The Total Child

Professional Self-Care When Supporting Grieving Students

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 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.

 Supporting Grieving Students? Take Care of Yourself, Too

 Have you taken steps to support grieving students and their families? If you have, you’ve offered them some of the most meaningful and lasting support they will ever experience. Having an impact such as this is exactly why many school professionals choose to work in education. 

However, this kind of effort can also be challenging. As one teacher said, “It can be difficult to talk with children about a death and see how sad they are.”

 Offering grief support can trigger a range of reactions in adults, including:

  •  Revisiting a past, personal experience of grief.
  • Feeling more anxious about your own health and mortality.
  • Increasing worries about a friend or family member who is ill.
  • Feeling resentful or uncomfortable about the feelings that arise, then feeling guilty or inadequate for not “managing” your emotions more effectively.

 These kinds of reactions are common. It’s important to talk with other adults about any troublesome feelings that might arise. Friends, family and colleagues can be helpful. There may also be times when the support of a bereavement specialist or mental health professional will be appropriate.

 “Quite Often, They Are Worn Thin”: When School Professional Support Grieving Students

  Offering support to grieving students and their families can be highly gratifying for school professionals. They are offering much-needed support during a critical time in a student’s life. The unique relationships children have with educators make these efforts immeasurably important. 

 But the impact on school professionals can be challenging, too. Grief is difficult to witness, and the grief of a child can be especially unsettling. It can be difficult to accept that it is not possible to prevent deep feelings of pain for a child who has lost a loved one.

 Educators may find their own past personal experiences of loss are triggered by a student’s grief. They may find themselves feeling new worries about the severity of an illness in their own life—could it become more severe? They may be concerned about a friend or family member. They may experience new apprehension about their own or others’ mortality. “They are worn thin,” one assistant principal explained.

 Sometimes, school professionals find they are uncomfortable with the role of providing support for grieving children. They may feel unprepared or have too many other stressful experiences in their lives at the moment. This can lead to feelings of guilt for “not doing better,” or a sense of insufficiency for not being more prepared.

 These are fairly common reactions. In some cases, it may be best for an educator to turn to someone else on the team—a school counselor, psychologist, social worker, or nurse; administrator; or teacher—to step into the role of offering support.

 It is important for educators to get support themselves when they are interacting with grieving students. Talking with friends, family and colleagues is usually helpful. Sometimes, it is also useful to speak with a mental health professional, bereavement specialist or employee assistance program.

 You can learn more about strategies for professional self-care at the Coalition to Support Grieving Students. 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.


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