Encouraging Your School to Be Grief Friendly

Encouraging Your School to Be Grief Friendly, by:Helene McGlauflin, M.Ed., LCPC

The following are ten suggestions for teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and school personnel interested in making their schools more open to the grief process, or “grief-friendly.” This means creating a school climate that not only responds in a healthy way to a crisis, but also is sensitive to the numerous and various losses many students face throughout a school year.

Have a supportive crisis action team. It is essential for every school to have some kind of team that can create a plan for a crisis, and be supportive of the school when losses and death occur. There is much written elsewhere about creating a team; for purposes of this piece we will consider two aspects. First, the team should meet at least four times during the school year in order to keep the information fresh in everyone’s mind, and so the group can develop a sense of working together as a team. These meetings will help the team know each other well enough to offer support to one another and the school. Second, a team member should feel they can call the team together anytime that member needs support concerning a death or loss. Some teams only gather when there is a major school-wide crisis, yet there are other deaths and losses that a team member may want to discuss. Sometimes the questions, “Is this a crisis?” and, “What kind of crisis is this?” need the help of the team to answer.

Be knowledgeable about grief. For a school to be open to the grief process, school personnel should be aware of the nature of grief, so they can both recognize it in students and help the students cope. Although grief manifests itself differently for children, there are three aspects of the process that are universal and pertain to people of every age. First, grief is a natural, normal and healthy response to losing the people, pets, places and things we love. Second, grief is totally unique to every adult and child: unique in its intensity, its variation and in the amount of time it takes to heal and recover. Third, every person has the capacity to heal with support: that is, with people who respect their process and can offer some emotional safety. When a school staff can honor these aspects of grief, they can more easily respect its many manifestations.

Recognize that every crisis, every death and every loss in the school community is unique. Just as the individual process of grief is unique, there is an element of uniqueness in every crisis or loss a school may face. It is important that while we have Crisis Action Teams that respond at a time of death or loss, we recognize that there is no set formula that applies to every crisis. Numerous factors have to be considered each time a loss occurs such as: the time of the school year it occurs, the nature of the death or loss, what students and community members are effected, what accurate information is available. By being careful to acknowledge uniqueness, we can approach each situation with an open mind.

Speak as openly and honestly as possible to the students about the loss. It is essential that schools announce or mention when a death or loss has occurred that effects the school community. Otherwise we take the risk of communicating to the students that the event was unimportant or unspeakable, when we want to communicate a sense of openness and trust. It can be difficult, however, to be totally truthful in a crisis, especially if the loss is horrible, if the true facts surrounding the event are not fully known, if the staff is uncomfortable sharing the news with students or if the family of those effected have wishes that conflict with the school’s need to know. Such difficulties can be surmounted when we are honest with ourselves, by asking for help in talking to students, by saying “I don’t know the answer to all your questions but I will do the best I can” or by admitting how difficult the news is for us to talk about. Within these natural limits, we want students to feel comfortable asking questions, to know it is natural and normal to wonder about the event, and to understand the loss as well as they can.

Honor feelings. Emotions are not well understood in our culture, but are an important part of our human heritage, and need to be respected. Some educators worry that honoring feelings means conducting therapy in the classroom, when in fact it simply means accepting the expression of feelings as a natural part of a school day. Anger, sadness, excitement, confusion, frustration, happiness, fatigue (to name a few emotions) occur daily and can be respected when educators acknowledge their own feelings and notice the feelings of their students. This is especially important during a crisis or loss, when everyone’s feelings are strong and deep. It is appropriate and meaningful for teachers to cry with students, and to allow the sharing of feelings in the classroom after a loss. It is also appropriate for teachers to allow students other outlets for their feelings, such as: having a feeling area in the corner of a classroom a student can go; allowing students to write essays about their loss; encouraging poetry; or conducting a class meeting during which students can ask questions and share feelings.

Accept the consciousness of the grieving. Adults and children who are grieving are experiencing a very different consciousness that is often difficult for those who are not grieving to understand. People in a grief consciousness are often disoriented, confused, forgetful, impatient, angry, sad, inattentive, and disruptive and sometimes act in very uncharacteristic ways. It can be very helpful to a griever to be around people who are understanding and accepting of this unique consciousness. This means being calm and unsurprised by unusual comments or behaviors and communicating to the griever, “I understand that what you said or did may be part of your grieving.”

Try to acknowledge and respect all the good-byes in the school community throughout the year. Probably the most organic way for a school to be grief-friendly is to honor the losses that occur throughout the school year, such as: students moving, pets dying, moving from one grade to the next, the oldest students leaving the school, and the end of the school year. This can happen simply by acknowledging the loss and encouraging a brief discussion, or in a grander way by having a celebration, graduation, or ritual. These times can be opportunities to education students about the grief process, and to allow the community time to process their loss. It is good time to communicate, “it is important to say goodbye. It gives us the chance to remember and feel how important this person (this class, this event) is/was to us.”

Always remember your mission as a school. The basic mission of every school is to educate students and impart life skills. Responding sensitively to a loss in the school community is a valuable part of this mission. This means acknowledging that an important loss has occurred and responding with a plan for helping those students and staff who are effected. At a time of crisis, death or loss, many people get so overwhelmed it can be hard to return to the everyday workings of the school. While it is a danger in some schools to get back to work too quickly, it is also important to return to schoolwork at the appropriate time. Knowing the appropriate time to return to work can be a difficult and artful decision. Usually when considerable time has been allowed for students and staff to process the event, to attend services, and to share reactions with one another, there is a sense that it is time to return to the studies.

Uphold your standards in a compassionate way. After a school does resume it regular routine, or a child returns to school after a loss, it is important for us to maintain our usual discipline, expectations and academic standards. Yet this must be tempered by a compassion for the deep and exhausting inner work of grief. In practical terms, this means maintaining the usual schedule and standards, but responding sensitively when a student acts out, cries, has difficulty concentrating or is unusually frustrated. Hope that the usual amount of school work is completed, but do not be surprised if it is not; hope that the child can behave with peers appropriately, but do not be surprised if you notice mean or aggressive behaviors. Communicate the message: “I know this is a difficult time for you but we expect you to act responsibly and respectfully. I will expect you to do your work sometime as best you can. I am willing to help you in whatever way I can.” The routines and limits can be reassuring to a griever, but can be suffocating when maintained inflexibly.

Support one another. Encouraging our schools to be grief-friendly can be lonely and emotionally taxing work. It is important that we have at least one person at our school that understands our perspective and can support us in our feelings. With a support person, we can share our questions and confusions that naturally happen in a helping relationship, and we can offer ourselves the kind of compassion we want to share with our students.

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