A guest post by Dr. Tom Demaria from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, who develops a number of topical articles on bereavement for the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.
A death in a school community has a deep impact. The loss will usually touch many individuals, students and staff alike, and often the entire school.
It is vital that schools plan ahead to be prepared to deal with a range of possibilities involving the death of a student, teacher or other staff member. Information about the death is likely to spread quickly among students and staff. Responding rapidly and appropriately can limit rumors, misinformation and gossip.
There are four important goals for supporting students at this time:
1. Normalize common experiences. Grief is personal and every individual will experience it differently. However, people who are grieving have similar types of needs. These include being acknowledged, understood and supported.
Help students understand the range of feelings common after a death. Share ways people often express these feelings. Discuss how the feelings are likely to change in the days, weeks and months to come.
2. Help students express and cope with their feelings. Invite questions and comments. Provide a safe, non-judgmental setting for these conversations. Classrooms and small groups offer students a chance to see how others are responding. They can share coping strategies and provide mutual support.
3. Help students find additional resources. Many students will have a fairly straightforward reaction to the death and cope well with the grieving process. Others may have more complicated reactions. This might include students who were close to the deceased or the family, who had conflicts with the deceased, or who identify in some way with the person who died. It might also include students facing other challenges, such as a seriously ill family member, a recent death in the family, or pre-existing emotional challenges.
Talking with a counselor who has experience in bereavement can be helpful. This is especially important for any student experiencing a worsening of anxiety symptoms, depression or thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
4. Help younger students understand concepts about death. Younger students may have more trouble understanding certain concepts about death, such as that all living things eventually die, or the fact that the person who died is no longer feeling fear or pain.
All schools should have a school crisis team in place that develops a response plan in the event of a death. Having an effective plan in place allows schools to respond to these challenging events in a thoughtful and productive manner. While it will not take away the pain people feel about the death, it will offer the greatest likelihood of offering the support students most need.
Find out more about the specific steps schools can take at the website for the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (www.grievingstudents.org). Our organization is a member of the Coalition.
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students was convened by the New York Life Foundation, a pioneering advocate for the cause of childhood bereavement, and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, which is led by pediatrician and childhood bereavement expert David J. Schonfeld, M.D. The Coalition has worked with Scholastic Inc., a long-standing supporter of teachers and kids, to create grievingstudents.org a groundbreaking, practitioner-oriented website designed to provide educators with the information, insights, and practical advice they need to better understand and meet the needs of the millions of grieving kids in America’s classrooms.