Private grief and staffroom comfort

15th September 2000 at 01:00
MANY of us are cracking on through our 40s. However, much we may wish to dismiss middle age - and I do, with ridiculous abandon - a good proportion of us will face the death of our parents, generally sooner rather than later.

How should schools cope with bereaved members of staff? Offer counselling? Some employers do. Time off? Again, a non-teaching friend who lost her mother recently was told: "Come back when you're ready." Reduced workload? It does happen in other places but not, to my knowledge, in teaching. The compassionate leave entitlement is meagre - how can you mourn the loss of a close relative in five days?

If you've been through the experience you'll know what I'm talking about. You return to school, a moment you are dreading but, in a strange way, reconciled to because there's nothing like standing in front of a class to focus the mind and so assuage, albeit temporarily, the outpourings of grief.

Death and its entourage remain securely in the closet. Schools do it no better than the rest of society. You come back, you return to the staffroom if you can face it and you are a bereaved person - not unique in any way but some people are not too sure how they should approach you.

Many words are not necessary. No one need explain that death is the ultimate brief for all of the human race. Deep philosophical comments will not be welcomed. Just "sorry" and an affectionate hug are comforting. What you don't want is no acknowledgement whatsoever that you have just experienced one of life's most painful events. Mine host-type small talk is intolerable. Maybe it's the tone that matters more than anything. Respect, I think, is important.

I didn't understand any of that until my father died 18 months ago. Because his death was during the Easter holidays I took no time off work. Only close friends from school were aware of what had happened. o the inevitable question, "Did you have a good holiday?", I had to take a deep breath and explain how my Easter holiday had been different from any other holiday I'd ever had.

But there is no way round it. If you're at work you are deemed to be fit for work. And, although I've given this some thought, I'm not coming up with any answers. Of course, there is informal support and that is crucial. But I do think that there may be a place for a more formalised system in these circumstances.

A teacher friend of mine went back to work after the loss of a close relative. Six weeks later not a single person from the senior management team has acknowledged his bereavement, never mind asking him how he is coping. It seems that his personal tragedy does not deserve any formal recognition. Yet if he was a pupil his guidance teacher would ask his teachers to treat him with sensitivity.

I would be interested in hearing how schools deal with this very thorny problem. Do school managers, for instance, keep themselves actively informed about the tragedies which may be befalling individual members of staff? Or do they rely on someone else remembering to murmur ad hoc condolences?

Most support will come, and rightly so, from outside school. One of my great comforters was my eight-year-old nephew who, experiencing grief for the first time, wanted to know everything about his grandfather's death. He is a fanatical follower of football. The conversation went something like this:

"Were you with grandpa when he died in Aberdeen Hospital?" Yes, I replied.

Very casually but choosing his words carefully he followed with another question. "Did you see Pitodrie?" His spontaneity and his unintentional levity made me laugh at a time when I needed to. That's a family's prerogative but schools should nevertheless consider how they might help bereaved staff.

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