Helping Students Cope With Grief

Connection with a warm, non-judgmental adult makes all the difference.

As a school counselor, I was often in a position to connect with children dealing with the loss of a loved one. Most often, that loss was a pet, but sometimes, my students were grieving an older relative, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent. Occasionally, the loss was much closer to home, like the death of a parent or sibling. 

While classroom teachers usually made sure their grieving students at least touched base with me, I wasn’t always their confidante. Some children preferred to confide in their classroom teachers, while others preferred not to talk at all. Some kids benefited from extra time with the art teacher, music teacher, gym teacher, or custodian. Ultimately, connecting with a warm, non-judgmental adult was the key to helping these students work through their grief.

As Christian educators, we got into this business because we care about kids, and this last year has been heartbreaking for all of us. We’re not only grieving losses in the traditional sense, but also the loss of connection, opportunity, and the normalcy we all took for granted a year and a half ago.

As Christian educators, we got into this business because we care about kids.

Obviously, we want to support our students. But, when faced with a grieving child, we may feel unsure, questioning our words and actions. What should I say? What should I do? What shouldn’t I say? What shouldn’t I do? 

Aside from acknowledging the loss with sincerity and offering to lend an ear, educators can keep the following guidelines in mind when connecting with a grieving student:

Reassure the child. One of my main goals as a counselor was to help my students accept their feelings as normal. While this may sound silly, children often need this reassurance. Having no frame of reference for profound loss, kids are often confused by emotions they may not be able to name or describe and fearful that what they are feeling is wrong or bad. 

Understand the different emotions associated with grief. Grief doesn’t always look sad. Instead, it often brings a spectrum of emotions. A grieving child may be angry or irritable or tearful or tired. While children still need to be accountable for their actions (it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit a classmate), they may need help navigating a variety of unexpected—and sometimes foreign—emotions.

Follow the child’s lead. Children’s responses will vary by personality. Some students are quiet and withdrawn when they return to school after the loss of a loved one, while others seem to crave business as usual. It’s important to allow time to heal, but it’s also important not to treat the bereaved with kid gloves because children can greatly benefit from having a place where nothing has changed when everything around them feels different.

Some children preferred to confide in their classroom teachers, while others preferred not to talk at all.

Play the good news close to the vest. Understanding that a loved one is in a better place may ease the pain, but it doesn’t fill the void. Well-intentioned reminders that a loved one is with the Lord may be more guilt-inducing than comforting, causing the person who’s grieving to question whether or not it’s okay to be sad about a loss that everyone else seems to think is a good thing.

Read a good book together. While there are a lot of newer books that deal with specific losses, my favorite was always the Judith Viorst classic, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. When Barney the cat dies, his young owner’s mother advises him to think of ten good things about Barney as a way of easing (but not erasing) his sadness. On several occasions, I let students take the book home to read with their parents, creating a discussion starter for families struggling with loss together.

Keep it low-key. A smile, a nod, or a listening ear can help a child make the transition into his or her new normal. Avoid hovering. Instead, check in at key points during the day (or week, depending on your role and the child’s personality) and make sure the child knows how and when to access his or her preferred confidante. For significant losses, keep in contact with the family so that the home plan and the school plan are in sync.

It takes time to ease the anguish that accompanies loss.

Acknowledge the power of time. As anyone who has ever been through a loss can attest, there’s no shortcut through grief. It is a process. It takes time to ease the anguish that accompanies loss. I used to tell my students they might not notice that time was helping until one day they realized they didn’t feel as sad as they had before. 

Be patient. Feelings don’t occur on a predictable timetable. The child who’s fine in the morning may fall apart at the end of the day, or the child who seems to have worked through the grieving process might have a difficult, emotional day for no particular reason months down the road. In addition, certain dates, celebrations, events, or even sights, sounds, and smells can trigger an unexpected emotional reaction, mystifying the child just as much as they mystify you. Give the child time and space to regain control, followed by an opportunity to express feelings in the way that’s most natural for them. 

Pray for the grieving student. As Christian educators, we can minister to the heart of a grieving student by asking the Holy Spirit to bring peace and comfort. While we may not be able to pray with a student, we can pray for a student with confidence that our prayers are powerful and effective (James 5:16).

Sound complicated? It’s not, really. Keep these guidelines in mind, let go of the “shoulds,” and let your heart and your relationship with the child take the lead. Kids know sincerity when they see it. Treat them with love and respect, and you can’t go wrong.

A retired school counselor, Lisa Lawmaster Hess teaches psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. Lisa is the author of Acting Assertively, Diverse Divorce, and three novels. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

Dealing with your own grief? Grief is the God-designed (and Jesus-demonstrated) way to handle pain—the pain of death and the multitude of life’s big and small losses, including those due to the pandemic. Unprocessed, pain piles up and spills out in hurtful, destructive ways, and it diminishes joy, intimacy, and connection. Educators can learn more about grief, loss, transition, and ways to engage with God and emotion from Janice Tarleton’s Rise Up Renewed session “Educators and Grief: If Jesus wept, then why don’t I?” 
Rise Up Renewed is a free online conference for Christian educators serving in both private and public schools. Join live October 22–23 and on demand October 21–26. Register for FREE!


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