A death in the family

Tes Editorial

How teachers can help bereaved pupils. Friday morning. At least part of my mind is focused on 3.30pm and the weekend. My class of nine-year-olds arrives with the usual football stickers; the latest Barbie. Jack and his mother come over to me. "Jack might be a bit upset his dad died last night."

It takes a second or two to register. "Oh God, I'm so sorry. What happened?"

"He just dropped down dead, they said it was a heart attack." Jack's mum starts to cry. I can see out of the corner of my eye that an argument has broken out about whose turn it is to sit on the bean bags. She leaves. Jack sits with the other children. I sort out the bean bag argument before it escalates and take the register.

Jack was pretty quiet that day. He didn't cry. He didn't mention his Dad. I certainly didn't bring the subject up.

As the weeks went by, I did worry about whether I should make allowances for him or whether I should treat him the same as all the other children. But he seemed to work just as hard. And if he hadn't? Well, I don't treat all the children the same, unless it's about whose turn it is to return the milk money.

If a child has a reading difficulty, he gets extra help. If a child has an emotional difficulty, like being depressed because his Dad has died, or worrying about whether his Mum is going to die too, then I'd go easy on him. I do remember Jack mentioning his Dad again but it wasn't until the end of that school year that I realised things had not been as they seemed to me.

Jack's mum came for the regular parents' evening. I told her that Jack had done OK that year, considering. His work and his behaviour hadn't really been affected. Then she started talking about her husband's death and the aftermath. What she had found very difficult was that Jack refused to talk to her about his Dad and would I talk to him.

I've always considered myself a teacher, not a social worker or counsellor, so I asked her if there was anyone else, better qualified to talk to him. She said they'd asked at the doctor's surgery and been put in touch with a local branch of CRUSE, the charity for bereaved families, but they had no one trained to talk to children. I asked around the staffroom but no one knew what to do.

I made some excuse to get Jack to help me to take some library books back one breaktime. He didn't need much encouragement to open up. He said he didn't want to talk to his Mum because he might upset her, she'd cry and he'd feel bad if she did. He said, to my shame, that he wished I'd told the whole class about his Dad, because some of the children still didn't know and when they talked about their dads he felt stupid if he had to say "My Dad's dead" so he just pretended that he wasn't.

I asked him about his Dad, about what he missed most, what things he kept to remind him, what he believed about where he was now, whether his Dad could see him and what that felt like. He did get upset while we talked - I told him that he could talk to me about this any time he wanted.

A few days later he brought in a photo of his Dad and his sister on the beach. Jack's best friend, Robert, saw this and said that his Mum told him not to make a big fuss of Jack after his Dad died, so he didn't mention it. Jack said it was OK to talk about his Dad, it was good to be reminded of him.

In six years of teaching, I have taught two children who have been bereaved - so I make that about a dozen times in the average career. I learned a lot from dealing with Jack and his mother, but if she hadn't asked me to talk to him, who would?

The author is a male teacher who has worked in nursery and primary schools

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