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?