When children and youth are coping with grief, it may take longer than you think. When someone you love dies, you live with the pain and loss, memories are so important, especially on Mother's Day coming up, birthday's father's Day and anniversaries.
Sudden death in a school community
This blog serves two purposes, to support schools in managing bereavement and to remind us all of how important people are to the children and youth we teach. Not just at the time of death, but for the lifetime they need to heal.
News of a sudden death can knock any confident adult off their normal confident stride. Managing this longer term, anniversaries, birthdays, mother and father days means so much to a bereaved young person. Because it is soon to be Mother’s day, I want to remind key staff of this lifelong healing journey we experience when someone we dearly love dies.
It was nearly spring and a beautiful day, when an 8-year-old tiptoed into my room and handed me a folded sheet. We chatted until a smile travelled across his serious face. I had received a handwritten letter on a torn piece of paper begging me to look after 5 precious children, all under 9 years old in my school. The writer and child’s Mum died the following day after months of illness.
As a Mum myself, I sensed the love poured into those few hastily written words. It was palpable, it beamed outwardly and tapped gently on my soul- the words etched deeply into my heart. They still are decades on.
What do we do next?
Firstly, I contacted Dad and shared how school could help and asked if there was anything else needed. I asked permission to share the news as it impacted the whole school and many staff were neighbours.
I gathered staff and told them the sad facts and gave them lots of time to respond. Extra support was in place for those deeply affected. We created a memory corner for children and staff and decided how to share with children and parents
We shared the sad news class by class, simply and with age appropriate facts using the word death and died (not euphemisms). Acknowledging the sadness, and if anyone wasn’t sad that was ok too.
Each class decided what to create (a card, poem, artwork.) This provides opportunities for conversations whilst working together.
We sent a letter out to parents with a fact sheet to help them to know what to expect and tips for talking and sharing as a family.
Memorials came later along the line.
We did our very best to care for those children, above and beyond in a gentle unseeing way. On other occasions a parent has died of a sudden heart attack in the school grounds or might simply have disappeared (left home without a trace). And then there are parents who take their own life. How do children cope?
Responding to grief is like providing a blanket to a child or young person who needs some warmth or comfort. They can wrap it around themselves when they choose and put it down if they don’t want it in that moment. They can talk, share memories or simply just be. As a result, the support offered is consistent for as long as needed, though not intrusive.
There is a great deal of excellent advice from charities such as Winston’s Wish (www.winstonswish.org tel: 08088 020 021) and grief encounter (www.griefencounter.org.uk tel: 08088 020 111) signposting your way through how to respond within your community.
One key piece of advice is for you to ask the family’s permission first before responding to other parents and the community. Although if you can't do that straight away you will need to let parents know as a duty of care, keep your letter simple and follow up with more detail once permission is gained. (Resource link attached below).
Ideas from past case studies
This blog is focused on 1:1 support, a trusted adult with a child or youth.
In my training as a Three Principles Coach, my first premise as a coach is to listen deeply, without judgement, or fixing, listening heart to heart. it feels as though time slows and all that matters is in the moment.
Imagine supporting a child aged 5.
Supporting Rosemary. Rosemary is five, bright as a button. Immaculately turned out with beautiful hair and a very cheeky smile. She loves to dance and perform and reads in every spare moment of her tiny life. Until one weekend, her Mummy died in her sleep and Rosemary was lost in a silent space of not understanding where Mum was. It was important to help her and answer her many questions.
Meanwhile, staff respond to death in different ways. Often, they are immediately connected to their own past grief- and upset for Rosemary’s family. Gathering together to inform all staff is a way to connect and offer immediate adult support . Some staff prefer team and group hugs, others are quiet and need 1:1 support. Rosemary’s young NQT class teacher had another adult with her for as long as required, it was her first encounter with death.
Supporting adults in school immediately, means that all adults can then be present to children’s needs.
As a school we came together often to share needs and grow in our understanding of different support needs. A well informed, nurtured staff is like having an army of helpers. Euphemisms are shared and clearly understood how they might confuse kids.
Death brings many questions, sometimes unresolved grief for some and memories for children and adults alike.
Begin to support from what you already know about the child
Rosemary loved reading – what a natural way to sit with her and connect with where she is. Young children often ask direct questions and how we respond is from the heart, talking about their parent with them. Another child I supported loved nature and we would have our conversations outside whilst bug hunting, sometimes with friends, sometimes not. There are wide ranges of cultural, faith and social differences in grief rituals, this blog focuses solely on the child themselves.
Older children, already coping with hormones and independence now have the addition of trying to make sense of their parent’s death. Emotions run high and they may present physical symptom caused by grief. They have anxieties about what’s next (moving home maybe, what might happen to them now). And although this focuses on death, bereavement can be felt through parental separation and relationship break up too.
Here are some further ideas from Winston’s Wish http://help2makesense.org/
And for Mother’s Day http://help2makesense.org/remembering-my-mum/
And here is a blog from Winston’s wish to guide you when talking about death.
I am often asked how we can tell if children are struggling. Teachers see kids every day, they could tell you the smallest of things a child likes or dislikes. They understand that child’s normal behaviour. Any slight deviation from this should ring bells. Rosemary’s hair became very dishevelled, so we asked Dad if we could help. She grew quiet and her eyes were sad. Understandably. We provided gentle quiet spaces in and out of class, checking in with Rosemary’s needs as they changed. Talking to her often. Answering her questions honestly.
“Do you know my Mummy died?” Adult: “Yes I do Rosemary and it makes me sad, that’s why I am sitting with you so we can talk if you like.”
Talking about a parent will be of great comfort, say their name, tell them something you remember – their first visit to school, a parent evening chat - if the child is ready. And if you are unsure, younger children like hugs, playing games (board games, dressing up ,perhaps eat lunch together with her friends, play outside, draw together.) These things allow thoughts to settle down and gently share what is on her mind.
Simple choice is important. Choice to ask and have help in the moment. Young children often want to get on and play, routines are important for all children, although they may suddenly feel overwhelmed. Giving them ways to signal if they need help or need to go out of class with a trusted grown up. Some ways young children have shared this within schools have been a corner in class with special things to do, a teddy symbol in their tray, immediate access to their key worker.
Teenagers want to fit in and not stand out, they might hide feelings. It is helpful for teenagers to have 1:1 coaching and if possible, for the bereaved parent too. Whenever I coach a child or adolescent, I also meet their parent.
Longer term support for 'Rosemary' included Dad and baby brother. Visits home and their visits to school. Older teenagers may need grief counselling, permission to work from home for a time. Sharing how you are supporting and reassuring any child is vital to any parent, especially one who is bereaved. My school key workers were teaching assistants who volunteered to be bereavement supporters. They had mentors and training and felt confident that they could support any child or adult in school, or in pairs for the home visits.
When we support children and youth, remember they are people first, trying to learn to manage with this new experience. They will have questions, feel new emotions that might overwhelm them. And later the anniversary, a remembered birthday, or national celebration (Christmas, Chinese New Year, Eid, Hanukkah, Easter, Diwali, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and more) can be an opportunity to share what will help. And to share together people thoughts of our parents that have died really helps to heal the emptiness and to show how important discussing our memories can be.
Expressing feelings in words might be difficult, using colours, music and poetry may help. The more they can talk when they need to and ask for help from a teacher or adult they trust, the easier it becomes to find healing opportunities. Memory journals, jars and boxes are one way to keep the memories alive.