Death is a morbid subject and instinctively adults try and keep children away from it. However, its inevitability makes it necessary to help students face it in the best possible manner. Children observe and ask questions. They see things happen around them and react by withdrawing or expressing frustration and anger. By avoiding the topic, adults create a situation where children start to harbour misconceptions and are tormented by unfounded worries. Most of us are ill-equipped to talk to children about death and allay their fears. Most adults try to sweep the issue under the carpet by telling them that, “things will be alright” or “there is nothing for them to worry about”.
Since death is natural and inevitable, a student’s idyllic world will be shattered sooner or later by its shadow. This could be in the form of losing a grandparent, parent, sibling, pet or worse, in a school scenario, a co-student, friend or teacher. Isn’t it then important for schools to face up to this challenge and be well prepared to handle it when and if it rears its head?
Developmental differences in understanding death
Dr. Earl A. Grollman, a pioneer in the field of crisis intervention, suggests in his book Explaining Death to Children that at different age groups children perceive death differently. Preschoolers notice the grief but are unaware of the finality of death. They may seem largely unaffected and may carry on with their routine, interrupting it only to ask questions about what has happened. Primary school students typically have short-term grief. They usually regard death as temporary and may question whether they can interact with the deceased person at a later date. It is when children are around 9-10 years old that they begin to form a clearer picture of the finality of death. Middle and secondary school students are mostly aware that death is irreversible and are at a risk of going into depression or hurting themselves.
In a situation where death affects the school community, the teacher has to swing into action and handle the situation in the best possible manner. There is no recipe set in stone that can help teachers and administrators handle grief. They have to respond based on what is age appropriate, the action that the situation warrants and the ability of the child to understand the situation.
One to one counselling: In a scenario where a student has lost a family member, the whole class may not need counselling. It may suffice to have one to one time with the affected student and share his grief by initiating a conversation and offering reassurance and support. Teachers may talk about personal experiences of coping with death in their own family. What is more important is keeping an eye on the child to spot early signs of depression and changes in study habits and behavioural patterns. Only in very severe cases where the child has lost a parent or sibling and shows signs of persistent grief, should the school counsellor be brought in and the family kept in the loop.
Group counselling: If a group of students suffer a loss in the form of a classmate or teacher, then the school needs to step in and support the entire cohort that is affected. It is always a good idea to talk clearly about the incident and tell them in unambiguous terms about what has happened. Teachers have to give the students a chance to vent their grief and help students understand that anguish in such situations is normal. Depending on the age group of the students they may be able to share their thoughts by writing or talking about it. Younger children can take part in drawing and colouring activities while older students may want to visit the family of the deceased. This should only be done with the permission of the parents. Schools can even arrange to collect cards, messages, flowers, etc., from the students and send it to the family of the deceased.
Group counselling may also be helpful in a situation where a student has suffered a grievous personal loss. Students who come in touch with the affected pupil may need to be advised about the loss and instructed to support their classmate while looking out for telltale signs of continued stress.
Assembly talk: Sometimes the situation is serious enough for it to be addressed in the assembly. As a consequence, it is advisable to tackle the situation first thing in the morning and the assembly is a good time to address the whole school. This is usually done to arrest rumours, announce the passing away of someone related to the school family and have a silent time in memory of the deceased. If need be, the teachers should continue from where the principal has left and address the queries and concerns of the students in class. A memorial meeting in which students are given a chance to talk about the deceased is a good way to release pent up grief and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Bringing in the counsellor: Counsellors are well trained to look for clues and warning signs of depression, aggression, regression or any other changes in a child’s behaviour which point towards pent up emotion. They can step in when a child needs more intervention and help. It is best for teachers to turn to them in cases where the teacher feels that the situation is beyond his or her ability and the pupils need long-term monitoring and professional guidance.
In nightmarish scenarios where a student loses his life to an accident in or outside the school or someone from the school meets with a violent death due to a crime, students may have to deal with not only the trauma of losing a loved one but also see it reported in the press and have people ask them questions. It is absolutely important for a trained counsellor to step in to comfort the students with simple, direct answers to their queries. The most common query and fear among students is, “Can this happen to me?” Schools have a duty to allay fears and share with the students how they are safe and what measures they have put in place to make the school a safe and secure place.
Keeping parents in the loop: It is imperative that parents know what is happening in the school. Even before the students reach home it is advisable to e-mail or message affected groups of parents about what has happened and the measures the school has taken to handle any tragedy. This is not only reassuring for parents but it also prepares them to supplement the school’s efforts at home.
Support for teachers and staff: While the school puts in measures to handle tragic situations with the utmost sensitivity, the onus of doing it falls on the teachers. At such moments, the school cannot lose sight of the fact that teachers are human too and are dealing with their own reactions to the tragedy. They may have lost a student, a colleague or compatriot and may require help too. They may feel unprepared and uncomfortable to cope with talking about death. A teacher who is crumbling himself should not be sent to handle students because he will end up making the students even more nervous. Nothing makes children panic more than the sight of an adult wilting under pressure. A teacher who is unsure about how and what happened, will transmit his own fears and queries to the students. Schools therefore need to deal with the emotional needs of the adults too.
Scott Poland, president of the American National Association of School Psychologists believes that, “most of the intervention after a death needs to be in the classroom and led by trained and empowered teachers with support personnel in as many classes as possible.”
Death is difficult, yet it is a common enough experience that impacts a student’s social, emotional and educational development. It is important for schools to maintain open dialogue about this taboo topic, listen to students, be honest and upfront in explaining the situation, have a supportive school environment and look out for students who may need long-term support. Schools thus play a very important part in creating an atmosphere which can better help students cope and adjust to this harsh reality of death.
The author was a schoolteacher for over 20 years and continues to be one at heart. Currently she freelances, is a volunteer archivist and a published author. Her passion is history and she is an avid researcher on historical topics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.