Kaea Kaiser, Guest Author
Although we tend to romanticize youth as a time of joy and play, the reality for many children is far more somber. Before the pandemic, surveys showed that 1 in 14 students lost a parent before turning 18. In the wake of the pandemic, these tragic instances have only become more common (NEA, 2021). Recent estimates reveal that about 140,000 children have lost either a parent or grandparent since the pandemic began. This means that for every four COVID-related deaths, a child has been left grieving for a lost loved one. And given that even those students who haven’t experienced firsthand loss likely know friends who have, the grief can be virtually inescapable.
Now, while grief and loss are inevitable parts of life, they are also not struggles that students should be left to manage by themselves. Although many students are able to process their pain and grow from it in time, the majority need guidance and compassion to see such dire circumstances through. Considering that most students spend a large chunk of their time at school, it is essential that school staff provide guidance and act as supportive allies in times of hardship.
How Grief and Loss Affects Students
Unfortunately, grief and loss inevitably seep into every aspect of a student’s life. In school, in many cases, this can mean exhibiting behavior that may easily be misconstrued as “slacking off.”
According to research based on college students’ reactions to loss (Sweet, 2021), students are likely to show avoidance reactions, which might mean abrupt changes in completing assignments and eagerness to learn. These reactions can amount to the student trying to forget about loss, or exhibiting flat-out denial
College students may feel a lack of control as a result of experiencing grief. This can often trigger uncontrollable reactions like suddenly crying, or more avoidance symptoms like missing classes or not participating in group activities.
Over time, grief and loss, particularly if students are not supported, can lead to anxiety and depression disorders that will ultimately color students’ lives, both personally and at school. To avoid this sort of escalation, psychologists highly recommend that interventions be made early and by those close to the students –– such as school staff.
The Role of School Staff in Dealing with Students’ Loss
Sadly, as indicated in recent interviews with actively serving school counselors (Collins, 2019), most schools take a more conservative approach to student grief and loss. Typically, this means simply keeping “an eye” on students. When this happens, many students feel like they’re expected to simply keep up with school and not appear to be affected by their grief, since nobody is reaching out anyway. To prevent this from snowballing, school staff need to begin playing a more active role in grief processing.
For starters, schools can turn to school counselors and mental health providers working with schools to brief their colleagues and lead relevant interventions. Background training in family dynamics can be useful, as often grief and loss are processed within the family, which is why highly-attuned professionals can aid in recognizing manifestations of grief early. With the plethora of grief, loss, and mental health concerns facing countries around the world, schools are being encouraged to prioritize mental health initiatives in general. This is especially true among schools with younger students, since they process grief differently.
Schools can help students by introducing effective grief counseling for children (Maryville University, n.d.), which allows students to better understand the loss they’ve experienced and develop rituals to cope and honor lost loved ones. Furthermore, by introducing nuanced grief counseling techniques into school systems, children can also learn to digest their experiences in relation to their culture and belief systems, without feeling pressured or micromanaged by those around them. In this way, schools can better help children heal and move forward with a strong foundation of coping and healing that will continue to be useful through adolescence and even adulthood.
An Equity Lens
Today, many schools are already refocusing school-based mental health support (Padgett & Staeheli, 2022) through an equity lens that highlights the holistic wellness of students. Whereas previous mental health efforts in schools tended to focus more on specific disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, today’s supports have broader considerations. This leads to more students having easy access to critical assistance. In the long run, these efforts are aimed at providing more trained educators, more clubs, and more activities that help students feel less alone and more understood in their unique circumstances.
Ultimately, grief and loss will inevitably affect every student at some point. However, the long-lasting trauma associated with these struggles can be mitigated. Gone are the days when school staff are expected to simply observe grieving students. Instead, with school staff increasingly well-positioned to uphold a mindful and healthy culture, educators can help constructively shape how students learn to process and move forward from their pain.
Collins, C. (2019, September 17). Why do schools ignore kids who are grieving or scared? Medium.
Flannery, M. E. (2021, November 01). When students grieve, how can educators help? NEA.
Maryville University. (n.d.). What Is grief counseling? Techniques and how it helps. Maryville University.
Padgett, I., & Staeheli, M. (2022, February 25). Refocusing school-based mental health with an equity lens: Support, engage, empower. Compassion Action, 3, 1.
Sweet, J. (2021, July 09). Grief surges among college students during the pandemic, study shows. Verywell Mind.