Bereavement

Almost one in 30 of us will experience the death of a parent before the age of 19. That's roughly one pupil in every class. Many more children will experience the loss of a grandparent, sibling or friend. Growing up is hard enough - lose someone close to you and it can be traumatic. But schools can make a difference when it comes to helping young people cope with bereavement; teachers have a key role to play in the healing process. But how best to handle this added responsibility? And how can you help vulnerable pupils through this most bewildering of times?

Do children react to grief differently from adults?

Yes. Adults usually experience grief as a sequence of emotions. Initial shock or numbness is followed by a period of yearning for the deceased, which in turn is replaced by sadness or even depression. Eventually, intense feelings give way to acceptance. Children experience all these emotions - but not necessarily in the same order. Their emotions tend to roller-coaster between the stages.

What's normal?

There is no "normal" reaction to bereavement. So don't be shocked or surprised by how children react to death. It's not unusual, for example, for younger children to go out and play after hearing of a relative's death. This doesn't mean they're unaffected; it's just an instinctive way of dealing with an emotional crisis. "Sick" jokes about death are another common defence mechanism. Even though every situation is unique, it's still possible to identify some typical reactions for different age groups. Under the age of six, children often view death as temporary or reversible. They might talk about the dead person as if he or she were still alive. It's also common for them to see death as a "punishment", or feel they may have caused it by their own behaviour. By the age of seven or eight, most understand that death is permanent. The death of someone close may cause a preoccupation with matters related to death, and possibly a strong fear of dying.

Adolescents usually have an "adult" understanding of death, but given all the other insecurities teenagers face, their grieving process is often complicated and drawn out. At any age, sadness, anger and guilt are likely to be the dominant emotions.

Just as there is no standard way of grieving, so there is no set time limit. But most experts agree that recovery takes at least a year, probably two. And it's not uncommon for bereaved youngsters to suffer from ill health. The death of someone particularly close can weaken the immune system for up to 18 months.

The language of death

When tackling responses to death, it's useful to have a few definitions. Bereavement is the loss through death of a person close to you. Grief is the emotional response to that loss, while mourning is the social expression of grief. All cultures and religions seem to acknowledge that bereavement exists, and in most cases the emotions of grief are similar. But mourning rituals differ widely. Some religions - such as Orthodox Judaism - will hold the funeral service within 24 hours of the death, whereas a Christian ceremony can be more than a week later. Hinduism usually involves two ceremonies, one immediately after the death, the other up to a month later. When dealing with a bereaved pupil, it's important not to impose your own values or beliefs - although that doesn't mean you can't listen carefully and talk about what you believe.

Least said, soonest mended?

Absolutely not. Many teachers worry about saying the wrong thing or reopening emotional wounds. But the biggest mistake is to pretend nothing has happened. Most bereaved children will be itching for the chance to talk and, if not, will soon tell you they are. But discretion is important. Too much attention may increase an uncomfortable feeling of being different.

Don't worry about not being an expert on bereavement; it may even be an advantage. Use basic counselling techniques - open-ended questions, attentive listening, comments that reflect back the feelings of the child - but, above all, be honest and open. "Teachers aren't counsellors, but they have great intuition," says Anne Viney, chief executive of the charity Cruse Bereavement Care. "It's not about coming up with answers, it's about being there." Don't be afraid to ask questions, particularly if the child has a faith or culture with which you are unfamiliar. And don't worry if it ends in tears. Short-term upset is better than long-term trauma.

Who should do the talkinglistening?

It doesn't matter, as long as somebody does. The responsibility often falls to a form teacher or head of year, but someone else may be more appropriate. The more staff who can make themselves available the better - then it's up to the child who to turn to. Don't be surprised if he or she goes to an unexpected source. One teacher tells how a teenage pupil who was "really difficult with me - I thought he hated my guts" came to him for support when his father died. Sometimes it's easier for pupils to approach teachers with whom they don't have a rapport, because they feel less exposed.

What if someone from the school dies?

Don't let rumours spread. When a pupil or teacher dies, it's important to keep the whole school properly informed. If the death is sudden it may be necessary to relax normal routines to give pupils a chance to talk and reflect.

When the schools of Soham in Cambridgeshire reopened this week, counsellors were on hand to talk to children about the murder of the 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Staff at the girls' school, St Andrew's primary, and at Soham village college earlier met education psychologists and welfare and child protection officers to talk about how to deal with pupils' questions and where to turn for support.

The school's ability to grieve collectively as a community is usually helpful, so it's a good idea to hold an in-school memorial service, in addition to more formal representation at a funeral. Children often find a permanent reminder, such as a tree, bench or memory book, is a useful focus for their feelings. Remember that you and your colleagues will also need time to grieve; sometimes teachers are too busy comforting pupils to confront their own feelings. "I've been into schools to work with pupils and ended up just working with the staff," says Cruse's south-east co-ordinator, Sonja Edgeworth.

Time heals. . .

Most children eventually move on. But some struggle to come to terms with their loss. Those who have problems with self-esteem are most likely to respond badly. The nature of the death is also a factor. Suicide, murder or violent death are especially difficult, and it may be best to seek professional help immediately - especially if the child has witnessed the death.

Sometimes children will get stuck at one particular stage of the grieving process. Trust your instincts. If things don't seem to be progressing, professional help is probably needed. Warning signs include children continuing to talk as if the dead person is still alive, refusing to talk about them at all, or even talking about wanting to be dead themselves.

What help is available?

Jill Adams, school co-ordinator for the Child Bereavement Trust, says that in nine out of 10 cases teachers are in the best position to deal with bereavement. But you still need to know where to turn if you decide outside help is needed. Calling on the NHS (services vary from area to area), or an educational psychologist or nurse attached to the school, may be your first option. But several charities offer support for bereaved children. Some will give advice or help with counselling; some specialise in certain situations, such as suicide; others offer general support. Also use your knowledge of affected children. If you know they have a strong religious belief, a leader from their faith may be an appropriate counsellor. Once you've decided who will be providing the support, it's best to stick with them unless there's a problem. Having more than one agency involved can lead to confusion. Above all, if a pupil is referred for specialist help, it's important that you continue to offer support in school.

It happens to us all

We still have hang-ups about death. True, Britain's stiff upper lip may have quivered when Princess Diana died, but that was the exception that proved the rule. Often we're just uncomfortable tackling extreme emotions. But, on top of that, death is closely linked to religion and faith, which we tend to think of as private. When we do discuss it, we bring out all sorts of euphemisms - it's hardly surprising if young children get confused. "Grandma's passed away." "When's she coming back?" "She's gone to a better place." "Then why don't we join her?"

Ironically, 21st-century children are surrounded by death. But it's only make-believe - playground games, video games, action movies. When people died in their own beds and infant mortality was common, death was a home truth rather than a screen fiction. "In poor countries children have fewer problems with death," says Dr Colin Murray Parkes, consultant psychiatrist and bereavement expert. "They see dead bodies, rotting corpses. Here people protect children from that kind of thing, assuming it must be traumatic. In fact, the opposite is true."

Death education

There are opportunities within the curriculum to explore issues surrounding bereavement. In primaries, the death of a school pet can get discussion moving. Citizenship lessons can easily encompass bereavement - some schools even have mock funerals - and comparing the rituals of various faiths can make a lively RE project. Biology teachers should be aware that teenagers who lose a parent to a tumour or a heart attack will probably be anxious to learn more about the condition. The major bereavement care organisations produce reading lists for English lessons (see Resources), recommending fiction that deals with death. And never underestimate the value of creative work. Art, drama, English and music all offer opportunities to work through grief, for example by writing reminiscences of the dead person or creating a work of art in their memory. "Sex education is set in stone," says Jill Adams. "Why is death education overlooked?"

What can schools do?

It's worth having a bereavement policy that includes a plan of action in the event of an accident involving the death of several pupils as it's difficult to think clearly in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. When a pupil loses a parent or sibling, the most important thing is to keep in contact with the family. (Though it's not always straightforward. Unbelievably, some families don't let the school know when a parent has died - or they order the child to keep the death secret.) A bereaved child will usually be kept at home for a few days, but it may be best not to let this continue for too long. School can be a positive force in the grieving process - children find the routine comforting. It also gives them the chance to talk to people unaffected by the bereavement. Try to have a system to remind you when the anniversary of a bereavement is approaching so you are aware of potentially sensitive situations.

Off the rails

Bereaved children are often the first to throw a punch in the playground - as an outlet for the anger they feel. Don't make excuses for poor behaviour. It's important to be sympathetic, but it's still best to tackle unacceptable behaviour as you usually would. The same is true of poor academic work. Studies by John Holland of Lost for Words (see Resources) in 1993 and 1995 found that many children who lost a parent went on to suffer emotional and learning difficulties. Concentration levels will dip and it's easy for a child to lose confidence or interest. Don't make too many allowances. Beginning an end-of-term report with "considering the difficult circumstances..." can establish a pattern of under-achievement.

Life goes on

The grief of a bereaved parent can be a problem. The charity ChildLine reports a significant number of calls ostensibly about neglect, abuse or a parent's drinking - but where the surviving parent's failure to cope with bereavement turns out to be at the core of the problem. The loss of a parent can lead to the biggest changes in lifestyle, particularly for an adolescent suddenly charged with looking after siblings or trying to earn part-time cash. Sometimes problems in school are not a result of personal grief, but of the practical changes brought about by bereavement.

Degrees of grief

Most of us probably think in terms of a scale of bereavement. So losing a parent, for example, comes higher up the list than losing a grandparent. Forget such assumptions with children. A grandparent's death is often a child's first experience of bereavement - and the loss can be devastating. For Muslims, in particular, the extended family is often close-knit, so don't be surprised to see a strong reaction to the death of an aunt or cousin. The important thing is to respond to how someone is feeling, not how you think they should be feeling.

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