Tips about Supporting Children’s Grief for Adults
Ways Adults Can Help Bereaved Children
Death challenges the coping skills of children and adolescents. How can we adults help children develop and strengthen coping skills that will help them when they experience a death or other significant losses? The following suggestions may help you respond to such crises and prepare for future times of loss and grief in your classroom.
- Share the fact of the death with children and parents.
Tell the children what's happened in an age-appropriate way, but share only the information that is public knowledge. Explain to younger students that a person dies when his or her body totally stops working. Call parents or send a letter home telling them what's happened, what you've discussed in the classroom and encourage them to listen to their children's reactions to the death and to talk with them about it. You might want to plan a PTO meeting so parents can learn together how to help children deal with death, dying and loss.
- Recognize your own feelings.
Particular events or anniversaries of losses in our own lives can make it difficult to talk with children about death. It's all right to tell children how hard it is for you to talk about what has happened, and it's all right to cry. If your own grief makes it impossible for you to talk with your class, find someone who can. Stay in the classroom during the discussion, however, so you'll know which children still have questions or concerns. Be authentic!
- Watch particularly vulnerable children carefully.
Identify children who may be "at risk" for later emotional problems as a result of the death. For example: close friends or enemies of a child who died or children whose parents or siblings have illnesses similar to the one that caused the recent death. When someone's parent dies, all children worry about the mortality of their own parents. The death of a classmate raises similar fears, particularly if one has the same symptoms or has done the same things as the child who died. Remind children that most people live to be very, very old.
- Address the children's fears and fantasies.
Children's active imaginations sometimes lead them to think something they've done or have not done has caused a death. Give them accurate information about the cause of the death. If a child has in any way been responsible for a death (such as challenging a friend to run across the street in front of a car or instigating play with a loaded gun), encourage his or her parent to seek immediate mental health services for the child.
- Discuss issues specific to the situation.
Encourage the children to talk about what happened to their friend or their friend's family. You may need to talk about why troubled adults hurt children, about specific illnesses, about drunk driving or about suicide. It is perfectly acceptable to say, "I don't know" or "What do you think?" or "I'll try to find out more about that for you."
- Support children as they grieve.
Grieving involves many feelings such as sadness and anger. Recognize and accept them all. Let boys especially know it is okay to cry. Children grieve differently than adults. They grieve sporadically and they will grieve again through adolescence. They grieve the loss again whenever the person who died would have been present for special occasions. Young grieving children are often boisterous and mischievous, while grieving adolescents can exhibit antisocial behavior such as truancy or stealing.
- Remember the person who died.
Talk with children about their memories of the person who died and about the feelings and needs of those who survive. If a classmate dies, children will want to find a way to commemorate a life that was so tragically short. Encourage students to think about how they'll a help a child whose parent, sibling, or other relative has died when he or she comes back to school.
- Establish or continue an ongoing death education program.
Use "teachable moments" to explore ideas of death and dying and of life and living with your students. Take advantage of opportunities in literature, science, social studies and other parts of the curriculum to discuss death at times when it is not a close personal issue for your students.