Offer empathy, reassurance for grieving students this school year

When the pandemic claims the life of a teacher, students will need support in dealing with their grief. Here's what educators can do.
By: | October 16, 2020
Getty Images: RainStarSad schoolboy studying with protective mask outside

You may have students entering school buildings this year who become overcome with grief when they realize a favorite teacher is no longer there as a result of the pandemic. You may also have students you thought would be crushed by the loss of their teacher, only to find they have processed the loss and are doing well as they return to the classroom.

It’s important for teachers and other colleagues to understand that every student may experience grief in his own way. They should not assume anything as students return to in-person learning. Indeed, some students may express more grief over the loss of their routines, including traditional school events and activities, than they do about the loss of a beloved teacher.

“A big theme of the pandemic is loss,” says Thomas Demaria, a psychologist who consults and coordinates for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement’s Coalition to Support Grieving Students. “Not every child wants to process and share their grief in the same way. Letting children be in an atmosphere where, if they need to talk, they can, is really important. We’ve got to raise our IQ about grief.”

Follow this advice for addressing students’ grief in school:

• Advise teachers to express their grief. Ensure teachers know it is appropriate to share in a developmentally appropriate way their own feelings of loss with students who are grieving, Demaria says. Teachers have to process their own loss and can express a measured level of emotion with students. At the same time, they should avoid pushing students to talk or putting words into students’ mouths about how they must feel.

• Promote expressions of grief in class. Anything can trigger a student to feel grief at any time, so it’s important not to embarrass or shame the student if he brings up the loss in class, Demaria says. If a student says, “I miss Mrs. [Smith],” for example, he said, a teacher can say, “We all miss her. She was a wonderful person. We all have a lot of thoughts about her. Does anybody want to share anything about Mrs. Smith? OK. That’s what grief is like sometimes. It comes up when you least expect it.” The teacher can then see if the student can return to the lesson or needs to put his head down on his desk for a while to think while class resumes. The teacher can let the student know he is safe and can talk with her after class. “The student knows now that he can feel that emotion and go to that teacher,” he says.

• Address feelings of guilt. Students may feel guilty about something they said to or about the teacher before he died or about not grieving his loss in the same way as other students. Encourage teachers to tell students that not everybody is going to feel the same way about a person’s death, Demaria says. Teachers can share that, even if students didn’t feel as much of an attachment to the teacher, it’s still a loss. They can commemorate that absence in their own way. They may be more introspective. The teacher may also want to say that their feelings may change as their shock may wear off. But not everybody has intense sadness after someone dies.

• Consider students’ unique needs. Help teachers understand that students with disabilities, such as cognitive impairment, may need more time and guidance to process the loss. Some students may not understand the finality of death and need more time to understand that Mr. Jones will not be back at school, says Demaria. Students with emotional and behavioral disorders may have trouble regulating their emotions and need support to manage their feelings of loss, particularly if they express anger. Some students may struggle with the disruption in their routines because of the loss of the staff member and wish they could just replace the person. They may need help to understand a person can’t be replaced in the same way that an object can be.

• Embrace lack of predictability. Ensure teachers reassure students that although nothing is predictable right now, everyone is making modifications when necessary to keep everyone in schools safe, Demaria advises. Have them remind students with anxiety that “possible” does not mean “probable” if they are concerned about more school losses. They should emphasize to students that they are becoming more and more resilient as they get through losses and cope with fear, anxiety and powerlessness. “We may have a lot of things still unknown right now, but we’ve got resilience,” he says. “We should be proud of our resiliency.” Also reassure students that if something happens, they have a lot of people around them who will be there to support them, Demaria adds. “They’re not going to be alone.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology and IEP team issues for LRP Publications, publisher of DA.