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In the Classroom: Helping Children Speak about Death and Loss

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Four times during the year, Jewish services include a specific service called Yizcor (remember), to honor those who have passed away since the prior service, or before that. The services coincide with four of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, holidays of joy, sadness, reflection, and celebration, which occur during all four seasons. Why might this be relevant to P-12 education?

The wisdom of Yizcor is to create many opportunities for those experiencing losses to express themselves. They will not feel like doing so every time, or take full advantage of each one, but any in which they do fully participate will be beneficial as well as a signal to the community that they are open to comfort and support. The same dynamic is of great value to our students.

Many if not all of our students, particularly in the upper elementary grades and beyond, have experienced meaningful and important losses in their lives. Whether a parent, grandparent, sibling, other relative, or close family friend, such losses affect children. They make their world less secure, sometimes bringing significant changes in living arrangements, and, most importantly, lead to emotional upset. (It is equally true that a significant number of students are in families affected by Alzheimer's or other conditions where there is an impending sense of loss, also very difficult.)

Carrying around these strong feelings is not easy and can serve as a barrier to learning. It might also affect children's relationships with peers (and teachers) as they might be pensive, anxious, or angry. without it being obvious from what is happening around them.

How Can Children Be Helped To Express Loss?

Giving all students an opportunity to express themselves about those in their lives they have lost or missed can be an understandable challenge for educators. We live in a culture that does not always encourage or support expressions of loss and, frankly, expects people "to get over" grief fairly quickly. So educators may well have their own issues with personal losses. And they may also feel that are not capable of handling the raw emotions that might emerge if a door is opened to emotional expression.

One strategy is to allow expression to happen in a range of modalities, with choice given where possible, or a focal modality linked to curriculum objectives.

For example, in language arts, students can be told that they will be writing about someone they remember and they can focus on what they miss about that person or how they remember that person in their lives now. Depending on the curriculum, students can then do narrative writing, an essay, a poem, dialogue/play or other form of written product.

In the visual and performing arts, a similar assignment to make the focus of students' products someone they miss or remember. It can be done in an individual or a group format. Of course, students will need to discuss their feelings and perspectives and decide how to represent the emotions and memories involved in a joint product. Among the formats successful for this purpose are songwriting, choreography, and artistic renditions such as painting, sculpture, collage, and graphic art. Other formats that cross over disciplines include comic books/graphic novels and documentary making. I think it is not hard to see that students could become deeply engaged and engrossed in assignments structured in these ways.

Not everyone will feel comfortable with this kind of assignment. But as we consider social, emotional competencies, we want students to be able to acknowledge and express painful feelings while also having the strength and sensitivity to listen to and support painful feelings expressed by others -- a deepening of empathy, the ability to realize that despite our differences, we share a great deal in our losses.

What ideas and thoughts do you have after reading this blog post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

And then on a Saturday morning ... you wake up, rested and refreshed, and refresh your school e-mail ... and Lurlene says to all of her teachers that Jenny's father has committed suicide. Just so you'll know. We'll meet about it Monday morning. Hang in there and thanks for all you do.

Then the next e-mail is a 673 word cacophony and bad grammar from a mother who's upset about her son's B+ grade. Two sentences, maybe, would have complained about the B+ just fine.

Some days, especially on a Saturday morning, who do I worry about the most? It ain't the kids.

What do you do now? I go to Wal-Mart and buy a new vacuum cleaner.

I come home and put the vacuum cleaner together, vacuum, and then go into the garage and hit the heavy bag. When you hit a heavy bag you don't always win, but you don't always lose, either.


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