Helping Students Deal With the Loss of a Loved One

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Covid-19 has changed our world that we live in completely.  Unfortunately, this includes a possible higher probability of having to work with a student that may be experiencing or dealing with loss and grief.  I am not a counselor, nor am I expecting any teacher to be.  It is asking yourself: “What could I possibly do to assist a student in my classroom and create a supportive environment while they are dealing with loss?”

Feelings are extremely complicated and very abstract.  Also, let’s face it, dealing with the loss and death of a family member, friend, or pet (also a family member) is so painful and often traumatic.  The following are just a few tips and tricks to add to your “teacher toolkit” for dealing with loss and grief.

I would be dismissed if I didn’t say that the number one thing I could share is to build rapport with your students through positive, appropriate relationships.  Since everyone experiences grief in their own way, it’s difficult to say “Hey, here are 5 things to do to help a student mourn appropriately.” It’s important to know your students and how to best comfort them in their time of need.

Be Present and Demonstrate Empathy for Loss

Sometimes just having someone that listens speaks volumes. Grief is very personal and having a student open up to you speaks highly of the trust they see in you. Being present is one of the best and effective ways to support a student experiencing loss. 

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The need for equitable practices and making sure you look at the student as a whole is so important.  Consider the family, their culture, traditions, religious beliefs, and even prior experiences or loss they may have experienced.  

Remember to: 

Listen
Be Present
Acknowledge feelings 
Be nonjudgmental

Acknowledge Their Feelings of Loss

Remember that every child is unique.  With that being said, grieving is different for everyone. Most associate grieving with sadness, pain, crying, however, children’s grief can be expressed in a variety of ways: 

  • Increased anxiety
  • Regressive behaviors
  • Decreased verbalization or refusal to speak
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Irritability
  • Aggression 
  • Disruptive Behaviors
  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Sleep/eating disturbances
  • Difficulty with peer relations
  • Substance abuse
  • …and other reactions that they are working through

Acknowledging their feelings begins to build that bridge to hopefully become an active listener.  If there is an unknown problem, but you’ve observed the student acting differently or engaging in disruptive behavior when they’ve never engaged like that before is a big red flag.  Acknowledging their behavior (not necessarily approving of it) will begin to allow the students to express themselves in a more appropriate way alongside your guidance.  

Be An Active Listener for a Student Dealing with Loss

Active Listening is all about keeping the focus on the person you are communicating with.  In this case, the grieving child.  You want to give them plenty of space and time to talk.  This is not the time to divulge personal feelings or express concern heavily.  You want to process what the student is saying to you and to draw out details of how they are speaking, what they are saying, and how they are saying things.  

By being an active listener, you are creating a stronger bond for building positive and appropriate relationships and rapport.  You can definitely show concern, but pair it with asking open-ended questions.  Paraphrase what the student is saying to you when you respond to allow the student to know you are hearing what they are saying.  

Let’s face it… we all want to be heard.  How special does it feel to know that you are “the” person for that child?  

Allow Children to Express Themselves

I think one of the goals is not to take away the pain of loss, but to allow an opportunity for children to express it.  Allowing children to express themselves pairs well with the active listening piece where we as support personnel take a backseat and listen to the child.  We want to make sure we are not attempting to share our own personal stories in hopes to create a common bond.  The relationship is already there, that is the reason why the child came to you.

It’s important to listen more and talk less.  Give them space to express themselves through various mediums.  Art is a wonderful activity to incorporate and allow the students to express themselves through creativity and drawing.  Another great opportunity is to provide the student with a journal that they are able to write down information as a coping mechanism or write letters to the one(s) they lost.  

Have Books Dealing With Loss Available

Books can be wonderful tools to use with children who have experienced difficult times such as trauma or loss.  Below is a list of available resources for you to consider, by no means is this an exhaustive list. There are various topics including loss of a pet, loss of a parent, a classmate, or even if the child is sick themselves. 

Book #1 ~ Always and Forever by Alan Durant

A story for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one. When Fox dies, Mole, Hare, and Otter are devastated. They feel they will never get over their great sadness. the friends share dinner and tell stories, they realize at last that in their hearts and memories, Fox is still with them and always will be. 

#2 ~ Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley

A touching look at death, and how life goes on. Badger’s friends are saddened by his passing, but they come to realize that everyone lives on through their gifts of kindness and the happy memories that remain.

#3 ~Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton

A touching portrait of a little boy who is trying to come to grips with his father’s death.  We see him struggle through many stages, from denial and anger to depression and, finally, acceptance.

Book #4 ~ The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka

When a child becomes aware of his pending death (children tend to know long before the rest of us even want to consider it) and is given the opportunity to draw his feelings, he will often draw a blue or purple balloon, released and unencumbered, on its way upward.  The message of the book is clear: talking about dying is hard, dying is harder, but there are many people in your life who can help.

#5 ~ Rudi’s Pond by Eve Bunting

Based upon a true story. When a sick boy dies, his friends and classmates remember him by building a schoolyard pond in his memory.  This is a must-read for a class dealing with the loss of a classmate.  

#6 ~ Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories by Audrey Penn

Chester Raccoon’s good friend Skiddel Squirrel has had an accident and will not be returning – ever. Chester is upset that he won’t get to play with his friend anymore. Mrs. Raccoon suggests that Chester and his friends create some memories of Skiddel so that they will have good memories when they miss him.

Book #7 ~ The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

A great sense of peace and joy realizing that we are all connected to the ones that we love… (pets, friends, grandparents, cousins, etc… and especially those that have passed on)…through the Invisible String.

#8 ~ The Invisible Leash by Patrice Karst 

When our pets aren’t with us anymore, an Invisible Leash connects our hearts to each other. Forever.” That’s what Zack’s friend Emily tells him after his dog dies. Although Zack doesn’t believe that until he feels the comforting tug of the invisible leash.  This is a great read for a child dealing with the loss of a pet.  

#9 ~ The Rainbow Bridge: A Visit to Pet Paradise by Adrian Raeside

A valuable fable for anyone who cherishes the companionship of a family pet.  Seven-year-old Rick and his beloved dog Koko are inseparable. With Koko’s passing, Rick is devastated. When Rick gets a sneak peek across the Rainbow Bridge his heart is filled with joy.

Book #10 ~ Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas

A coming-of-age story about a young girl and her dog Lulu. When Lulu passes away later in life, the girl learns how to keep her memories of her friend close to her heart.

Teacher / Family Resources for Dealing with Loss

American Federation of Teachers (AFT)

This is a great resource for educators, families, and caregivers.  This brochure provides some guidelines, discussion points, and resources all in one spot.

Sesame Street Resources

Sesame Street has some wonderful resources and activities for younger students.  Not only do they provide dialogue and resources for teachers and families, but they also have appropriate activities for students including grief cards, journals, and storybooks. 

Self Care

If anyone has ever read any of my prior blogs or watched my Vlog Series: “Teaching Trailblazers with Chris from ETTC”, you may have noticed how much emphasis I place on Self-Care.  When students come in sharing these difficult conversations, it could possibly trigger something for ourselves.  Just from the discomfort of this topic to a personal connection of a story or situation.  Check out “To the Teacher at Their Breaking Point” for some self-care tips.

 

 

 

 

 

The Purple Balloon by Chris Rashka states: “Talking about dying is hard, dying is harder, but there are many people in your life who can help.”  Be one of those helpers!  You can be a lifeline in a student’s day to day struggle by being mindful and genuine.  Try to be their person to go to where they can find support, calm, and guidance when they are experiencing loss and grief. 

Have you had any experience working alongside students who may have experienced loss in their life?  How did you handle it?  We would love to hear from you in the comments below.  Be Kind, Be Strong, Be You! 

Written by: Christopher Olson

At Education to the Core, we exist to help our teachers build a stronger classroom as they connect with our community to find trusted, state-of-the-art resources designed by teachers for teachers. We aspire to be the world’s leading & most trusted community for educational resources for teachers. We improve the lives of every teacher and learner with the most comprehensive, reliable, and inclusive educational resources.

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Welcome! I’m Emily, Founder of Education to the Core. We are all about helping K-2 teachers by providing unlimited access to affordable printables for every subject area.