Helping Pupils Cope With Loss

Last week my sister-in-law’s school lost a pupil to Covid-19.  16,000 deaths in a population of 70 million may not sound like a huge number, but by the time the pandemic ends, few will not have felt the cold shadow of death passing close.  When all our children are back in school, many of them, and in some areas perhaps most, will have lost a close relative, a neighbour or a family friend.  In a perceptive blog in SEAInclusion, Sara Alston writes:

There will be few communities that will not have lost members to the coronavirus. It is essential that we recognise this and take time to mark and celebrate their lives.

As professionals, it is the duty of teachers to help children and young people make sense of the world; and as human beings it is often our privilege to share intimate moments in our families’ lives.  Over the years, I have been invited to weddings, birthdays and celebrations for many different occasions, and too frequently I have found myself attending funerals.

I have stood barefoot in a huge sports hall, with the netting and curtains that divide the different courts serving to separate men from women, while an Imam said prayers I could not understand over a young girl’s coffin.  I have watched an 11 year old courageously read a tribute beside her mother’s open casket.  I have seen a child of seven skip and dance silently outside the crematorium while her tearful parents were still being consoled by friends and family after saying a final farewell to her sister. 

Different traditions deal with death differently, and even within the same culture people respond to loss as individuals.  When his infant child died, King David scandalised his servants by failing to show his feelings in a way they understood (2 Sam 12:15 – 23).  So while schools must help their pupils, they will do so in different ways, according to their particular circumstances.

There are, however, some principles in helping children to come to terms with grief. 

  • Be honest, and be wary of euphemisms.  Terms like “fallen asleep,” “passed on,” or “gone to the angels,” can lead to misunderstandings, and correcting these can be much more painful than being direct in the first place, while not correcting them can leave children confused and unhappy. 
  • Know your limitations.  Unless you are a trained bereavement counsellor do not take on this role.  Seek advice and support from the professionals.
  • Make sure children know it is OK to be sad, and that there is no single right way to express grief.  Children need to know that strong emotion may sometimes mean they themselves, or their friends, acting in uncharacteristic, and occasionally even apparently unkind, ways.  This means working with all children to help them develop the empathy that will allow them to be supportive of each other.
  • Make sure the children are not scared: 16,000 is a lot of people, and by the time the pandemic ends the number of deaths may have reached 25,000 or even more.  This is tragic, but it is a tiny proportion of 70 million.  No child should be losing sleep from worry.
  • Be clear.  Sara Alston also points out in her blog that children will need to know “who has died and who has not returned to our setting for some other reason- house moves, job changes, parents deciding to continue with home education, etc.”
  • Tone is much more important than the content. There is nothing you can do to lessen the pain of loss; you cannot understand another’s personal experience of grief; all you can do – what you must do – is show that you, that people, care. 
  • Explain to parents and staff what you are doing, and why, and be prepared to incorporate their suggestions.
  • Do not forget.  The pain of bereavement is not fleeting.  I have written before about my own experience of losing a child; after 36 years I still feel it keenly.  The effects of this pandemic will mark our children’s lives for years to come.  Do not imagine you can devote a single assembly to it and move on.

After four weeks of lockdown, people are inevitably starting to think about what happens next.  Amongst all the other important matters in your mind: transitions, closing curriculum gaps, assessing where children are in their learning, and so on, please make sure that bereavement support has a high priority.  Take time now to plan for it properly.

Advice, ideas and resources to support work on bereavement are available from a number of organisations.  We have worked in the past with Daisy’s Dream, a Berkshire charity, but others that might be helpful are:

Child Bereavement UK


Cruse Bereavement Support

Winston’s Wish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s