Dealing With the Grieving Process in the Classroom
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Most veteran teachers have a few tricks and trusted read-aloud books to help children deal with difficult situations such as the first day of school, a new sibling, bullying, or divorce. But what about death or dying? Are you remotely prepared to assist a child who has lost a friend or an immediate family member or a child who has a terminal illness? Read on for three simple tips to assist students.
An immediate family member of one of your students dies. You . . .
A. say nothing. You do not want to make the situation worse.
B. encourage the child to "Be strong."
C. say nothing. You are not familiar with your student's beliefs on death or dying and you do not want to offend the child or her/his family.
D. attempt to cheer a young child up by saying the deceased is in a happier place now.
E. None of the above.
The answer is . . . E. None of the above.
Step 1: Make Time to Listen to the Experts.
To find out what you should say, how to responsibly deal with a child's grief triggers, or what to do with the deceased student's classroom possessions, watch the comprehensive Scholastic video below. It features kids who have lost loved ones and Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and School Bereavement at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Perhaps there is not a child psychologist in your school and perhaps you, like most educators, received no training to help a child with a terminal illness or a child who has lost a family member. Make the video a focus of your next professional development session or grab an interested co-worker and watch the video over two 30-minute lunch periods.
Step 2: Have Books Ready for Students, Their Families, and Peers.
Several times, co-workers have asked to borrow books to help children deal with the death of a grandparent or a book to deal with the loss of a pet, and several times I've been empty-handed. And unfortunately, more than once, I have been the teacher of a deceased child, a child with a terminal illness, and a child who has lost a loved one. This must be the year that I cash in all my book club bonus points, split the cost with a co-worker, and make requests of the PTA for an extensive grief library. Interested in doing the same? Check out the fabulous book lists from the Belmont Public Library, Dr. Dominique W. Brooks, About.com, Scholastic (excellent for older students), and the June/July 2009 issue of the National Association for the Education of Young Children's TYC magazine. Then you'll be able to grab the perfect books for dealing with the death of a student's sibling, parent, friend, teacher, or pet and also with the basics of grief recovery for every age.
Step 3: Have at Least One Activity Boxed Up and Ready to Go.
Times of tragedy for my students often trigger my own unresolved issues with death. Between dealing with my emotions and the hurried time line for events the student's family has planned (memorials, funerals, sitting shivah, etc.) there is NEVER enough time. Print a copy of a treasured grief lesson activity from Scholastic, gather the materials, and create a sample to inspire students. Got elementary students? Download and bind copies of Sesame Street's take-home book about remembering or "Feelings Journal" in English or Spanish. (You can easily adapt the journal for older students.) Place your items in a labeled, sealed box next to your growing grief library.
Below are items gathered for Scholastic's "I Remember You" Memory Book Project.
Do you have a grief library? What's in it? Do you have activities that have helped grieving children in your classroom? I'd love to know what worked in your school.
For Sharisse, for Leandra, and for every student who has taught me about the grieving process.