Grief at School


Help students and staff grieve and express emotions in a healthy way.

By Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN

This summer our school suffered a great loss with the unexpected death of a teacher. At the wake and funeral, the grief that encompassed our staff, students and school community was overwhelming. As I prepared for the upcoming school year, the school counselor and I met to work through a plan for our students and staff to help them grieve and express their emotions in a healthy way.

Part of our preparations included meeting with Deana Thatcher, MSW, LISW-S, a counselor who specializes in grieving and bereavement care at Cornerstone of Hope, an organization dedicated to providing comprehensive bereavement services to children, teens and adults and collecting resources to help us respond to those we serve who are mourning. Below is information I gathered that I found helpful in understanding and helping people grieve within our school communities.

Understand Grief and How to Help Those Who Grieve

Grief is a normal response to loss that affects our mind, body, spirit and emotions. It touches all of us at some point in our lives and is multifaceted and complex. As part of the education system, we will be faced with helping children and co-workers grieve when there is loss. Most school staff members have received very limited training on grief and how to help others through challenging times of loss. Although understanding and helping those who grieve is difficult, especially because individuals all grieve differently, the good news is there are many resources available online to help you.

One resource I found very beneficial is Understanding Death, Grief & Mourning, A Resource Manual from Cornerstone of Hope. This guide was written as “a devotional response to God’s call to serve those left to grieve” and covers many topics that were helpful in my search, including: talking to children about death, preparing children for funerals, bereavement charts by age and developmental stages, how to tell if a child needs counseling, books and resources, adult grief, suicide and murder loss, grief in the workplace, types of help available, helping employees deal with trauma and spiritual resources. This free and comprehensive guide is designed to help both those who grieve and those who accompany those who need support in their grief.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students is another excellent resource that provides free online video and grief support modules for school personnel.   The goal of this organization is to “empower every adult in every school in the country to comfort a grieving student.”  Downloads such as What Not to Say gives educators concrete advice on speaking with students in a helpful way who have recently lost a loved one.

Designed by the New York Life Foundation, achildingrief.com is a website that helps teacher and caregivers to be “prepared with an arsenal of information and guidance that can help bereaved children and their families.” In addition to online resources such as the National Bereavement Resource Guide which helps you find local resources, it also provides downloadable booklets such as After a loved one dies – How children grieve and how parents and other adults can support them.

Scholastic has also teamed up with New York Life and provided teacher specific resources for dealing with grief, including an entire page dedicated to loss in the school community which includes articles about loss of a school community member. Other resources under How Teachers Can Help provides a list of videos and articles specifically written for educators on how best to support students who grieve.

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement also provides free crisis response, education and training for school professionals, including this download on Responding to a Student or Staff Death in a School Setting.

Our Catholic faith also offers us hope and healing in times of grief. Jesus himself knew grief and sadness and told us “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The Toronto Catholic District School Board offers a document on Bereavement In Our Catholic Schools. This downloadable booklet is designed to help your Catholic school “ to provide emotional support for the bereaved members of the school in order to assist with the healing process.” In addition to general bereavement information, this guide offers prayer and spiritual resources for your school.

This is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list of grief resources, but these tools and resources about understanding how grief impacts our lives as well as those of our students, and can help our school communities during seasons of grief.

Image credit: iStock

Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN, is the school nurse at St. Andrew School, Columbus, Ohio and co-author of Divine Mercy for Moms and The Friendship Project.

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