Grief and Loss at school
When children experience loss such as losing a pet, a family member, a divorce or a friend moving away, they bring their grief along with them everywhere they go. It’s with them at soccer practice; it’s with them at piano lessons; at playdates and at school. Often well-meaning caregivers want to keep a child’s routine as “normal” as possible after a loss, and so children carry on despite their world being turned upside-down.
Schools are often a home-away-from-home for students. A steady constant that offers safety through predictable routines and a community of teachers, staff and peers. We know that grief can impact every area of a child's life including their participation in everyday activities, their friendships, and their ability to learn. We also know that despite having the best of intentions, children's grief and loss often goes unacknowledged. Our goal is to support communities such as schools to address and validate children's grief and to respond with sensitivity and care to the child or teen who walks through the door heavy with grief.
An important thing to remember in the school context is that grief is not only about death. Young people experience many losses in their lives. Their best friend moving away, moving houses or cities, new diagnoses or changes in health status, the death of someone close to them, a parents’ pregnancy loss, parental mental illness, separation from family members due to hospitalization, divorce, work/military assignments, incarceration, violence, and foster care, are just some of the many losses that children and teens experience.
There are many ways to support children and teens with grief and loss within a school context. Here are some simple strategies for making your classroom grief informed.
Have books about hard things in your classroom. Books that depict a wide range of experiences can show children that they are not alone and can normalize difficult feelings and loss experiences. They can also be a starting point for inviting dialogue about empathy, friendship and connection, teaching children and teens how to be with a friend who is grieving. We don't think it's a coincidence that we as a society are not comfortable talking about grief, and that we are often so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we don't do anything at all. Not only were we not taught about normal human experiences of loss, we were also left out of conversations about supporting people with grief.
Offer a child or teen a comfort gift to acknowledge their loss. Giving a gift won’t “fix” a child’s grief. The important thing about a sympathy gift is that it acknowledges grief. The gift is tangible evidence that a child’s grief is seen and validated and held by another person. It can be as simple as a pocket stone to hold onto for comfort during the school day. We can sometimes forget that when someone is hurting, even a small gesture of care can have a significant impact.
Provide opportunities for young people to connect with their inner experiences and identify and express emotions in safe and nonverbal ways. Somatic and embodied activities that require students to check in with themselves, and practice expression and self-compassion, can be helpful tools for grounding and regulation in a classroom that has experienced loss. Our favourite activity for a group is making coloured sand jars. Pouring coloured sand is a soothing sensory experience and creates a visual representation of a young person’s inner world without them having to say anything at all.
When a classroom or school has experienced a loss, it is important that the loss is acknowledged in the school community and that young people have opportunities to acknowledge the loss through ritual and legacy-building activities. This could look like a moment of silence in an assembly, a classroom planting project, and art installation, writing a letter to the person or to the person’s family, making the person’s favourite recipe or playing a favourite game, or coming up with a unique way to honour someone’s passing and the grief that is left behind.