Working with pupils who have been recently bereaved

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Bereavement can be particularly difficult for children and young people who may find it hard to understand and cope with how they are feeling. In this article, Michelle Moore provides some advice and a case study of how schools might help.

Summary

  • Everyone experiences bereavement in a slightly different way.
  • It is important that adults really take time to listen to the pupil, particularly as family are likely to be grieving too.
  • Finding ways to remember the person can help a pupil to come to terms with what’s happened.

When someone dies it inevitably has a huge impact for everyone who knew the deceased, and can leave a child feeling a wide range of emotions that they may not know how to deal with or handle. The ripple effects of a bereavement in a classroom may also be felt by other pupils so it is important to consider the best way to help the pupil and minimise this effect.

A bereavement is defined as: ‘A period of mourning after a loss, especially after the death of a loved one’ (www.dictionary.com). Although it states ‘especially after the death of a loved one’, this isn’t always the case. It may be the death or loss of a human but could also be a beloved pet, parental separation, a friend moving away or even, with younger children, the loss of a favourite toy or doll.

Young people tend to feel the effects of loss far more deeply than adults. They have less experience and are likely not to yet understand the impact of this on their lives or what the big feelings inside them are.

When someone is grieving

Bereavement can be tricky to work with and finding the right things to say can be difficult. The main thing to remember is that no two people’s experiences of bereavement or loss are the same, and the young person may need to deal with it in a different way to how you have dealt with it yourself.

The experiences that the pupil had of their loved one may not always have been good, giving them conflicting feelings. It is important not to brush the negative aside. It’s easier to look at the positive, but it is fine to acknowledge that sometimes things weren’t perfect, and that there were times when there may have been sadness or hurt. It can even be OK to feel happy or relieved that they are gone (see the toolkit Form – Emotions of grief ).

Other things to remember when working with a pupil who has suffered a loss include the following.

  1. Never assume anything. Always ask the pupil questions to find out what they are thinking or feeling.
  2. Give the child some space to explore, both physically and metaphorically. The toolkits listed below might help with this.
  3. Let the pupil tell you what they need, or help them to figure out what they need.
  4. Ask the family what they may need and what they are doing to help the pupil through the bereavement.
  5. Consider their family structure. Is the family supportive or will they struggle to help the child?

There is no right or wrong way for the pupil to feel; remember that every child will experience grief in a different way to the next.

Case study

I had been asked to work with a nine-year old boy called Harry (a pseudonym). Harry had lost his grandfather to cancer a few months beforehand and his behaviour had spiralled out of control. He missed his grandfather terribly and spoke about him with great fondness.

Harry’s father had left him when he was very small, and his grandfather had been his main male role model. His mother was struggling with her own grief and also had a young baby to look after, so was unable to give Harry the time he needed to talk and to express his feelings.

Much of the work was based on how angry he was about his grandfather being taken away from him. I could really feel his anger and allowed him to express that using art and the sand tray. After several sessions, he was able to let go of some of his anger and concentrate on his happy memories.

I broached the idea of making a memory jar which was adapted from an idea by the charity Nelsons Journey. I asked him to pick five happy memories and assign them each a colour:

  • Blue: Granddad’s motorbike
  • Red: going to the shops and buying sweets
  • Orange: going on holiday to the beach
  • Green: spending Christmas together
  • Purple: making model aeroplanes together.

We coloured some table salt with chalk and layered them up on top of each other in a jam jar until the jar was full. He wrote a label to tie to the lid stating what each colour was. He also wrote ‘Memories of Harry and Granddad’ on the label. He then chose to sit the jar on his windowsill at home so that every morning he opens the curtains and smiles at the happy memories. He says it helps him not to worry that he will forget his grandfather.

Empathic listening and responding

In our busy classrooms it can be easy to brush things off or not truly listen. However, sometimes the gift of empathy can mean the world to a pupil who is struggling with loss. Some may feel some degree of guilt or shame about what’s happened. Depending on the age of the child, they may not have the emotional literacy to be able to name what they are feeling, which is why the toolkit Form – Emotions of grief can be particularly helpful.

When talking with the young person, it is important to do so with a degree of empathy and understanding of the pain they may be feeling. Taking the time to really listen can help. If the bereavement has happened to the family, for example a sibling, then the parents may be too busy dealing with their own emotions relating to the loss to be able to sit and really listen and help their child deal with their grief. This can mean it falls on us in schools to spend that time.

An activity that schools might engage the child with is writing a letter to the deceased/missing/lost one. This is especially good for those who were unable, or felt unable, to say goodbye. It can allow them an opportunity to say the words they need to, perhaps to say thank you, or to offer forgiveness, to share thoughts and memories or indeed anything else they wish to say.

Further information

Nelson’s Journey: www.nelsonsjourney.org.uk

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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Michelle Moore is mental health lead and school counsellor (MBACP) at Stalham Academy which is a large infant and junior school in North Norfolk. She also has a private integrative psychotherapeutic counselling practice and is a clinical supervisor. She is passionate about making a change to the stigma of talking about mental health and the taboo of seeking help amongst young people.

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