How to support a child
Please do not worry! It is very difficult to cause children harm by helping them through the grieving process. Much of the work involved is simply an extension of your existing professional listening and teaching skills. Some children may develop complex grief issues and in these circumstances, referring on to another agency such as CHUMS or one of the others listed.
When the school is told
When the school is informed about the loss of a significant person in the life of a pupil (and it may be a parent, sibling, grandparent, close friend or relation) it is important to talk to the family as well as the pupil to establish boundaries of what they find acceptable in the giving of information. Some families do not want their child’s peers to know what has happened, and this is often the case in deaths caused by murder or suicide. The family’s wishes must be respected but the importance of sharing needs to be negotiated in such cases, as quite often the truth will come from another source.
Children tell us how important school support is. They appreciate a teacher visiting them at home and also like receiving cards from classmates. It is appropriate that someone attends the funeral. Children tell us it is nice to have someone there for them. After gaining permission (if possible) and discussing it with the child, the child’s classmates should be told as soon as possible about the bereavement. It is a good idea to let the parents of the classmates know particularly for younger children, as they may have to answer their own children’s questions about death.
The class teacher needs to talk to the child’s special friends to discuss ways in which they can offer support. It is also important to include all teachers, classroom assistants, lunchtime supervisors, office staff, kitchen staff, and caretakers in the information process, not forgetting those who may be absent at the time when they return.
If the death affects the whole school such as the death of a member of the school community or death of a pupil, a decision needs to be made about whether or not to tell the rest of the school, preferably in class groups and not in assemblies. When giving out such information, it is often a good idea to work in pairs so that one member can offer support if required to their colleague or to a child who may find the news particularly distressing.
When the child returns to school
When the child returns to school, their loss needs to be acknowledged and then everything is better kept as normal as possible with no special privileges being shown. It is only natural to show compassion, but sympathy should be expressed on behalf of the school and there may not be a need for each individual to approach the child. School can often be seen as a much needed respite for the child. Ask the child what they would like.
Children tell us how helpful it is to have a time out card when they are newly bereaved and this can be very helpful. It is also a support if a friend can leave the class with them. It is important that a designated area is available for them.
A death may disrupt a family for many months, with grief, uncertainty about the future and financial worries all playing a part in affecting the life of the child. It is therefore helpful to minimise changes and disruptions in school life.
Staff, and in particular the class teacher, may be asked questions by the child. It is important to answer these honestly and in a way that they can understand (clearly, the class teacher will have the best view of the child’s perceptions and level of understanding). Reassure the child that they are still loved and will be taken care of. When answering questions, it is important to use clear phrases. ‘Passed away’, ‘gone on a journey’, ‘gone to sleep’ are all to be avoided as they do not give an impression of permanence and can be given different meanings by a child. It is much more helpful to use
Be prepared to answer children’s questions openly, e.g. ‘What happens to the body?’ ‘Will it smell?’ ‘Will the worms eat it if we bury it?’ It is useful to ask them what they think before launching into complicated explanations. When replying, try to be clear and factual and ensure that the child feels in no way responsible.
Remember that stages of grief can include denial, anger, depression, guilt and acceptance. They do not fall into a sequence, and each stage may be revisited on more than one occasion.
Capitalise on opportunities to discuss death within the normal curriculum rather than avoiding it until someone dies. It is a natural part of the life cycle and arises in many curriculum areas. This can be focused upon through story, drama, music or a more direct approach. Be aware of bereaved children at those times and be sensitive to their individual needs.
If your school uses Circle Time, this can be a time for children to talk when they need to. By sharing grief, children can collectively feel reassured that it is acceptable to feel sad and to express it openly. Other children may share experiences and perhaps acknowledge the death of a pet, for example, as this is all part of the process of understanding mortality and associated feelings.
Staff may like to consider creating a way of remembering each individual or all connected with the school that have died. Individual memories can include a book of condolence, a special memorial service/assembly or a memorial table with drawings and paintings. An annual memorial service may be an idea, or the creation of a memory garden for all those who have lost someone close could be created in a quieter area of the school (if such a place exists!). Whilst children may like to keep a small memento of the person who has died, they may not always have one and so creating a special memory area where they can come and talk to the person who has died is often valued.
This work should not be overly serious. Children need to have fun and it is fine to be cheerful and happy as well as serious or sad as the occasion warrants. Memories of a loved one can be happy and positive and these need to be acknowledged whilst dealing with the pain of loss. However, it should be remembered that not all family relationships are happy ones and this may reflect in the work with the child.
Additionally, it should be acknowledged that many of the principles above might be appropriate when the close relative of a staff member dies.