Death - and how to deal with it

13th April 2007 at 01:00
Alison Pennyworks with the Childhood Bereavement Network

Sitting in a science lesson, 15-year-old Craig (not his real name) got an unwelcome surprise. "My head of year walked in and said, 'Craig, can you come with me?' I thought I'd done something wrong. I thought I was in trouble, serious trouble."

Things were much worse than Craig had thought: his mum, grandmother and granddad were there to tell him his dad had just died.

Craig's experience is not rare. One in 25 children and young people in school have been bereaved of a parent, brother or sister. Many more are bereaved of a grandparent, friend, teacher or someone else close to them.

The impact of a significant bereavement is devastating and can affect every aspect of children's lives: their learning, health, behaviour and relationships. Even getting to school can be a challenge.

Children may be anxious that other significant people will die too and can find it difficult to leave them for the day. They may take on new responsibilities following the death of a parent, which means they have less time for school.

Being at school is hard too: feelings of anger and sadness can be overwhelming in the classroom and the playground, and concentration is difficult to maintain when there really are matters of life and death to think about. Shockingly, some young people are bullied as a direct result of being bereaved.

Teachers and other school staff may feel anxious about how to support bereaved pupils. They may be afraid of making things worse, of upsetting the child or feeling overwhelmed themselves. Some may react by saying nothing at all. But the worst thing has already happened, and children need to have their feelings acknowledged.

By opening up a conversation with the child and the family, school staff can offer choices and find out what feels appropriate at that time. For example, some children will want their whole class to have been told about a death before they return to school; others will prefer to tell just a small group of friends to start with. Pastoral support systems need to be flexible to meet the cultural, religious and personal needs of children and their families.

Most teachers already have the skills to support bereaved pupils in the classroom, and simply need more confidence. Some schools have excellent systems for helping pupils to manage the impact of death on their lives. A few days after Craig's father died, he went back to school. His head of year let him know that, if things got too much, he could go home at any time or just come out of a lesson and have a break. He says he found that really helpful.

Practical ideas like this will be shared at a conference in Edinburgh on May 1, organised by the Childhood Bereavement Network and Children in Scotland and involving young people as well as professionals. The event is part of the network's "Grief matters for children" campaign, funded by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. For more details of the campaign and to book a place, visit www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk

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