I love to laugh. Creating a fun learning environment for my students is something that I take very seriously. Unfortunately, not everything that happens to our students during a school year is positive or fun. There are a lot of issues that students may face at home and, sadly, occasionally, a student may have a family member get sick and sometimes pass away.
On January 5, 2014 we lost a wonderful member of our family. My wife’s father, James W. Bolick, passed away and the world dimmed just a bit. My wife Liz lost a caring father and I lost an amazing father-in-law. Our daughter Ella lost the best Papa that ever existed. Since his passing, we have all experienced grief in our own ways, but for Ella it can be especially hard since this is the biggest loss that she has had to face in her short nine years. Seeing her go through this got me thinking about what I’ve done for my students in the past when they have experienced loss and what I can do better in the future.
Like any other issues that arise in our lives, Liz and I have used books to try to help Ella through her grieving process. Of course, we encourage her to express her feelings, but we find that books anchor her and give her a safe place to return to when those feelings of grief may pop up again a week from now, six months from now, or even years from now.
While researching this topic, I found Kids Grief and Scholastic book lists to be very thorough and divided up nicely along age guidelines. The following is a list of books that we have used with Ella and I have recommended to other parents in the past when their families face losing someone:
Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie DePaola is a sweetly-written book that deals with death and how your memories will continue on even after the person is gone. It also reinforces that even though a loved one has left us, we are still surrounded by others who love us and want to protect us.
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is another great book. It’s easy for a child who is grieving to seemingly have a personality change both at home and at school. This thought-provoking book is simply told without being overbearing or preachy. The story and illustration are subtle and another reason that Jeffers is quickly becoming a new favorite author of mine. I mentioned him in my penguin unit post a few weeks ago but this book is truly a special creation.
The Next Place by Warren Hanson — Beautiful illustrations and rhythmic text brings sweet, personal memories to mind for anyone reading it. It easily opens the door for conversations to occur. This book lends itself to some belief systems more than others but doesn’t connect itself to any one belief of what comes next.
Aside from books, there are other things that a teacher can do to help a student who is grieving:
The first is to let the child take the lead on how and when conversations happen. Some students prefer to be at school and use their academic day as a getaway from the sadness that may feel like it’s overtaking their home life.
On the flip side, when a child feels like talking, make sure to listen. Even if this doesn’t happen until quite a while after the loved one has passed, take the time to hear them out. Don’t feel pressured to offer solutions because there can be so few of those in the mourning process. Also, make sure that you share the conversation with the child’s parent, especially if it’s a younger student. Fellow blogger Christy Crawford offers additional advice for "Dealing With the Grieving Process in the Classroom" that includes her own favorite books and approaches to assist students.
One thing that Ella’s hospice counselor did that I think really helped her deal with the loss of Papa was to create a memory box. You can purchase a picture box relatively cheap at any arts and crafts stores or use a shoebox. While the child decorates the box, you can talk about different objects that hold special meaning that they can store in their box. Finding time during the busy school days can be tricky but it can also be very important as we look at the whole child’s needs. You may be the only person who is in a place to help your student talk about his or her feelings.
I want to add that I am not a therapist or counselor. However, I have been a teacher for many years and through those years I have witnessed students struggle through grandparent deaths, parent deaths, and unfortunately, I’ve seen students wrestle with losing a classmate to cancer. It’s not a happy subject but an important one to be prepared for as we educate children to be not just good readers or scientists, but to be good, caring individuals who understand how to deal with difficult emotions.
Now, I’m not a great novelist or poet but I am dedicating this post to Papa! You are missed and thought about each and every day. Thanks for always being there for us and especially for loving our Ella like she was the only star in your sky. We love you!
I can’t wait to see you next week.