Helping Students Learn through Grief
Originally published September 2018
By Meagan Gillmore
Teachers are often first responders to tragedy. They work with students who are experiencing individual loss, or processing large-scale crises, like natural disasters, shootings, or vehicle collisions. Teachers need to be prepared for how to handle these situations.
Sometimes, adults assume children are too young to experience grief. That’s not true, says Colleen Mousseau, a registered psychotherapist and grief counsellor at the Dr. Jay Children’s Grief Centre in Toronto, ON, an organization that works exclusively with children and their families through dying, death, and grief. The organization receives many referrals from teachers, Mousseau says.
“If you’re capable of feeling love, you’re capable of feeling loss,” she adds.
Children may express grief differently than adults. They might be distracted in class and unable to focus on their assignments. Subjects they already found difficult may become even more challenging. However, a loss shouldn’t be used as an excuse for bad behaviour or not meeting expectations, says Mousseau.
What it does mean, though, is that teachers may need to come up with creative ways to help students meet those expectations, such as giving them extra time for assignments, allowing them to work in a quiet place, or changing the structure of tests.
Not all grieving students may appear sad, Mousseau explains. They may experience intense anger and sadness one moment, and then play and joke with their friends the next. “Kids do a better job… finding joy in life [despite] their grief than adults,” she says. “When [adults are] grieving, it can be very present and on all the time.”
Teachers need to help students learn to express their feelings. Children and youth think differently than adults, says Kimberly Thomson, the National Director of Rainbows For All Children Canada, an organization that helps create support groups for grieving children, including in schools.
Children are concrete thinkers. “They deal with ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘hungry,’” Thomson explains, noting they “don’t have words for those complex feelings” like guilt or grief.
It is also important to use words like “death” and “dying” and avoid phrases like “went to sleep.” These figures of speech are misleading, and they can also frighten children, says Thomson. For example, a child may become scared to sleep if that phrase is used as a euphemism for death.
Teachers should also prepare classmates of the grieving student, and refrain from sharing information about the loss unless they have the student and family’s permission, says Mousseau. Students have to be involved in deciding how they want their classmates to find out about the loss—if they want to tell the class, or if they’d rather someone make the announcement for them. They also need to decide how they want their classmates to respond—if they want to answer questions about what’s happened, or if they’d rather not talk about it.
The plan may change, says Mousseau, and teachers should take their cues from the students. This “puts students in the driver’s seat,” she explains, and can help strengthen the relationship between teachers and students. It also “helps give [students] some control over something that they’ve actually had very little control over,” she says.
Grief is complicated. It occurs whenever there is loss and that includes experiences like parents separating or divorcing, moving, or changes in a family’s financial situation when a parent loses a job. There is “not a date stamp” for when someone should be done grieving, says Thomson. The process looks different for everyone, and children’s understanding of events can change as they grow and gain more life experience.
Certain situations may trigger painful memories. Graduations, celebrations, and holidays like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day may be more difficult for children whose parents have died. Students who have had siblings pass away may find it difficult when they reach the same age, Thomson notes.
The lifelong nature of grief is one reason why students need to learn to talk about it well, and to find support from others.
It’s common for people to ask, “Why me?” when something bad happens, says Thomson. Sometimes, this can lead to thinking no one else has experienced loss. “The reality is, it’s not only you,” she says. “Other people have very similar experiences.”
One of the goals of Rainbows For All Children is to give students a support group they can turn to later, Thomson explains. When students learn that their peers have had similar experiences, they may feel less alone and learn strategies for coping with overwhelming emotions.
Teachers and other students need to avoid making quick comparisons of grief, or using clichés like “I know how you feel,” Mousseau advises. “Truthfully, no one really does know just how anyone else feels.”
If a teacher has had a similar experience as a student, they can share those experiences in a way that invites the student to ask for help when they need it, says Mousseau. Teachers need to be compassionate and not prescribe how students should respond to grief.
The ways teachers respond to an individual student’s loss can also be helpful when responding to larger tragedies in the community or elsewhere.
Clear language is important when talking about these events. Mousseau recommends teachers stick to the facts, and avoid injecting their own fears or political opinions into the conversations.
Recovering from a group tragedy also takes time. Shannon Noble, Assistant Superintendent of the Fort McMurray Public School District in Alberta, says the district has a five-year plan to help schools recover from the fires that devastated the community two years ago. The first year focused on making sure teachers had the physical resources they needed to teach and help students respond to triggers. The second year focused more on understanding the psychological impacts of the traumatic event.
The re-entry was very “structured,” says Noble. Teachers predicted and planned for everything they thought could upset the students. They talked about the first fire drill before it happened. Teachers were taught scripted responses to students’ questions about the fire. They acknowledged the fire, but focused on how everyone is safe right now and continued teaching.
“You don’t ignore the questions, you don’t push [them] under the rug,” says Noble. “You deal with them, and you put them to rest in a positive way.” Students are referred to counsellors if they need further help, Noble adds.
Teachers also need to care for themselves. There will be a “vicarious toll” when helping grieving students, says Mousseau, and that’s the sign of being an empathetic and compassionate teacher. However, “[teachers] can’t take this on all of the time,” she says. “These aren’t things to be fixed. They’re situations to sit with.”
Life won’t return to how it was before a tragedy, but it is still possible to have joy in the new reality of grief. Thomson has heard of students supporting others who have gone through similar experiences; Noble says recovering from the fire has forced her and her colleagues to collaborate.
“In many ways, I feel like I’ve made connections that I didn’t have before the fire,” she says. “You cannot work alone in the recovery stage. … It’s really become more of a collaborative community.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.