George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Helping Students Through a Period of Grief

Covid-19 has meant a lot of loss for students of all ages—with more loss likely to come. Teachers can engage and support them in processing their emotions.

May 13, 2020
A rainbow painted on a house window during coronavirus quarantine
Maria_Sbytova / Twenty20

Educators often face challenges supporting students through loss and grief, in part because neither teachers nor principals are generally trained as grief counselors. Yet in the coming weeks and months, many students will experience losses of loved ones and of ways of life, and schools are in a unique position to collectively engage and support them with compassion in the grieving process.

With a new loss, previous losses are remembered, previous trauma may be re-experienced, and new fears emerge. Children may fear that a parent will die. If their parents are unemployed, children may fear that they’ll become homeless. Teens might worry that they must give up hopes for college and a future. And with this pandemic, losses are likely to be compounded over time, and students may become unable to focus on their education.

Teachers can play a critical role in helping students understand their responses to these losses and move through the grieving process, which gets us in touch with our humanity and offers an opportunity to more fully experience our aliveness, and life itself.

Teaching Students to Acknowledge Feelings

Educators can encourage students to fully experience the feelings and physical sensations—tightness, tension, or numbness, for example—that come with loss. Healing occurs when a person accepts and moves through the emotions of fear, anger, and sadness to integrate a new reality, understanding what has been lost.

For younger students: Young kids don’t have words to express these feelings. They may absorb anxiety they sense around them or on the news, and they may vacillate between happily engaging one minute and acting out irritably the next. Teachers may observe regressive behaviors, violent play, and a lack of focus.

Allow these younger students to express their grief, listening without offering quick solutions or telling them how to feel. Calm their fears without minimizing their emotions. Respond honestly to questions—and admit when you don’t know the answers. Encourage conversations, play, and physical outlets with symbolic activities using drawings and stories. Be patient, nurturing, and consistent.

For older students: As they get older, children understand more and try to make meaning of what’s happening. Some are better than others at expressing emotions. Many repress their feelings or are in denial, appearing OK when they’re not. Others act out, exhibiting addictive or self-destructive behavior.

Do a needs assessment to find out what students are feeling and needing. Give them permission to express grief and space to process feelings. Listen patiently without judgment. Give straightforward answers. Build trust using ground rules for compassionate and safe interactions. Adjust distance learning expectations to their specific needs.

Children of all ages can be supported to express emotions—even anger and frustration—in healthy ways, developing a language to describe feelings and identifying physical sensations associated with them. They can do mindfulness and movement exercises to release tension and stress. When they’re feeling bad, they can learn to identify what they can hold on to that brings a sense of safety or comfort, such as people, places, images, colors, or sounds.

Facilitating Supportive Partnerships

Prioritizing activities that nurture connection and relationship-building increases the likelihood that students will not feel alone and will feel safe to grieve. Create simple ways of checking to find out how they’re doing. Use low-tech and high-tech options to ensure access—phone, video conferencing, emails. Invite, but don’t require, students to share their stories to ensure they know they aren’t alone in their experiences. They can contribute to school newsletters and community blogs, with videos, art, or writing as an outlet. Recognize and honor individuals and groups for their contributions.

For younger students: Contact each child regularly. Even paper packets can include interactive activities such as journal prompts or poems about their feelings, expressive art projects, or SEL lessons like a feelings scavenger hunt. If your students can access the internet, create online lessons to strengthen social skills like brainstorming kind words or dealing with disappointment.

For older students: Assign advisory groups of students to individual teachers to ensure regular one-to-one check-ins with every student. Many teachers schedule office hours with drop-in times, and some teachers whose students who weren’t showing up for class sessions or answering calls have planned home visits—while maintaining social distancing.

Teachers can continue to foster peer connections using video conferencing. It may be best to allow students to choose not to use cameras—some are embarrassed about their noisy or crowded homes.

During synchronous sessions, assign online group work in smaller breakout rooms for facilitated collaboration. Design structured conversations and teach students to use open-ended questions, paraphrase with reflective listening strategies, use affirming statements, and carry out empathy interviews that acknowledge strengths and feelings in a safe non-judgmental way.

Creating New Rituals During Times of Grief

Many communal approaches to grief, like funerals and community gatherings, cannot occur during social distancing, but it’s still important to recognize loss and hold those who are grieving. Try to be aware of cultural differences in expressing grief and honoring the dead, and use input from students and their families to create community rituals to support those who’ve experienced a loss and to honor life. This might include writing letters to the family of the deceased, planting a tree, or making a piece of art to remember the person.

Each of us can be a sanctuary for those who are grieving to stay connected and feel hope. Reminders of what is growing, thriving, and alive will keep our hearts open. Sharing strengths like creativity, resilience, generosity, gratitude, and care that exist within communities will go a long way toward healing.

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