By Heather Alden, MSW, LICSW
Two young girls walk gingerly into my office holding hands with eyes wide open and fear on their faces, they are accompanied by their older cousin and his mom. These two girls woke up in Milwaukee, WI one morning and while at school, their mom had a heart attack and died so that when they came home from school their whole world had imploded. Uncles and Aunties arrived to care for these two girls and at the funeral, their mom’s cousin was asked to please be their guardian. Just like that, the two girls and a few bags of their things were loaded up in a car, with family they barely knew and were driven to St. Paul, MN. Neither their “Auntie” nor her children, nor the girls knew that was going to happen until it did. Arriving in a new home, new neighborhood, new city and state, not to mention a new school with all that entails: teachers, students, rituals, routines, playground and so many stranger’s faces. No one knew their mom, no knew them, they were alone and scared. When these two arrived in my office, I knew they needed a safe place to land. I knew they needed at least one person they could trust at school and a place where it was safe to cry, be angry, be scared or be lonely as well as learn to laugh, find joy and eventually start again. Just like that, these two girls started checking in with me every morning where they get a hello, a daily high five or hug and always a reassuring smile.
Grief and loss happens throughout a life time, it can be the early loss of a pet fish or plant that was never watered; it can then extend into older family members. Children also feel a sense of loss when they move, say goodbye to a friend or their parents are no longer together. Talking about loss with children has many layers where developmental understanding needs to be taken into account as well as their capacity to understand the situation and make some sense of something so overwhelming to digest.
If a child learns of the death of someone close to them, they will certainly be grieving but what you may see is the child out playing in the yard. This play isn’t disrespectful, it is what they know how to do where they don’t know necessarily know how to handle grief. Younger children don’t often conceptually really understand that the person they love so much won’t have another birthday nor be there for theirs; they don’t understand if they are “gone” that they won’t return; additionally they may fear that if someone dies from being “sick” that when they are sick, they may also die. It is here where the school social worker can aid the family in the “art of being developmentally direct” such that they are given a clear message in words and ideas they can understand. Sometimes children understand it best when compared to a loss they have witnessed like the above mentioned pet fish that can no longer swim, or maybe how the plants in the garden need to dug up at the end of the season. Death is a difficult concept for children, as it is for many adults as well.
Every opportunity we as School Social Workers and school staff have to show up for our students and their families matters. We can be the people that show up at the funeral, ask questions, engage in the conversation and check-in. Just by showing up. You can positively impact the child and their family by seeing you care. Showing up as a compassionate, caring person in the life of a child and their family will show that your students are important in many ways and that you are present and supportive. The best way to show up with a student who has experienced a loss is with your authentic self.
Some ideas and thoughts I would like to share include resources and materials I use when I am supporting students and their families who have lost a loved one. These ideas can provide support to manage the grief while adjusting to their new normal. There are many great resources available to use while making sure to consider cultural traditions, language spoken, rituals and beliefs, to best suit your student. Supporting students through grief, I have found, is not a one size fits all approach and you may need to have many meetings overtime to assist in their journey through the stages of grief.
Stages of Grief
Stages of Grief Adopted from Children from Coalition to Support Grieving Students, NY Life Foundation
Can’t fight the feeling – Shock from loss can result in numbness of emotions and personality.
Safe Harbor – Need to know that they can be taken care of and need extra reassurance and nurturing for some time.
Withdrawal – Children may react by withdrawing from activities at home and school and social situations.
Guilt – Limited understanding of why a death happened, may feel it is their fault and need reassurance that they are not responsible for the death.
Express Anger – Children may be angry because they don’t understand why death happened thus feel lack of control. As caregivers, children need us to set limits on inappropriate behavior and also avoid being overly critical of when they are “acting out.”
Acceptance - Children may start getting back into their routine (eating, sleeping) and re-engaging socially is the beginning of acceptance. Fluctuation of emotions may still occur, but acknowledgement of loss seems apparent.
Cultural Considerations to keep in mind may include: (From Cancer.net; Understanding Grief Within a Cultural Context)
What rituals are done to honor the deceased?
How are deceased honored over the lifetime?
What are the new roles that people may take on after the death of a loved one.
What are the bereaved children’s beliefs around death?
What are the best ways to express sympathy and condolences to the family?
Impact of Secondary Losses
When children experience a death of someone close to them, they lose not only the person who died (i.e., the primary loss) but also everything that person had contributed or would have contributed to their life (i.e., secondary losses).
Common secondary losses may include the following:
Change in lifestyle (e.g., altered financial status of the family after the death of a parent);
Relocation resulting in a change in school and peer group;
Less interaction with friends or relatives of the person who died (e.g., friends of a child’s sister no longer visit after the sister dies);
Loss of shared memories;
Decreased special attention (e.g., a child may no longer value participating in sports activities without his parent there to cheer for him);
Decreased availability of the surviving parent (who may need to work more hours or who becomes less available emotionally because of depression);
Decreased sense of safety and trust in the world.
Ideas / Resources / Materials
Art ideas to share with children who have experienced death of close family member:
Memory boxes can be a good way of helping children remember loved ones who have died where pictures and small momentos are kept to circle back to over a lifetime.
Decorate a message and put into a helium balloon and send the message to your loved one on a sunny day.
On birthdays and anniversaries allow children to express their thoughts through: writing cards, letters, drawing pictures to honor those they miss.
§ Stuffed bear with a nametag of the deceased (ex. papa bear, nana bear, grandma bear, mama bear) and then the name of the child on the back of the tag (pet tag made at Petco/PetSmart)
Helpful Books I use to springboard a discussions about Death and Loss to a child:
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst
Dog Heaven – Cynthia Rylant
The Memory Box – Joanna Rowland
The Stars Beneath Our Feet – David Barclay More
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf – Leo Buscagli
I’ll Always Love You – Hans Wilheim
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney - Judith Viorst
The GoodBye Book – Todd Parks
Dinosaurs Die – Laurie Krasney Brown
Ida, ALWAYS – Caron Lewis
A Map Into the World – Kao Kalia Yang
I Will Always Love You – Melissa Lyons
Fast forward one year, they found stability after their life turned upside down They have settled into an extended family, a school community and still there are moments where they feel overwhelmed with grief and loss triggered by somebody “saying something about their momma” or just the reference to having a mom in a small group and the reality that theirs is gone. They bring their “Mama Bear” to school when an arm or leg needs a little tlc from being well loved.
These girls have taught me about grief, loss, resiliency and hope. They need for us to be present, actively listen and be patient as well as develop trust and an authentic relationship; these two girls have not only taught me, the school social worker, they have taught their teachers, their classmates, and the school community that there is hope.
The National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) is the umbrella charity for all those who are involved in providing, commissioning and using palliative care and hospice services in England, Wales & Northern Ireland. https://www.dyingmatters.org
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. https://grievingstudents.org/
Understanding Grief Within a Cultural Context https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/understanding-grief-within-cultural-context
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) (2012). Press release: Grief in the classroom. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/release_bereavement121012.pdf .
Coalition to Support Grieving Students (CSGS) (n.d.) Video and Downloadable Grief Support Modules for School Personnel. Retrieved from http://grievingstudents.scholastic.com/.
Frost, M. (2014). The grief grapevine: Facebook memorial pages and adolescent bereavement. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling, 24 (2), 256-265.
Mitchell, L.M., Stephenson, P.H., Cadell, S. & MacDonald, M.E. (2012) Death and grief on-line: Virtual memorialization and changing concepts of childhood death and parental bereavement on the internet. Health Sociology Review, 21 (4), 413-431.
National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (n.d.) Guidelines for responding to the death of a student or school staff. Retrieved from https://sowkweb.usc.edu/download/about/centers-affiliations/ncscb-guidelinesresponding-death-student-or-school-staff.
New York Life Foundation (2011). A child in grief press kit. Retrieved from http://www.newyorklife.com/about/child-in-grief-press-kit .
Quinn-Lee, L. (2014). School social work with grieving children. Children & Schools, 16 (3), 93-103.
Understanding Grief Within a Cultural Context. (2019, May 13). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/understanding-grief-within-cultural-context.