Following the death of a child’s family member, teachers may find that the child’s parent/s or carers come to them for advice and support.
Grief responses encompass a wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviours. It is important for parents and staff to know that everyone experiences grief differently and that many people will continue to grieve long after the person has died, in subtle ways while getting on with their lives. Suspend judgment about how children (or adults) ‘should’ cope with the death and stay open to the wide range of responses that may occur.
If asked, you can share some of the following suggestions with the child’s parent/s no matter what age or stage the child is at:
- Keep to normal daily routines as much as possible.
- Spend time with your child. The most important thing you can do is simply be with your child while they are grieving. There are many ways time can be spent together, for example, talking, watching TV, reading, driving them to a friend’s house, or even sitting quietly together.
- Talk with your child about their thoughts and feelings. Reassure them that their feelings are okay and that you love them no matter what they say or do. It can be helpful to share some of your feelings, sadness, happiness, fears, with the child and tell them what you do, to manage these emotions. Acknowledge that it is okay to laugh and feel happy surrounded by loved ones or friends even though the person has died.
- Talk about the death or the illness. Death should always be described as death, or dying. Do not say the person ‘went to sleep’, as the child may think the person will wake up soon, or that they themselves might die when they go to sleep at night. Talking factually, in an age appropriate way, about what happens to the physical body after death, and what happens to the spirit (based on the family’s cultural and spiritual beliefs) can help to alleviate fears or anxieties. Answer questions or correct misconceptions the child may have, without fear, in an age appropriate way, to help reduce any anxieties the child may be experiencing.
- Encourage the child to attend the funeral or memorial service, unless they really do not wish to. Ensure at least one adult is there to support them during the service. This should be someone who is not directly affected by the death – a family friend, babysitter or teacher. They can help explain things to the child during the service or leave with the child if they need to at anytime. Discuss beforehand what will happen during the service, and talk with them afterwards about the service.
- Help to keep the person’s memory alive. This could include talking about the person who has died around the dinner table, sharing sad and funny stories, or placing a photo of the person in their bedroom. It can be helpful for the child to be able to continue their relationship with the person who has died even though they are no longer present by keeping a memory box of letters, photos or one or two small personal items that belonged to the person. Many children find it helpful to talk to the deceased person about their day or their feelings. Some may do this while looking at the person’s photo, looking up at the stars, or while lying in bed at night.
- Seek help from a mental health professional such as a psychologist or social worker if you believe your child may hurt themselves or others, or is not coping well with the death.
The death of a family member can be a time of immense sadness but also one of love and support as people come together to help the family. Many children will grow from the experience. This is called post-traumatic growth. Reassure parents that children who have experienced loss and grief will often over time, with love and support, develop better coping skills, and increased self-esteem and confidence in responding to life’s future challenges.
If a child in your school has experienced the death of a loved one you may be interested in reading our Psych4Schools ebooklet: Working with children who are experiencing bereavement (grief after the death of a loved one)
It contains strategies teachers can use to support a student going through the loss of a loved one at school.
You could also refer parents to the article ‘Grief a child’s perspective’.