Caught in a spiral of grief

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Children may never fully get over the death of a loved one, but school can help them adjust
Children may never fully get over the death of a loved one, but school can help them adjust

Teachers whose pupils suffer the death of a close relative or friend should not expect them to get over the trauma with time, according to research produced by Shelley Gilbert, a child counsellor specialising in bereavement.

One in 25 British children aged between five and 16 has experienced the death of a parent or sibling. Seventy per cent of schools are therefore likely to be dealing with bereavement at any one time.

Mrs Gilbert has produced a workbook for teachers, outlining her research and advising on how to deal with bereaved pupils.

Her research suggests children do not experience the well-known "stages" of grief - denial, anger, bargaining and depression - before finally accepting the death of their loved one. The assumption is that eventually the bereaved returns to a state of equilibrium.

"Children find that an enormous burden," said Mrs Gilbert. "Six months on, they feel worse." She believes there can never be any true acceptance of loss for children. Instead, she speaks of a spiral of grief, in which anger, shock, disbelief, guilt and fear recur time and again.

The final goal is not normality, but adjustment to a life in which a significant person will always be absent. Children are allowed to grieve for the rest of their lives, with no expectation of moving on.

Pupils who feel progressively worse are nonetheless moving forward, gradually adjusting to their new circumstances. Mrs Gilbert said it is only those who find themselves stuck in a particular phase - who are constantly angry, for example - who are cause for concern.

So teachers should not assume that children who work and play happily at school have accepted their loss. "School is a safe place," said Mrs Gilbert. "But then they go home to a house full of sadness."

Worry, in particular, can haunt children. Death is suddenly a real threat, and they fear losing their remaining parent. "Teachers need to say, 'don't be late picking them up from school'," she said. "Because their imagination will run wild."

Teachers should also be wary of painting too attractive a picture of heaven: one child tried to drown himself to be with his dead sibling. Instead, they should take their cues from the children. Some express themselves through drawings or stories that feature bereavement.

"Children are very open and honest," said Mrs Gilbert. "We're putting too much pressure on them to keep feelings inside."

- The Grief Encounter workbook is at: or 020 8446 7452


- Acknowledge that death is a fact of life and will not go away.

- Appoint a school bereavement support worker to work with affected children.

- Ensure teachers are aware of relevant resources and support groups.

- Allow children to tell their own stories, even if it means deviating from the lesson plan.

- Acknowledge that death can cause separation anxiety. Some children find it helpful to take a mobile phone into school, so that their remaining parent is always within reach.

- Be alert to changes in behaviour.

- Provide time-out space if children need to be alone.

- Avoid phrases such as "she's gone to sleep". This can create bedtime fears.

- Be aware that it may be six months or a year until a child reacts to a bereavement. This is not attention-seeking.

- Remember that bereavement is ongoing and will not be over in a week, a month or even a year.

Susie and Fiona were 13 and 10 when their father was run over by a bus. Their mother, Jenny, describes the scene that followed as "like something out of The Bill". A policeman knocked on their door, told them to sit down and gave them the terrible news.

"It's all been such a crazy, ghastly pit of weirdness," said Jenny, a special needs teacher. "I had to tell my 10-year-old her father had died. It was the worst thing I've ever had to do."

The headteacher and several staff from Susie's school in central London attended the funeral. The head brought cards from all the pupils. A prominent paragraph about Susie's father was published in the school newsletter. And her subsequent involvement in events associated with his death have been similarly recognised.

By contrast, Jenny describes Fiona's north London primary as "fucking useless". Despite being self-consciously inclusive, they were unable to deal with bereavement. "The head didn't want to know," she said. "And her teacher was beastly. She just wouldn't make any allowances."

Fiona was reluctant to leave her mother and therefore took a lot of time off school. The headteacher responded by threatening to call in the local authority.

"Her father had died," said Jenny. "Instead of sending in outside agencies, someone could have asked how she was."

Both girls are now at Susie's school, where Jenny feels confident their needs will be met.

"They did everything right," she said, "and they did it naturally.

She added: "People talk about moving on, but I think that expression should be banned from the lexicon of grief. We don't want to move on. We don't want to leave him behind."

(The family's names and some details have been changed).

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