When bereavement happens, it happens everywhere, infiltrating all parts of the lives of those left behind with its many and varied effects. So imagine how much more turbulent the experience of grief can be when it’s mixed with the inner tumult of emotional growing pains, peer pressure, self-discovery and the desire to fit in. Because in the case of bereaved children and young people, it’s almost inevitable that a significant amount of time spent contending with difficult feelings will occur in and around school. Grief isn’t something you can leave at the gates or hide in your locker. So, what’s it like to deal with bereavement in schools?

When writing this blog, I was lucky enough to speak to someone with extensive first-hand knowledge of the subject. Jane is a qualified Children and Young Person’s Bereavement Counsellor with 25 years of practical, professional experience under her belt, much of it in schools. She’s worked with children aged from two right up to eighteen. In her particular line of work the starting point within a school is typically through contact with a head teacher or their deputy, who know that a pupil has either lost a loved one, or has one nearing the end of their life. She finds that pupils are more than willing to accommodate her and her fellow counsellors, as they’re well known within her local area and there’s great respect for their work.

The grief counselling takes shape with children able to have sessions at school or at home, though many choose to be seen at school. Home visits do happen, but can prove difficult due to the confidentiality of relationships, plus suitable spaces in houses can be a tricky thing to find. This flexibility also allows more children to be seen, because if it was a case of working after school hours, only two meet-ups per day would be possible, at most. More importantly, the support is of real benefit to those it’s provided for. The schools worked with tell of the various positive outcomes they notice as a result, for example: a difference in pupil attendance, greater class harmony and a wider sense of ease amongst pupils (a grieving child, after all, can affect a whole class and class learning).

The problems faced by bereaved children in schools are manyfold, as you might expect. They can include isolation from a peer group; poor school attendance, often because of a lack of motivation or sleeping problems; deterioration in school work; bullying, when a bereaved pupil is noticeably different; low energy from a lack of eating; and periods of vulnerability, when they’re showing strong feelings. Being at risk of such difficulties only serves to underline the importance of having access to good sources of support.

Aside from counsellors then, what forms of assistance do bereaved school-kids tend to have open to them? There are large organisations like Child Bereavement UK, charities like Place2Be, as well as different local initiatives around the country. Then there are more recent routes for help, including digital approaches like our very own Apart of Me. Jane admits that she hadn’t heard of Apart of Me before agreeing to share some of her experiences, but is happy to hear of fresh approaches that young people can use to try and understand and move through bereavement. Having used a lot of play-based therapy, largely because young children often lack the language to describe dark and difficult feelings, she knows that relevant forms of play can be a really good way of helping them.

Teachers play a big role regarding bereavement in schools too, of course. They usually have some basic training in dealing with a pupil who has experienced a death in the family, but obviously don’t have the time to offer long-term, face-to-face counselling. It can often be difficult for staff in a school setting, as they usually have large classes and limited resources to deal with. Some schools do offer their pupils the chance to take time out of class when things get too difficult and this can be of great benefit, especially if it means they feel that they’ve been listened to and understood.

Good listening, as ever when it comes to bereavement, is vitally important. After all, there’s no blanket support network for grieving children in school settings, so the onus arguably falls on everyone else to play a part, where possible and appropriate. A small gesture, a comforting presence or a set of attentive ears can go some way to making a difference. Nonetheless, supporting a bereaved child in school is a daunting prospect for many. The awkwardness of not knowing what to say. The fear of saying the wrong thing. The guilt of saying nothing at all. A key lesson Jane has drawn from her experiences is useful here: that grief is a very individual process and people deal with it in different ways and at different stages from each other, so they should always be met as individuals. In other words, everyone grieves in their own manner and there’s no right or wrong way. So don’t worry about what’s to be said, what’s vital is affording pupils a place to be heard.

Let’s leave the final word to young people who have direct experience of loss themselves. A number of pupils from a high school in Scotland used their first-hand encounters with grief to inform and develop a poster. Its aim was to provide practical advice regarding what people can do to best support pupils who are going through a difficult time following the loss of a loved one. Surely nobody can explain what’s important to bereaved school-age children more eloquently than those who created this range of simple and honest insights, which you can read below.

  1. Keep me up to date with course work. Please put it together in a folder for me so it’s easy to follow.
  2. Please let me know my rights and what help I am able to get from school.
  3. Reach out to me. Don’t come to me in a formal way as this can be stressful.
  4. Keep me up to date with what’s going on in school.
  5. Offer extra study sessions if possible.
  6. Be aware that I might not be thinking straight and I will find it difficult to focus.
  7. Don’t make assumptions on how I feel or how I should feel.
  8. Don’t dilute how I feel by telling me things will be OK.
  9. Don’t assume I want people to know.
  10. Don’t assume that I am coping because I have a smile on my face.
  11. I might miss classes - don’t think bad of me.
  12. If I act out, think about why this might be.
  13. I don’t want to explain my situation to every teacher - can you do this for me.
  14. Don’t put too much pressure on me. “If you don’t do this you won’t pass”
  15. People make fun of me because my parent is dying or has died. Please deal with this more severely.
  16. Think about what you are teaching, will this impact on me?
  17. If I get out of bed and come to school, this is a massive achievement for me.
  18. Being a teenager is stressful but having a parent who is ill or who has died makes everything so much worse. Sitting beside people in classes who go out of their way to hurt me makes a significant impact on me. I’m already fighting every day internally. Please be aware of this.
  19. People talking about cancer and making assumptions based on things they have read which may not be accurate can be very hard to deal with.
  20. Don’t act weird around me.
  21. Don’t project your sadness on me.
  22. Take me to the side and acknowledge me and what has happened.
  23. Check in with my friends, see how they are doing.
  24. Be aware of individual pupil profiles and who has access to these and what information is on it.

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