The Washington Post recently wrote an article about schools talking about death with their elementary age students. Heflebower Funeral and Cremation Services thinks it is an important topic. In this particular school, a teacher was dying from cancer, but we also know of fellow students who die from disease or a tragic accident.
Bridge to Terabithia, a novel released in 1977, and a Disney movie adaptation released in 2007, is a story that broaches the subject of dealing with death as a young person. And although it may be a sad or even morbid topic, I think it is important to give students a place to express their feelings, especially because they may not have someone at home to talk to about death, dying or illness. Some kids may have lost a pet or a grandparent, giving them experience with grief and the death process, while others may not. Studies show most students will experience grief before age 18.
“Children affected by death can experience anxiety, depression, regression, nightmares, bed-wetting, and poor school performance. As any bereavement specialist will say, it’s in the best interest of the students for schools to help the staff learn to honestly and openly answer questions about death and to provide a safe place for students’ conversations.”
The grief process may look differently for kids as it does for adults. They need to know what they are feeling is normal, and they need to be able to process their feelings rather than suppressing them or acting out in inappropriate ways. A New York Life Study of grieving kids showed that over 40% of kids reported that they were making decisions that weren’t good for them after the loss.
Acknowledging death can be tricky, especially when it is in the face of a tragedy where kids can feel unsafe. They may worry that they can ‘catch’ cancer or that the same bad thing someone else experienced can happen to them. The way you talk about death with a student will have a lot to do with the age and maturity of the audience.
Some tips from the US Department of Education are:
Acknowledge the Loss
- Start a statement with: “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”
- Next, ask a helpful permission based question such as: “Is there something I can do to be helpful?”
- Finally, express empathy and support such as:
- “I can only imagine what you are going through.”
- “I understand it may be difficult to concentrate. If you find it difficult to do school work, let’s talk about that so we can make it easier for you.”
- “Please know I am here if you want to talk.”
These may sound helpful, but avoid:
- Don’t try to ‘cheer the person up’
- Minimizing the loss with statements like:
- “Well, they had a good life.”
- “You will get over it soon.”
- Don’t encourage hiding feelings or not expressing themselves including:
- “Don’t cry or you will upset the other students.”
Suggestions to encourage discussion about death at school:
Small group discussions
Setting apart a special area for remembrance
Offering ongoing support and recognizing persons who need it
Grief support groups
Death, illness, tragedy are all topics difficult to talk about, but they are important. Heflebower Funeral and Cremation Services offers several resources for children experiencing grief, helping children deal with pet loss and more. Let us know how we can support you.