School-based support and increased understanding are essential when a student experiences the death of a friend or loved one. Grief is personal; there is no right or wrong way to grieve. How people grieve can be influenced by developmental level, cultural beliefs, personal characteristics, family situation, and previous experiences. Grief is often characterized by sadness, emotional pain, and introspection in adults while children’s grief reactions differ according to age and development.
Be understanding and tolerant of common grief reactions listed below. Students sometimes also feel anger toward the deceased for leaving them. Be simple and straightforward. Discuss death in developmentally appropriate terms for students.
Avoid euphemisms as preschoolers have trouble understanding death and may believe that death is reversible.
Provide opportunities to express thoughts and feelings about death through play activities and drawing.
Answer questions using concrete descriptions and be prepared to repeatedly answer questions.
Possible reactions may include: crying and screaming, clinging to caregivers or other trusted adults, fear of separation, regressive behaviors such as wetting pants and thumb sucking and decreased verbalization.
These students may ask questions and seek to try to understand what happened. Be patient and refer them to adults that can answer their questions, they are seeking facts.
Students below the age of eight may engage in magical thinking and believe they could have prevented the death. Recognize these feelings and fears but do not validate them.
Students ages nine through twelve may feel less comfortable showing feelings and seeing expressions of grief in others. Make sure to provide these students with a variety of ways to express grief.
Possible reactions may include: behavioral difficulties, decreased concentration, poor school performance, depression, irritability, social withdrawal, aggression, anxiety, guilt, depression, repeated re-telling of the event and somatic complaints (headaches & stomach aches).
Do not force students to share their feelings with others, including their peers if they do not feel comfortable. Provide them with opportunities to share their feelings privately.
Students in early-to-mid teens often seek support via social media. Be aware of what is being posted and shared. Encourage students to seek support for a friend in need and to tell an adult if a friend needs help.
Students in their mid-to-late teens tend to feel more comfortable expressing their feelings and grief similar to adults.
High school students may use physical contact to show their support and empathy (e.g., hugging or touching the arm) ∙ Possible reactions may include: poor school performance, anxiety, depression, high risk behaviors or substance use, emotional numbing, nightmares, flashbacks and suicidal thoughts.
Grieving is a normal response to loss, but may require some support. Additional assistance should be provided when the following are noted:
Marked loss of interest in daily activities
Changes in eating and sleeping habits
Wishing to be with the deceased loved one
Fear of being alone
Significant decreases in academic performance and achievement
Increased somatic complaint
Thoughts or ideas of suicide
*Amended from National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) School Safety and Crisis Response Committee (2015) Addressing grief: Tips for teachers and Administrators. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.