On 28th August, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said of mental health and dealing with bereavement in schools:
“…we need the right mental health support to help [school children] make the transition back into the classroom. That means training for all teachers and counselling in every school…. Many of the people who have died from coronavirus in the UK will have been grandparents, whose grandchildren will be returning to classrooms having suffered bereavement.” (Ref. 1)
“What’s the impact going to be of so many parents and grandparents dying? I’ve never existed in a space where a community has lost so many people…” and “…trying not to cry.”
It serves as an important reminder that staff will be managing the whole range of situations, including bereavement, that their students are coming back from and are also likely to be the recipients of the whole range of emotions that children and adolescents are feeling.
In addition, being older themselves and with the age distribution of coronavirus mortality (Ref. 4), staff are more likely than children to have lost a parent.
What are the characteristics of bereavement, and how can we support children, adolescents and staff through their loss?
Grief and Bereavement emotions
Grief and bereavement bring a very complex set of emotions that present at different times in different orders (the idea of a set sequence of ‘stages of grief’ has been discredited, and grief is now recognised as a non-linear process). The aspects include some we readily anticipate:
- Sadness at the loss, sometimes extreme with a sense that ‘nothing matters any more’
- Anxiety at all the practical issues to face, from funeral arrangements to financial matters
As well as some we may be less ready to recognise:
- Denial and being determined to carry on as if the bereavement hasn’t happened
- Anger at being left (‘How could you leave me?’) perhaps with a sense of injustice (‘Why did you die, why has this happened to me, who is to blame?’)
Furthermore, some children, adolescents and adults may feel emotions that might at first glance seem counterintuitive:
- Relief, for example if a child or young person is bereaved of a psychologically or physically abusive relative, or sometimes if the illness was very protracted.
- Guilt, perhaps as a response to feeling relief and consequently a sense of not feeling the way one is ‘supposed to’. In other cases there may be the guilt of wondering if there was more we could have done to prevent the death of a loved one.
This presents a very complicated situation, one where we want to be able to support people in their particular bereavement and towards being able to heal, as far as possible, from the loss. So, for example, rather than sadness developing into long term depression, or anxiety becoming a continuing inability to cope with life, reaching a point of:
- Acceptance, a sense that “I’ll get through this. I might not ever totally ‘get over it’, and some occasions may bring a resurgence of grief, but I will learn to live with it. Things will somehow be okay and I’ll have some happy times again.”
Resources and Training
There are many excellent resources for supporting children and young people in dealing with bereavement, for example the charities Winston’s Wish (Ref. 5), Daisy’s Dream (Ref. 6) and many others. These provide support for bereaved children and young people, and also sometimes bereavement training courses for schools and teachers.
While the resources mentioned above rarely extend explicitly to providing support for grieving adults or for bereaved school staff, they can readily be adapted. There are also organisations such as Cruse (Ref. 7) that support adults through bereavement.
Sharing such resources with parents, both to enable them to support their children in their grief, and to help them cope with their own emotions around the bereavement, will also be important.
Ways to Talk about Bereavement in School
As so often, one starting point is in the language we use. Where a child or adolescent is able to speak openly about a death, simply reflecting their words and matching the precise language they use is a way of validating their emotions and acknowledging their experience. In turn, we can go on to focus not on the circumstances, but on the emotions, without making any assumptions, and using open questions. So, if a student says ‘My gran died’, perhaps responding with ‘Your gran died? That’s a big thing for you to cope with. How are you feeling about it?’ They might in fact go on to tell you what happened, but more importantly, a space has been opened up for them to express their own emotions. (Notice the difference between this and a phrase such as ‘You must be sad about that’ which makes an assumption.)
Of course children and adolescents, and perhaps more often adults, may be less able to talk directly about death. Children and young people may pick up on and use some of the euphemisms employed by adults at home (language which can in some cases be an indicator of denial, and which can sometimes be a barrier to processing the bereavement), using phrases such as ‘passed on’ or simply ‘gone’. Here reflecting with an open question can be helpful: if a child says ‘My grandpa’s gone’, we can quietly ask, ‘I see… Where has your grandpa gone?’ This willingness on the part of adults to engage in a conversation is a first step in opening up the space for the expression of emotions.
One important consideration is to have any conversation of this kind in a context where both confidentiality and some continuity of support can be assured. With children and adolescents, there are safeguarding considerations which may call for action, but otherwise confidentiality is essential to underpin trust. Continuity and sufficient time are preferable to avoid the risk of leaving a bereaved child or adult grappling alone with the emotions brought up; rather than a hasty ‘chat’, arrange a time (or follow-up conversation) when there is enough space to have the discussion which may be needed. If necessary, seek further support for them in the form of bereavement counselling.
Strategies in School
The strategies we set out in the previous blog post can help staff to support children and adolescents in dealing with bereavement in school: validating emotions; whole class strategies such as ‘Circle Time’; and individual strategies for each student such as personal journals and a checklist of coping skills. Some of these can also be helpful in order to support staff, in the context of often extreme workload and stress that many teachers and auxiliary staff are grappling with.
With the focus on practical class management and curriculum delivery, it’s important that every student and every member of staff feels listened to, and that their emotions are acknowledged and validated, including the sadness, anxiety and other emotions that come with bereavement. Some of our free resources could help with this, such as our ‘How Does Worried/Scared Feel’ poster, ‘Small & Big Emotions’ homework, and daily ‘Check-In Board’, as could our more comprehensive programmes covering a range of emotions and skills to deal with them. For bereaved staff, our free Weekly Mental Health and Wellbeing Tip could be helpful.
One of the most difficult things for us as adults is to recognise and respond to our own emotions, and manage how we deal with them, especially in the context of a busy school environment. For example, it might seem tempting to ‘keep calm and carry on’, and ‘just get on with things’, but with that denial comes the very real risk of the unacknowledged sadness developing into long-term clinical depression. In the case of repressed anger about the loss, it might build up and eventually be released outwardly in various subtle or more overt ways.
So one strategy, just as for children and adolescents, is to schedule time for a bereaved member of staff to receive support for the emotions they may be experiencing, perhaps in the form of a regular time when they can, if they wish, talk privately with a trusted colleague or counsellor.
It’s also important that we have opportunities to share experiences, empathise, acknowledge and respond to the emotions that other staff are managing. Again, as for children, one approach might be a type of staff ‘Circle Time’, where the day-to-day business of school life is put to one side, and staff can share or hear other colleagues share experiences and feelings about issues such as bereavements, stress and other challenges affecting their lives through the pandemic.
Such sessions for staff would require thoughtful facilitation, genuinely supportive leadership, and confidentiality. Opportunities such as these may often be very valuable for staff who don’t appear to ‘contribute’ – but who listen and hear others expressing how they feel – allowing them to know that they ‘aren’t the only one’. Bereavement and grief are experiences which most staff are likely to have endured at one point or other in their lives; recognition of the need to acknowledge the complex process of grief, and support each other through it, will be decisive factors in determining the wellbeing of all members of school communities.
So, to respond to the questions we asked at the start of this blog post: What are the characteristics of bereavement, and how can we support children, adolescents and staff in dealing with bereavement in schools?
Grief brings complex and sometimes contradictory emotions, and each person experiences bereavement in their own way in their own time. The starting point is to make space to listen to and validate the emotions that the individual child, young person or member of staff is experiencing. Then, to provide opportunities for a sharing of experiences and ways to cope, and of course to draw down specialist resources from organisations like Winston’s Wish and Cruse, as well as bereavement counselling services if needed.
Written by Ava S. Hasan & The Mentally Well Schools Team
P.S. If you have something to say in response to this post, please comment below. We’d welcome your thoughts.
Ref. 5: https://www.winstonswish.org/
Ref. 6: https://www.daisysdream.org.uk/
Ref. 7: https://www.cruse.org.uk/