Grief is an individual’s emotional experience following a death or significant loss. People experience and respond to loss in different ways, depending on their relationship with the person and their age, social supports, religious or cultural beliefs, and personality.
Grief is a normal emotional reaction that encompasses a wide range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Reactions to loss do not always occur in a particular or predictable order, and do not end within a certain time period.There is no right way to grieve.
Emotions arising from loss may reappear at key times such as birthdays and anniversaries or they may be triggered by a memory. Entering a different developmental stage or experiencing significant life events can also trigger memories and emotions associated with a previous loss.
In children over seven years old, the permanency of death is typically understood. However, younger children and children with intellectual disabilities may see death as reversible.
Some children may incorrectly blame themselves for causing the person’s death in some way.
Children experiencing bereavement may display the following:
- lack of motivation
- poor attention
- decrease in academic performance
- anxiety and fears that they or others will die or become sick
- school refusal
- tiredness (due to difficulty getting to sleep or insomnia)
- aggressiveness or anger
- refusal to follow school or class rules
- somatic complaints, such as headaches and stomach aches
- a need to repeatedly talk about the dead or sick person
- acting out a funeral, death, or illness.
When to seek further assistance
Not all children experiencing grief need to be referred to a psychologist or counsellor. It would be appropriate to meet with the child’s parent and/or make a referral for counselling if the above symptoms were evident over a prolonged period of time and interfered significantly with the child’s day-to-day functioning. Referral requires parental permission.
Strategies to support the child who is bereaved
- Attend the funeral when a parent or sibling has died. It is important that a principal and one or two teachers attend the funeral. This signifies to the child that the school community cares for them and their deceased parent or sibling, and is there to support the child and their family.
- Meet with the child’s parents or carers. It may be appropriate to meet with the child’s parent or carer, particularly following the death of a parent or sibling. It is advisable to meet the parent with a senior staff member or principal. During the meeting, discuss how to best support the child. Classroom teachers can offer to contact the parent/carer regularly for a week or two to talk about how the child is coping once the child returns to school.
- Get permission from parents and, if appropriate, the child to tell the class. Be honest, sincere and brief. Explain the need for support, care and consideration of feelings. Explain to the class that the child may not wish to talk about the death or loss, but if they do, a good friend will listen. Allow time for children to ask questions and to express their emotions. You might like to follow the announcement with an activity such as making sympathy cards of support for the child and family.
- Research the relevant cultural responses and rituals around loss and death. Find out about the child’s typical cultural rituals and expected responses to death and bereavement. Be mindful of and respect that the child’s beliefs may be different from your own.
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011
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