Back to School After COVID-19 Part II: Schools Must Address Grief as Students Return to School

By Kaela Farrise, CEI Program Assistant, Innovation & Research Support

This is the second part of the special series Back to School After COVID-19. View Part I here.

As schools reopen, it is essential to specifically consider and address feelings of grief and loss among students and staff. Some students and teachers will be grieving for a family member, friend, or other loved one who died. Others will be grappling with the loss of missed experiences, the loss of sense of community and connection to school due to physical isolation, or even the loss or change in relationships with friends, teachers, or support staff during the course of this pandemic. As difficult and painful as it may be, schools must find a way to recognize those who died of COVID-19, as well as those who will not be returning to the school community for other reasons such as graduating, moving away, or transitioning to homeschool. Many school members were also likely impacted by the news of deaths of Black people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, as well as the ensuing protests and the movement that rose up in response. When putting together a plan for reopening, schools must work to address and support all members of their communities.

What Grief Looks Like in Schools

Some period of grief during the transition back to school will likely happen for a large number of students. In a study assessing the mental health impacts of quarantine and isolation on children impacted by H1N1, SARS or Avian influenza, Sprang and Silman (2013) found that one third of children began mental health treatment related to their experience during or after the pandemic and 16.7% of those children were diagnosed with grief. As students return to school, many will be able to move through their grief and sense of loss without individual intervention as school routines are reestablished and connections are formed and rebuilt. However, some segment of the student population may need more intensive intervention to help them process their emotions.

Recognizing Grief in Children

Grief may show up differently in kids than it does in adults (Pearlman et. al, 2014).

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) (2015), children may display grief through:

  • Regressive behaviors
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anger at the deceased
  • Decreased verbalization, attention and concentration, academic performance, or attendance
  • Increased anxiety, irritability, aggression, or high risk behaviors 
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Somatic complaints, including stomachs and headaches
  • Sleep or eating disturbances
  • Repeated re-telling of the event

Teachers, school administrators, and other support staff can also understand the differences between children who are moving through grief in a healthy way and those who need additional support in managing their grief reactions. There are a number of resources available to help school staff intervene quickly to support students who need it. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2018) notes that signs of students who may need further intervention include those who:

  • Exhibit the symptoms above for an extended period of time
  • Excessively imitate the dead person
  • Believe they are talking to or seeing the deceased family member for an extended period of time
  • Express suicidal ideation

Provide Space to Talk About Loss

Teachers, school administrators, and other school staff can help students and staff to process their feelings related to grief and loss by providing structured space for these kinds of conversations. In doing so, they set a tone for all to share what they are feeling in a safe and comfortable way. When students know they have permission to share about how they are feeling and are encouraged to do so, the grieving process is better supported. School staff should be prepared to talk with students about grief in a developmentally appropriate, but straightforward, way that focuses on facts and does not use euphemisms that may confuse children (NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee, 2015). Schools can engage professional counseling staff in individual and group sessions to help everyone in the school community process the pandemic experience. Remember, too, school staff are facing grief and loss right now. Accordingly, an emphasis on self-care and supporting school staff directly through connection, communication, and collaboration will ensure they are prepared to face the social and emotional challenges in the year ahead. 

Give Options for Those Who Do Not Want to Talk

Knowing that people process grief and loss in different ways and that some students may not feel comfortable talking about their grief at school, teachers and administrators can provide a number of different ways for the community to participate. Teachers and counselors can create opportunities for writing, doing art projects, listening to music, and playing games for those who do not want to share their experiences verbally. During a school assembly, administrators might hold a moment of silence for those no longer with the community.

The NASP (2015) developed guidelines for teachers and administrators to address grief in the school building. They include:

  • Listen, acknowledge feelings, and be nonjudgmental.
  • Express your own feelings in an open, calm, and appropriate way that encourages students to share their feelings and grief.
  • Be simple and straightforward. Discuss death in developmentally appropriate terms for students. Use words such as “death,” “die,” or “dying” in your conversations and avoid euphemisms such as “they went away,” “they are sleeping,” “departed,” and “passed away.”
  • A variety of feelings are normal. Be sensitive to each student’s experience, as there is no one right way to respond to a loss. Feelings and behaviors will vary across students and will change throughout the bereavement process.
  • Normalize expressed feelings by telling students such are common after a death. However, if their expressions include risk to self (e.g., suicidal thoughts) or others, refer immediately to the appropriate professionals.
  • Be sensitive to cultural differences of students and their families in expressing grief and honoring the dead.
  • Help bereaved students find a peer support group. There will likely be others who have also experienced the death of a loved one.
  • Maintain a normal routine in your classroom and engage students in activities they previously enjoyed.

Re-establish Routine and Connection

As schools reopen, they will do well to plan for rituals to acknowledge the losses their communities have experienced. A crucial part of supporting students and staff through grief and loss is helping the community to return to a place of predictability. Routine and structure help children to feel safe in processing intense feelings and moving through grief. While some students will be returning to a familiar place, others may be going to a new school or new classroom when schools reopen. Teachers, administrators, and other staff can assist with these transitions by providing space to acknowledge what has happened whenever possible. All members of your school community need the sense of safety, routine, and belonging that prime brains for learning. Cultivating a compassionate school community helps schools achieve that sense of safety and help schools get back to the business of learning.

Grief is an understandable reaction to the sudden loss of a school or classroom community from the previous school year, educators or students who have moved, and/or the death of a family member or a member of the school community. Providing space and time for students and staff to grieve in whatever ways they need can contribute to feelings of safety and well-being. At the same time, it is important to find a new rhythm and connection with the changed school community they are in now. Through finding moments of joy and building a sense of belonging through shared routines, the grieving process can result in collective growth. For more support, visit the MHTTC Network’s Responding to COVID-19 Grief, Loss, and Bereavement webpage where resources for addressing COVID-19-related grief are continually updated.

References

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2018). Grief and children

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2015). Addressing grief: Brief facts and tips.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. (2015). Addressing grief: Tips for teachers and administrators. National Association of School Psychologists.

Pearlman, L. A., Wortman, C., Feuer, C., Farber, C. & Rando, T. (2014). Treating traumatic bereavement: A practitioner’s guide. The Guilford Press.

Sprang, G. & Silman, M. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder in parents and youth after health-related disasters. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 7(1), 105-110.

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