Mental Health

Talking to Students About Grief

Supporting students in times of loss is less about finding the right words and more about validating what they choose to share.

August 29, 2018
A teacher comforting a distressed student
©iStock/SolStock

Grief is universal. It is in the kindergarten classroom when a class pet dies, the sixth grade that reads A Bridge to Terabithia, and the college history seminar in which students and teachers parse texts from the Holocaust. Research suggests that seven out of 10 teachers have a student in their classroom who is bereaved or actively grieving, and teachers carry their own losses too, yet mortality is often left out of discourses surrounding social and emotional learning and teacher training. As a consequence, it can feel daunting to discuss the topic with students.

With the right tools, however, teachers can engage in discussions about love and loss in ways that catalyze powerful learning. Though it’s not teachers’ formal responsibility to tackle these subjects in their classrooms or to provide emotional support to students who are grieving, the following suggestions and resources can ease the way for educators who choose to do so.

Say Something

Silence breeds isolation. Dr. David Schonfeld, founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, points out that “saying nothing says a lot, and that’s a message we should never leave a child.” To that end, when teachers consider how to approach grieving students—or the topic of mortality—in their classrooms, the first step is to broach the topic in a compassionate, mindful manner, opening opportunities for dialogue should students wish to seize them.

Because grief can be a scary topic, it might feel intimidating to find the right words of support to share with those who are struggling. In the classroom, it’s both helpful and important to remember that guiding students through grief is not dependent on what we say so much as our willingness to validate and value what our students have to say. Receiving their stories, and letting them know that we hear them and are there for them, is foundational to relationship building. And relationships, regardless of whether they comprise explicit discussions about grief, are paramount in making students feel assured, welcomed, and supported.

Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness, “Sometimes the most dangerous thing for kids is the silence that allows them to construct their own stories—stories that almost always cast them as alone and unworthy of love and belonging.”

Brown adds, “Our discomfort [with supporting grieving people] shows up in ways that can hurt people and reinforce their own isolation,” which points to the importance of inviting grieving students to share their experiences. Together, students and teachers can take hold of the discomfort, channeling and utilizing it as a lever for growth.

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Respect Individuality

It’s imperative to note that we must meet grieving students where they are. Many students experiencing grief are not ready to discuss their challenges, and forcing them to do so can perpetuate their trauma.

Though it may sound contradictory, offering students both proximity and space allows them the autonomy and community they need when processing difficult emotions. What works for one student may not work for another, and the support strategies that click for one student may change as that student gains distance from their loss.

As educators, we can say something by starting small: acknowledging grief, but also connecting with students beyond grief—talking with them about sports, complimenting their work ethic, recommending favorite books. Our steady, intentional presence in their lives will cultivate trust, whether or not it leads to their storytelling.

Connect Students With Peers

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students emphasizes the importance of connecting bereaved students with peers. While it’s important for students to have a circle of caring adults by whom they feel supported, it’s equally important for them to feel normalcy by way of peer interaction.

In the classroom, connecting students with one another—based on a similar interest, similar book report topic, similar life experience—can facilitate the peer-to-peer support that buoys all students’ psychosocial well-being, especially in times of adversity.

To avoid empathy fatigue, educators must remember that they need a team of peers, too. Reaching out to colleagues and helping professionals when working with a student who is grieving is a sign and source of strength, an act that establishes secondary support that will ultimately benefit students.

Emphasize Growth

In Teaching to Strengths, Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, and Judie Haynes write about the power of using a strengths-based approach to teaching and interacting with students facing trauma, violence, or chronic stress. Because grief and loss can have effects similar to the ones caused by these problems, it is relevant to extend these researchers’ findings to teaching and learning through grief.

Communicating to students the strengths that they exhibit throughout their grieving processes reminds them that they can grow and succeed despite—and because of—their circumstances. “The tenets of positive psychology require that we be empathetic and asset-based teachers,” Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes note. In a time when the present can feel confusing and all-consuming for students, teaching to strengths casts a forward-looking lens, reminding them that progress is tangible and possible.