A sense of loss

4th April 2003 at 01:00
For one teacher, the death of a friend resulted in the production of a multi-faith guide to supporting bereaved children. Elaine Williams reports

One year ago Diane MacBrairdy, a Bradford primary school teacher, lost a very close friend, godfather to her son, who died in a road accident. What struck her most about the immediate aftermath to his death, was the way his two young children, aged 10 and six, were allowed to play a major role in his funeral and memorial service. After the funeral they released balloons in the crematorium garden with a letter they had written to their father attached. At a church service celebrating their father's life they lit candles and read out their memoirs about their dad. They were centrally involved, their feelings fully embraced within the mourning ritual. How, Mrs MacBrairdy considered, would she have involved her own children in such a service? How would she have handled their grief? How indeed, she considered further, do schools care for bereaved children?

She acknowledges that as a nation we have got a little better at sharing grief over loss and death. Statistics reveal that one in 30 of us will suffer the loss of a parent before the age of 19 and a much higher proportion will lose a sibling or grandparent, but, Mrs MacBrairdy says, death is still a great taboo despite being "the only inevitable thing that happens to all of us". Most of all she feels that adults are still clumsy, confused and relatively ignorant about how to handle children's grief over loss of a loved one.

Her friend's death propelled her into action. Convinced that children will cope with bereavement better if they are "prepared for it in a wider sense" she set about obtaining funding to prepare guidance for schools. As a Year 6 teacher at Princeville Primary in Bradford, a 416-strong school with more than 90 per cent pupils from Muslim families, she was aware of the need for teachers to understand how death is dealt with among different faiths.

She wanted to produce something practical, aimed at teachers, which would encompass the following issues: lhow children of different ages react to loss through death, in the short and longer term; lthe traditions of different faiths - particularly Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism - Jregarding death and funerals; lgood practice in supporting bereaved children, including a range of activities.

She obtained funding from the Farmington Trust, based at Oxford University, founded to improve and encourage Christian education in schools and develop good relations with other world religions. The trust paid for her to take a one-term sabbatical to produce the guidance, working under a tutor from the religious studies department at Leeds University, and paid for a teacher to replace her in school. Her resulting booklet, Supporting Bereaved Children, is published with funding from the Children's Fund and copies will go initially into every school in Bradford. The first part deals with the different grieving stages as well as faith information, a good practice checklist and activities. The second part provides lists of resources.

Diane MacBrairdy is at pains to point out that she has undertaken this work as a teacher, not as a person qualified in bereavement counselling or support. Although there is plenty of bereavement literature available, this book, she says, is a compilation of all the information and ideas most relevant to schools that she gleaned from consulting a whole range of organisations that concern themselves with death and bereavement, including Cruse, the bereavement charity; bereavement support groups; Marie Curie, the cancer care charity; hospice staff and people who work in palliative care, the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) for which Mrs MacBrairdy is the Baptist representative in Bradford. She said:

"With the best will in the world, teachers cannot know everything about every bereavement situation. By setting out what the grieving pattern is for different age groups and the different faith rituals surrounding death, if teachers know what is happening they can support the child in a much more positive way. For example, if a school knows that within a particular faith the family will mourn the death of a relative for seven days, then it knows that the child will not be in school and does not have to contact the family at such a sensitive time."

She said: "A large proportion of mental health problems in adults is related to unresolved grief in childhood. Schools really do need to be able to offer effective support." She is currently working with the lea, Education Bradford, which is scrutinising strategies for improving attendance and attainment, as both can be adversely affected by bereavement.

Supporting Bereaved Children - A Handbook is available, price pound;7, from the Interfaith Education Centre, Lister Hills Road, Bradford BD7 1 HD Tel: 01274 731674Email: interfaith@educationbradford.com

Good practice

* Make time to listen.

* Look out for changes in behaviour.

* Reassure the child that it's OK to cry.

* Accept what the child is feeling.

* Go at the child's pace - don't give more information than the child is ready to accept andor understand.

* Say: "some people believeI" - be careful not to impose personal views.

* Be prepared to talk about death yourself - you shouldn't expect children to talk if you don't.

* Involve their friends, making sure they don't feel left out.


* Draw a "trust circle" - this helps a child to know whom they can turn to for help.

* Draw a mind map in which the death itself is placed at the centre and then the pupil plots issues that affect their everyday life as a result of the death.

* Children may be helped to deal with their feelings if they can draw or write about them, then let go of them by tearing up or burning the paper.

* When a child is angry because of bereavement, the anger needs to be released. This can be done in a variety of practical ways, such as: punching a ball; yelling into a pillow; stamping feet; writing an angry letter and tearing it up afterwards.

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