The Issue - Bringing comfort to the bereaved

When dealing with a student's grief there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but acknowledging their loss is a vital first step

Katrina Quick

Every 22 minutes, the parent of someone under the age of 16 dies, according to UK childhood bereavement charity Winston's Wish. This means that, as a teacher, at some point you are very likely to have a student under your care who loses their mother or father.

Responding to this can be an intimidating responsibility. Dealing with bereaved adults is hard enough - knowing what to say and how much to talk about the deceased is a constant worry - but with a child the difficulties are multiplied. However, the situation is one that must be faced: the support a child receives at school will have a direct impact on how they cope.

Louise Onslow, a clinical psychologist and senior practitioner at Winston's Wish, says it is "extremely important" that your first step be to acknowledge what has happened.

"Offering a short sentence registering the death will mean the world to the child and show that you care," she says, adding that this should not be a gushing speech or an extended conversation: "A simple form of words along the lines of 'I am really sorry to hear about your father's death' will be enough to assure the child that you have acknowledged the event and that you are there to offer support."

Jill Adams from charity Child Bereavement UK agrees, and reassures teachers that they should not worry too much about the form of words they use. "There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this, so don't be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing - it is doing nothing that causes the greatest upset."

It is important for the school to contact the relatives to find out how they want to deal with the situation. The student may not volunteer information about how they are feeling or how they would prefer things to be handled, so teachers should seek out other sources of information.

The next stage is putting measures in place to ensure that the child is supported in the short and long term. A crucial aspect is giving students the opportunity to talk.

"Ensure that someone the child trusts and feels comfortable talking to is available throughout the school day," Onslow says. "The child can then approach them if they feel distressed and get the valuable one-to-one time they need."

So that the student feel comfortable seeking out this support, it can be beneficial to give them a card or sign they can use to let the teacher know they want to leave a lesson without drawing too much attention to the reason for their absence.

"A yellow card or something similar that lets the teacher know they are feeling upset and need to get out will help the child to cope," Onslow says.

Adams adds: "We hear regularly from bereaved pupils who say they do not like teachers making a fuss."

Young children may not fully grasp what death means, which adds an extra dimension to bereavement. This may be the first time they have experienced death, so they may not understand the concept and may say things along the lines of "My Dad's dead but he's coming back next week," or even, "If I'm good, my Dad will come back."

Onslow explains that, if the child does express a sentiment such as this, it is necessary to remind them gently that death is final and that their loved one will not be returning. This may go against what they are hearing from others but Onslow believes that honesty is the best policy.

"Adults always want to protect the child by not revealing much information, but often this leads only to confusion, especially in those who are younger," she says.

Young children may also fear for the safety of other family members. This can manifest as separation anxiety, and teachers must deal with it rather than ignore it. For example, simply keeping a child informed about where their family members are can have a major impact.

Unfortunately, teachers need to be aware of another issue, which many would not expect: bullying. According to Onslow, bereaved children are often bullied. "I see it a lot," she says. "Children come out with phrases such as 'You don't have a Dad to go home to'. It can be incredibly upsetting."

Ensuring that all these bases are covered is not, of course, going to miraculously turn the clock back for the student - that should not be your aim. All you can do is provide the support that may make a very difficult experience slightly easier to cope with.

What else?

For more suggestions on how to help students cope with bereavement, check out this video from Teachers TV.


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Katrina Quick

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