"They feel different, know and fear that people will treat them differently."
I repeatedly remind clients that communication really does hold the key to success, and this applies in most areas of one’s life too, never more so than bereavement. To a certain extent, especially in today’s times of academy schools, parents and students alike may be viewed as a school’s customers and they can easily give a school a ‘bad review’ if support is seen to be lacking.
In vital years of getting students through GCSEs and A levels, as well as choosing the best subject teachers, the headteacher has to also ensure that pupils’ wellbeing is high on the list of criteria for key placed staff. When this is successful, students have more chance of overcoming whatever life throws at them during this challenging time, when their own emotional capability is not yet fully developed.
I have been advised to recommend Frances E Jensen’s book The Teenage Brain, which explains the behaviour of teenagers and how it is not all down to surges in their hormones as proven by modern neuroscience.
Returning to school
I have always encouraged parents to readily share information with the school at the earliest possible opportunity; as we know knowledge is power, and power gives us choices when dealing with, say, a pupil who may be seen as acting out-of-character.
When struggling with bereavement, as with any personal trauma, returning to school can be extremely daunting for pupils of any age. They feel different, know and fear that people will treat them differently. Sadly, in addition to their own fears pupils and students then have to cope with their peers and their teachers, who may be unable to find ‘the right words’ – in these scenarios, we all know that there are no right words. However, the urge to saying nothing does not help the bereaved in the slightest. Indeed, being ignored is quite a cruel reality whether recovering from a recent loss, serious illness or perhaps even bullying… the latter a seriously delicate subject all of its own.
Maintaining routine – benefits of pastoral care
I have always maintained keeping a child’s routine helps with any family situation, and attending school against all the odds, however difficult is in their best interest. However, as I was recently reminded by Lorna Chiverton-Hunt, a student life coach / psychology tutor, “one must never force a child to return ‘too early’, but judging that timing is not an easy task for parents or teachers.”
Nowadays, schools really do support families - with emotional back-up, with excellent pastoral services - and this help has nothing to do with religion, which some parents may inadvertently mistakenly believe. I wondered how clear a message schools are sending generally to promote the true value of pastoral support, so I asked some school-based colleagues: It appears they do promote its availability, but sadly parents more often than not do not read the material and / or don’t digest it!
"The way in which their loved one has died will also be need to be taken into account when dealing with highly-charged emotions."
However, with fully trained personnel being proactive in school, a child’s journey through bereavement can be eased tremendously so. Additionally, knowing they have a safe haven can encourage a return to school far sooner. I have personally used this valuable support, and it cannot be underestimated how vital these services are.
Bereavement affects every person in many different ways, and the bereft will move through the various stages of bereavement as best they can and perhaps in not any particular order. They also are likely to revisit those stages again and again - a fact that teachers have to try to not only recognise but try to assist where possible alongside encouragement of keeping up with studies.
Counselling may seem too extreme, but teachers should never shy away from suggesting this tactfully to parents if they believe a pupil will benefit. However, counselling is often down to local GP funding, and the bereft are advised all too often that their surgery has long waiting lists. As I discussed at a recent bereavement meeting of support services and clergy, that by the time somebody seeks help they are already in trouble.
The intensity of the relationship with the bereft also determines how they will be feeling and coping. Additionally, the way in which their loved one has died will also be need to be taken into account when dealing with highly-charged emotions. A pupil who has watched a parent deteriorate with terminal illness will present different challenges to overcome and what would be perceived as ‘normal bereavement’ may be difficult for them to achieve.
Suicide – the wrong words...
Having previously stated there are no right words, in many ways our ideals and indeed our vocabulary needs to be updated to reflect the fact that it is no longer a crime to take one’s life. The word ‘commit’ can really upset the relatives of the deceased.
The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised suicide, a fact that too often people tend to forget. Children can be very cruel - albeit sometimes unintentionally - but with the right seeds planted by both parents and teachers they too can help their friends in some small way by knowing what is inappropriate.
Children can amaze while facing of adversity but we mustn’t be led into a false sense of security. Those that often appear to be coping brilliantly may actually not, but of course the tell-tale signs may be deterioration in their health or withdrawal from activities previously enjoyed. The sooner they can be encouraged to consider returning to say sporting and after-school clubs, the sooner their balance can be restored.
The importance of resuming physical activities and trying to return to normality was echoed by Scarlett Lewis, the author of Nurturing Healing Love. Scarlett is a mother of one of the children killed in the tragic Connecticut school shootings; she speaks of her time spent with the surviving son. “How it was great to be physically active together, playing volleyball, swimming with dolphins all part of the healing process.” She refused to be a prisoner of her pain. How they were both advised to “never stop living”. She set up a foundation in memory of her son Jesse; meeting with President Obama they discussed how vital it is for children to be taught compassion as part of school programs.
Remember: It is indeed good to talk and to cry rather than suppress our emotions.
How do you help your learners deal with bereavement? Let us know in the comments.