Back to School with Grief
by Dougy Center
It’s August which means many families are preparing for the start of school. When families are also grieving, this transition can bring a mixture relief, dread, excitement, and trepidation.
Much like work for adults, children and teens spend a majority of their time at school, and they take their grief with them. For some children and teens, returning to school is comforting. They find support in the structure, familiarity, connections with friends, and the opportunity to focus on something other than grief. For others though, it can be a challenging venture that brings additional stress, uncertainty, and worry. What to think through and how to help depends on a number of factors. How old is your child and what grade are they in? Who died in their life and what was their relationship? How did the person die? When did the loss occur? There’s no formula for how the answers to these questions affect someone’s grief, but they are important to consider as you sort through how to best support your child or teen in returning to school.
No matter our age, we engage with grief on many levels: emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioral. Whether it’s the emotional ups and downs of relating with peers, focusing on schoolwork, or having to talk about family culture and beliefs for a project, school can be a place that connects with multiple facets of grief. If a death or other loss occurred over the summer, returning to school can be extremely charged. Even for those who are familiar with being in school while grieving, each year brings new challenges and milestones to face without the person who died.
Transitions can be difficult for anyone, but especially so for those who are grieving. As your family moves from the rhythm of summer to school, children and teens may be worried, irritable, or overwhelmed. You can help with this transition by planning ahead and talking with them about upcoming changes related to bed/wake up times, chores, pick-up/drop-off routines, homework expectations, and after school activities. If your child has first day fears about finding their way around or what their teacher(s) will be like, see if you can arrange a time the week before school starts to take a tour and even meet the staff. Knowing what to expect can be reassuring for both children and teens.
One of students’ biggest back to school concerns is wondering who knows about the death and what details they have. If the death happened over the summer, or if your child is going to a new school, ask what they would like shared with teachers and classmates. Your child’s first instinct might be to keep the death a secret. Often they fear being treated differently or being seen as “the kid whose (parent/caregiver/sibling) died.” While it’s important to honor your child’s wishes, talk with them about the challenges of trying to keep the loss a secret. Doing so takes a lot of energy and can limit their ability to open up with friends. The other side is when teachers know your child is grieving, they are better equipped to be supportive and understanding. Depending on the size of your school community, it’s possible that other students already know about the death, whether from social media or the adults in their lives. Given that, talk with your child about the power of being able to tell their own story, rather than people finding out in other ways. For younger children this could mean a teacher telling the class, with or without your child present. With older students, offer to talk with their teachers and also forecast with them what it will be like to tell friends that someone in their life has died.
There are many casual conversations where family and friends may come up. Anything from “What do your parents do?” to “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” to “Why do your grandparents pick you up after school?” can catch your child off guard. It’s helpful for them to have ideas ahead of time for how to respond. We’ve heard over and over how awkward it is for students to return to school and be met with a flurry of “I’m sorry for your loss,” and hugs from classmates they’ve never really talked to before. Teens in particular are sensitive to what they consider to be saccharine sympathy (“Oh you poor thing,”) or people trying to relate by saying, “I know how you feel, my dog died last year.” There’s also the challenge of offhand comments which can be particularly painful for grieving students. Examples include: “This class is killing me,” “My mom is driving me crazy, sometimes I wish she would just die,” and “I’m so bored, I could shoot myself.” Again, it’s useful to talk with your child about these types of comments and strategize replies that work for them. Depending on how the person died, there can be additional challenges related to how other people respond. This is particularly true for deaths that are traditionally met with societal stigma such as suicide, murder, and drug overdose. As one teen in our groups shared, “The challenge with suicide is there are a lot more ways for people to be insensitive about it.” Talking openly with your child about the death and answering their questions is a great way to help them feel more comfortable and secure when faced with judgment from others.
Here are a few other general back to school aspects to consider:
1. Make a difficult day safety plan: Throughout the year, there will be months and days that are more difficult than others. Often these coincide with the approach of significant days. It could be your child’s birthday or the birthday of the person who died, the anniversary not only of the day someone died, but also any other events connected to the death such as a diagnosis, hospital stay, or “first and lasts” (ex. first volleyball tournament since the death, the last time the person who died was at a school event, first field trip without the person there to chaperone, etc.). No matter the time of year, it’s helpful for children and teens to have a difficult day safety plan in place. Talk with your child first to identify what they need when they feel overwhelmed. Then, collaborate with teachers, counselors, and administrators to identify strategies for your child to access that support. This might look like figuring out a teacher, counselor, or other staff that your child feels safe with and making a plan for how they can leave their classroom to check in with that person. One family used a pebble system where the student could silently place a pebble on the teacher’s desk as a sign that they were going to walk down to the office for a short break with a counselor. Even if your child never implements their difficult day safety plan, it can be very reassuring to have one in place.
2. Find ways for children and teens to check in with you or other caregivers: After a death, children and teens often fear something will happen to other people in their lives. Going the entire school day without a check-in can be a lot to ask, especially in the first few months after a death. Talk with your child and school staff about how they can check in with you or others at certain times throughout the day. This can be a simple as a quick phone call at the school office or a lunch time text.
3. Plan drop-off and pick-up routines: If the person who died was a part of a child’s drop-off and pick-up routine, those times of day can be especially difficult. Ask your child ahead of time about these and talk about possible options to problem-solve their concerns. Some will want to keep things as routine as possible while others may want to try out something totally new. Nine-year-old Maya was used to walking her little sister to class every morning. When her sister died over the summer, Maya dreaded walking into school without her sister there to hold her hand. After a few conversations, she and her father realized if Maya could be ready to leave ten minutes early, her father could walk her into school and still get to work on time.
4. Talk about after school rituals: Similar to drop-off/pick-up routines, what after school activities are affected by the death? Is your child used to having a snack and going to the park with his grandmother every day? Did your teen go over to her best friend’s house to work on homework? Not knowing what it will be like can be the hardest part of grief, so work together to come up with an after school plan. This gives your child a chance to talk about what they will miss and be part of coming up with new alternatives they can look forward to.
5. Address challenges with concentration, memory, and school assignments: Grief can take a toll on our ability to focus and complete tasks. As one teen shared, “Thinking about my sister’s death took up all of my brain space, there wasn’t any room left for algebra.” Many people say they struggle to remember anything from moment to moment, leaving them in need of multiple reminders and strategies to stay organized. The same is true for students. Work with your child and their teacher(s) to come up with ideas for trying to focus and keeping track of schoolwork. One fifth grader picked a homework buddy who promised to check in at the end of the day to make sure he had all the correct worksheets and would also call every night after dinner to see if he had questions about the assignments.
6. Make time for recreation, play, and friends: Grieving students are still children and teens who need time for rest, relaxation, and fun. When school and work get hectic, making plans for connecting and fun can be quickly put aside in an effort to get everything done. Play is how children, especially young children, process and integrate what is happening in their world. If the person who died was an integral part of their play and fun, it’s helpful to be aware that they might be worried about who will do those activities with them now. If your child had a weekend tradition of watching movies or playing video games with their brother, ask if that is something they want to continue to do with someone else or if it’s too painful at this point. Let children know it’s okay to keep traditions or change them up completely. Sometimes a loss can leave a parent or caregiver with significantly less time and financial resources for recreation and play. If this is true, are there people in your community who can step in to help? For many children, knowing they have dedicated time to spend with the adults they care about, no matter the activity, is the most important thing. Sitting down once a day to read a book together, walking the dog after dinner, or even making a pillow and blanket fort are great options for connecting.
7. Find ways to take care of yourself: Research tells us how a grieving child will fare is strongly connected to how their adult caregivers are doing. Self-care is often easier said than done, especially when you are grieving and it feels like one more thing on a very long to-do list. Whether it’s finding time to be by yourself, connecting with others, exercising, getting enough sleep, being creative, or anything else that brings you ease and comfort, attending to the needs of your mind, body, and spirit is one of the best ways you can support your child. For more suggestions on self-care, check out this episode of our Dear Dougy podcast.
Returning to school is a significant experience for every student and particularly for those who are grieving. No matter how your child feels about the start of school, we hope these ideas and suggestions will provide you with a good foundation for talking with them about their concerns and finding ways for them to feel supported and understood. For more information, please see our guidebook, Help for the Grieving Student, A Guide for Teachers.