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How to Help a Grieving Child

An understanding of the basic concepts of grief prepares us to be helpful to a child who experiences a death of a family member or friend. A child in Massachusetts went to school one day and told her teacher that her mother had died. The teacher's response was, "You shouldn't say things like that." The child took her seat, and the teacher went on with class. School officials later found out that the child's mother had indeed died in the apartment alone with the child. The child may have been helped immeasurably had the teacher said, "Tell me more."

From Helping the Grieving Student: A Guide for Teachers from The Dougy Center, the national center for grieving children and families in Portland, Oregon, come these six basic concepts of grief:

  1. Grief is a natural reaction to loss.
  2. Each student's grief experience is unique.
  3. There are no "right" and "wrong" ways to grieve.
  4. Every death is different and will be experienced by your students in differing ways.
  5. The grieving process is influenced by a multitude of factors.
  6. Grieving does not end. Loss is not something a child will "get over."

Grieving is hard work and influences all areas of a person's life. Some students
Will be able to express grief through words, but others will only be able to express grief through their behavior and play. How someone will grieve cannot be predicted, only that he/she will grieve. Students may focus on their grief first and school work second. Teachers and administrators who allow students time and support for healing provide a gift to the student. Teachers and administrators who give a message of "get over it" or "you have been grieving long enough" can contribute to problems or create them.

Teachers, counselors, and school administrators are busy. Let GriefWorks help when there is a need. Sometimes it does "take a village." We can help by working with children and families who have experienced loss, consulting with teachers and counselors regarding grief issues, and providing teacher training about grief and loss.

Teachers can also help in these ways:

  • Tell the truth, using accurate words such as died, killed, suicided.
  • Listen without judgment.
  • Say something that acknowledges you know about the death and care: "I am sorry." "I would like to help in some way."
  • Talk about the person who died, using their name and sharing a memory.
  • Provide structure and routine, but be flexible when needed.
  • Seize special moments that may arise in class to teach about grief.
  • Know that you cannot take away the pain, fear, loneliness or feeling of being different. Your role is to be a safe person to whom feelings can be expressed.
  • Comprehend that the student's life has changed forever, and that it will never be the same.
  • Allow for grief, sorrow, anger, or other feelings.
  • Know where you can refer students and families for support.
  • Children think concretely and will need your explanations of death to be concrete.

Avoid these common mistakes in word and action:

  • Do not suggest that someone has grieved long enough.
  • Do not indicate that someone should get over it and move on.
  • Do not expect someone to complete all assignments on a timely basis.
  • Do not act as if nothing has happened.
  • Do not say things like: "It could be worse, you still have one brother." "I know how you feel." "You'll be stronger because of this."

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