiving, in tears herself, and gave me a hug. She asked if there was anything she could do and what I wanted to do about seating. I asked her to keep Josh’s seat open, which she did for the rest of the year.

My history teacher, Mr. Rivera, didn’t teach Josh, but knew we were friends somehow. I remember he got the class working on something that first day back, then came to me and Josh’s other friends who sat together in the back of the room, and asked us to tell him about Josh. He sat and listened for the entire period. It was the first time in high school an adult had ever sat and listened to me for an extended period of time.

Most important were the actions of my English teacher, Mr. Kramer. The day after Josh’s death, he called me at home to express his condolences and offer his support. I couldn’t believe a teacher was calling me at home, and that small gesture communicated more love and care than anything else that was done for me in those weeks. As the year went on, Mr. Kramer supported me in writing about Josh a lot, even when my writings didn’t exactly fit into the assignments he had given. At the end of the year, Mr. Kramer shared a poem he wrote about Josh, and his admiration for the strength he saw in those of us living with his loss.

These three teachers got it right because they offered themselves as real humans who were also touched by the loss. In all three cases, their support was significant because they offered space -- the empty seat, an attentive ear, a blank page -- in which my friends and I could begin to process and deal with the death.

Response From Larry Schwartz

Larry Swartz is an instructor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and principal of continuing education courses and dramatic arts at OISE. His latest book is The Bully-Go-Round: Literacy and Arts Strategies for Promoting Bully Awareness in the Classroom:

Tragedies happen in life, and it is important for young people to have an ear, a shoulder, and a heart open to their puzzlements and grief when death comes into their lives. Whether it’s the death of a pet; a relative; someone in the classroom, the school, or the community; or a person celebrated in the media, students of all ages need to confront the circumstances and stories of death that they encounter. A sincere, compassionate conversation allows young people to reveal what they are thinking, and the questions they have need to be answered honestly by a trusting adult. Without intervention, young people may be left to wonder about the mysteries of life and death on their own, perhaps remaining silent, confused, or guilty.

Children’s literature provides strong support to help students learn about death. Fiction can provide both a window and a mirror to such circumstances. In books, young readers may find comfort. Stories matter, and through stories children can find courage to reveal how a book connected with them (or not). In the classroom, we can gather as a community to share our responses. Sometimes, within families, children can sit side-by-side with an adult to journey through a book and share reactions. If children read a story independently, they should know that they can talk about the story with others when they are ready.

Several years ago, in the final days of June with my fourth-grade class, we learned that a girl who had been in our class was in an airplane crash. I had to break the news about Deepa’s tragedy to the 30 nine- and ten-year-olds in my classroom. Reading aloud was an important daily ritual in the class, and the students expected that I would turn to story. I shared Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley in order to wrap the students in a blanket of words that would help them cope with the death of their classmate. Following the reading, one boy suggested that we write letters to Deepa, just as Badger’s friends had done for him. Story-Talk-Writing is what was needed in my classroom, and those three words are the best answers I can give to how we can respond to student grief.

Following are some picture books I recommend:

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
Grandpa by John Burningham

Following are some novels for readers ages 9 through 12:

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Edward’s Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan
Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith

Response From Dr. Sherrel Bergmann and Dr. Judith Brough

Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, retired professor, National Louis University and Dr. Judith Brough, Professor Emerita, Gettysburg College are award-winning educators and authors. Their research and practical approaches to working with reluctant learners, motivation, parent-school relationships, and building life-essential skills are widely used in classrooms. They are the authors of Reducing the risk, increasing the promise: Strategies for student success:

Response to student grief is best handled privately with the student, regardless of his/her age. Some students will want to talk about their loss while others will handle their grief privately. Try simply saying, “I am so sorry for your loss, please let me know if I can do anything to help you. If you would like to talk to me or someone else let me help you determine how and when to do that.” There are many good pieces of children’s and young adult literature that focus on loss of loved ones, including precious pets. The media specialist in the school could build a section of the library holdings for such use.

Teachers should inform the school counselor or social worker that this student may need some support in the coming weeks. Teachers should be taught the stages of grief and how people move through those stages. Students can also be taught that most people go through anger, denial and acceptance at different rates. They can be encouraged to write or draw if they do not want to talk about their feelings.

Teachers can offer classroom activities that build resilience and respect so that classmates know what to do when someone is grieving.

Adolescents who have sudden emotional crises should be allowed to leave the classroom and go to the counselor’s office or school nurse for privacy. Homework expectations may be adjusted for a period of time and opportunities for help in making up work should be offered.

Many times grief is compounded by significant change in the life of the student and those changes will affect the student’s attitude about self, school, and life. Encourage the student to talk to someone if those changes become overwhelming. Many school counselors hold grief groups for students who have suffered loss.

Perhaps the best way to handle it is to think of how you would like to be responded to in loss of a loved one.

Responses From Readers


Being an elementary school teacher for 25 years has given me many opportunities to address this question, most recently just a couple weeks ago. I find that mostly what they need is love and support. Loads of hugs and a listening ear are critical at this age. Knowing they are not alone in loss is important to them. Having lost my grandparents, father, an aunt, and 3 uncles allows me to empathize with them.

When 2 students lost a parent to cancer in different years, I actually took students to the funerals to show support. Recently I attended the funeral of a grandfather. The student lost both grandfathers within 2 weeks. The mother sent me a card thanking me for my presence that day and my care and support over time. Parents also need to know we are a source of support when needed.

Classmates also need support, as often the death of someone else’s relative brings up past losses for them. We start our day with a Responsive Classroom technique called Morning Meeting. At this circle time children are allowed to share triumphs, tribulations, etc. and their classmates respond. It is a time to deal with things that occur both in and out of school in a supportive, trusting, safe environment. I find this to be an invaluable way to start the day, especially for children needing extra support.

Of course, additional school staff such as psychologists and adjustment counselors would also be offered as resources if grief becomes overwhelming.

Thanks to Mary, Stephen, Larry, Sherrel and Judith, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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I’ll be posting the next “question-of-the-week” in a few of days....

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