Discussion Can Help Kids Cope With Death, Express Grief

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

One of the most devastating events in a classroom teacher's life is the death of a student.

As wrenching as it is for a teacher to deal with his or her own grief, it's also necessary to help students work through their feelings too.

Most teachers are not psychologists or grief counselors, so how can we know how to help our students face the death of a classmate?

I have reason to ask this now because one of my students died a few weeks ago. For the sake of his family's privacy, I won't go into the details. And because the death occurred while school was out, there will be no opportunity to discuss it with my other students until September.

But I nonetheless sought out some local psychologists for their guidance and insight--partly because I felt I needed it myself, and also so I could be better prepared to help my students. The advice they gave was aimed at teachers for classroom use, but it can also be applied by parents at home whose children have lost relatives or family friends.

The first step is to recognize that there is a big difference in the ways children grieve, according to their ages.

Volumes can be written on that topic alone, but here's the bottom line, according to therapist Diane Levitan: "Children under 10 or 11 don't really understand what death means; for them it's a separation or abandonment. Older kids can have some conception that if someone dies, they're really going away forever."

No matter what the students' ages, a teacher's best first move (after telling the facts of the classmate's death), is to initiate a discussion.

Here the teacher is more a facilitator than an instructor.

"Talking about how they feel in a non-judgmental atmosphere gives (children) the chance to understand how they feel and how others feel, and that those are appropriate feelings," said Nicola Trumbo, a child development specialist.

"Really let it be a free-for-all," Trumbo said. "I think children would be more than willing to talk once the conversation gets going."

Some gentle, open-ended questions for starting the discussion can include asking what they know about the person's death, or about death in general; or whether they knew anyone else who has died (and don't be alarmed if young children classify pets with people), or what they think happens to people who have died.

Some children may be afraid that they could die next, or that they were somehow responsible. It's important to help them explore whether they were truly at fault, and whether such a death could happen to them. If it is possible (a car accident, say), ask the children to list ways to avoid a similar accident.

It's also important that the kids talk about the lost peer. "There's a saying that, if nobody tells your story, you die twice," therapist Levitan said.

"Encourage them to tell stories, to remember (the classmate) and to keep that memory alive."

Questions and speculations about afterlife often arise in class discussions about death, and that can be touchy for teachers.

After all, we don't know the Grand Plan either, and we can't violate any child's spiritual beliefs. The best answer to such questions, Levitan says, may be "What do you think?"

Whatever beliefs the children express, it's important to validate them by saying that there are many different views, and that no one knows for sure.

"It's vital to be respectful of everything they say," Trumbo said, "to give them time enough to say it, and to feel what they're feeling, before going on and putting closure on it."

After the discussion, getting students to do some artwork (as simple as pencil drawings or as complex as collages) can also help express grief. Levitan suggests drawing a favorite memory of the person, or illustrating a statement or feeling brought up in the preceeding discussion.

Writing can also be helpful in expressing and resolving feelings that can arise upon a peer's death.

Students can write about something mentioned in the earlier discussion, feelings or fears about death, visions of afterlife, a favorite memory about the child, or even compose a goodby letter.

Psychotherapist Jackie Black also suggested writing three lists: words or actions that a student is sorry for; things the student forgives the deceased peer for, and a list of what Black calls "significant emotional statements." Those are basically sentences expressing how the writer feels about anything related to the death.

Some kind of "ritual" for saying goodby is a good next step, the psychologists agreed.

"Rituals and ceremonies are very good for helping people to say goodby, even if the little ones don't really understand that it's a forever goodby," Levitan said.

Black offers a simple ritual: "The most important thing a teacher can do is help the kids, out loud, say goodby to the person and use the person's name."

Other common rituals include reading goodby letters aloud, lighting candles, releasing helium balloons, mounting a memorial plaque or planting a memorial tree.

Some students may ask about attending the funeral. Levitan suggests leaving that to the child's parents to discuss, since some may have cultural or religious taboos that may be violated in the funeral ceremony. While older kids can handle such differences, younger children may be confused or even frightened by them.

In addition, bear in mind that grief doesn't end with a loved one's burial, so some follow-up is a good idea. In fact, feelings and questions about the death may arise for as long as six months after the funeral, Black said.

Finally, keep phone numbers of a few counseling professionals or social agencies handy, in case a child has deeper feelings or concerns than your best intentions and efforts can handle.

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