When bereavements happen


Most students experience a bereavement before the age of 16. Would you be able to support them? Phil Parker lists some basic rules to follow.

Several schools I work with have asked that I produce tutorial resources to bring school-wide recognition to the issue of childhood bereavement. 

Up to 70 per cent of schools will have a bereaved student on their role at any one time and 92 per cent of students experience a “significant” bereavement before they are 16.

I took on the challenge because of my own experiences. The day my son started school was the same day my mother died. It meant him facing two huge challenges in the same day, aged 5. Looking back I don’t think we coped well, it was a new experience to us all. Where’s the Bereavement Manual to tell you what to say or do? 

Many years later, I had a student whose family home burned down. He and his mother survived but his three siblings did not. The lad went into meltdown. He’d considered himself “the man of the house” with no adult male around; therefore he believed he’d failed to protect his siblings. 

It meant a steep learning curve for me, as the person who became his rock in the maelstrom his life had become. Again, there was no manual available to help me support this lad.

A six-foot year 11 student broke down in uncontrollable tears in my office after he’d been abusive to a teacher. He’d bottled up his grief because, as he put it, that’s what men did. I got him talking eventually, opening up about his feelings, his role and what the bereavement meant to him. He came back two days later and thanked me profusely for my support. He kept returning for a month after that “just for a chat”. It’s time-consuming of course, but we sometimes need to make time. So, what are you supposed to do? Here are some points to consider:

Provide normality

Routine helps and school offers that. It is a safe place where life goes on and where the bereaved child can process what’s happening a little more objectively. It will take time, allowances need to be made, perhaps for months.

Provide relief

Home will likely be an emotionally charged place, relatives and friends visiting to offer support can only exacerbate the situation for the child. School is a place to escape that.

Provide an outlet

Having said that, the child might hide their real feelings so as not to upset others, this is what boys do especially. Therefore school may be where grief is expressed. When this happens...

  • Listen to them, be available to listen, let them talk.

  • Don’t offer platitudes, no matter how tempting it is. It can suggest you don’t understand or worse, you don’t care.

  • Share your own experiences if you can, let them know you empathise. Your story helps validate theirs.

  • Talk about the dead person, encourage memories to be shared, it helps keep the person “alive”. “Good” memories help the child cling to positives when negatives are in danger of ruling the day.

  • Reassure them that they are not responsible. Grief can be linked to blame and it turns into a negative spiral.

  • Don’t judge how the child processes grief, we do it differently.

Communicate with the home

A lot. Family members will be concerned for the child and want reassurance they’re not suffering at school. So:

  • Let home know how the day has gone in the early stages (later this can be extended to a weekly report).

  • Share successes – such as grief finally getting expressed, memory-sharing without tears. It’s about progress – teachers are good at spotting its signs!

  • Be ready to be a counsellor to people at home, they will want to talk too.

And finally...

These points are the basis of the Bereavement Manual. Most important? Be ready to listen, to encourage the bereaved child to talk. As a society we often struggle to do this, we feel awkward in case we say or do the wrong thing. Yet for the child, they may well be looking for someone, outside of the family, with whom they want to grieve. Give them the chance.

  • Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader of a successful school, is a director of Student Coaching, which works with schools eager to develop rounded young people by transforming the way people learn. Visit www.studentcoaching.co.uk



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