The hush, the horror, the helplessness--nothing permeates a school like grief. The message travels through the faculty and staff in choked voices and hollow tones. One of our students has lost a parent, a sister, a beloved teacher, a best friend. The individual details may vary, but the heartache feels the same. The need to react professionally and provide structure and sanity wrestles with the impulse to hug the child, cry with the child, to build a wall of love around that child so thick that the demons of despair cannot get in.
But nothing--we can do nothing to assuage their agony, so we offer our condolences and prayers. We have our students make cards with construction paper and crayons, and we bite the inside of our cheeks, hard, to keep from sobbing at the funeral as we watch the child follow the coffin down the church aisle.
Frustrated by this helplessness, I researched the “best” way for a teacher to help a grieving student. I found out that my dilemma was common. In fact, according to a study by the American Federation of Teachers and the New York Life Foundation,
“Almost seven in ten (69%) teachers reported having at least one student in their classes who had lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year.” The survey results show that. “America’s teachers are keenly interested in helping the large number of grieving students in their classrooms, but express a strong need for more training and resources regarding child bereavement.”
Edutopia.com, in a post co-authored by David Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, offers some helpful guidelines for teachers to help grieving students. To summarize, teachers should be honest and caring, supportive, provide structure, and allow students to express themselves without judgement. All of these tips are just plain good teaching and should be used every day and in every classroom.
Love and support. I knew that already. Be there for the children. I knew that, too.
I have also learned over my years of teaching to take the time to know my students well. I don’t ask a student whose mother has died to make a mother’s day card; I don’t say, “ask your mom and dad” when a child in the room has lost a parent. I had one student who made a gorgeous model for a book report, and he and his father had worked on it together right before his father passed. I took special care to display that project in a place of honor, and I made certain it didn’t get bumped or damaged.
The tragedy that can accompany death is too big for any of us, teachers, families, friends to handle, but we can do little things, and we should do little things-to quote Mother Theresa, “do little things with great love.”