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Coping with death: helping students grieve.

One morning in September 1993, I arrived at school to the unexpected news that the teacher with whom I shared a classroom had died. She had been in a traffic accident the week before, but appeared to be healing well and was scheduled to leave the hospital in a few days. Unforeseen complications, however, led to her death.

Our students trickled into the classroom, aware that something was wrong. Although they knew about the accident, I had assured them that she would be okay. Now, they were filled with questions. As the day passed, I realized I was not prepared to help my students deal with their grief. We muddled through that day and the following weeks, but the questions remained. What should I have said or done differently? What should I do in the future? I searched for answers to these questions in a graduate class on helping others cope with loss. And I conducted further research into children's grieving process, and specific activities that classroom teachers can use to help their students cope with death.

The subject of death is a difficult one for many adults to discuss. Teachers are no different. As death is part of life, however, it should not be ignored. Although many teachers would prefer to avoid discussing death and grief, the effect of a loss on students makes dealing with this topic unavoidable. Well-intentioned adults may try to protect children from pain by discouraging discussion, lying or using symbolic language. These methods only succeed in confusing and frightening children. Teachers can best help students cope with death and grief, whether expected or unexpected, by being prepared (Schonfeld & Kappelman, 1992).

Some schools have intervention plans for helping students cope with death. These plans incorporate input from parents, teachers and faculty. Interventions are designed to assist in the caping process. Gramer (1987) states that before dealing with children's feelings about death and loss, teachers must first deal with their personal feelings about these issues. Further preparation includes educating oneself about children's perceptions of death, stages of grief, expressions of grief, conceptions of death and strategies for helping children cope with death.

Perceptions of Death

Children have different perceptions of death depending on their age and developmental level (Aldrich, 1993; Lagorio, 1993; Mills, Reisier, Robinson & Vermilye, 1976; Ragouzeos, 1987; Ward, 1993). Three- to 5-year-olds have a poor concept of time and permanence. They may view death as a temporary thing. Or they may link death to sleep and consequently fear falling asleep. Often, young children view death as something deliberately planned; therefore, they think someone is responsible. Children may even feel they are responsible for the death in some way. They may also worry that someone else will soon die. This worry can become an intense fear.

Six- to 8-year-olds begin to realize that death is final. They are very interested in what happens to the body after death, associating death with disintegration of the body. They may not view death personally, but rather as something that happens to other people. Their views of death may be distorted by what they see on television or overhear from adults.

Nine- to 11-year-olds begin to understand death as a final, irreversible part of life. They realize that death can happen to anyone, including themselves. They are more concerned, however, about a parent's possible death than their own. They may develop a fear of death and begin to question what happens after death or they may display indifference. Sometimes they will joke about death as a cover for grief (Aldrich, 1993; Lagorio, 1993; Mills et al., 1976; Ragouzeos, 1987; Ward, 1993).

Stages of Grief

Adults and children experience grief in several stages. These stages are fluid--children may move in and out of the stages during the grieving process. Ward (1993) cites the following stages of grief:

1. Shock and Disbelief: In this stage, children may feel numb or apathetic. They may withdraw from others or appear abnormally calm.

2. Denial: This stage usually occurs within the first two weeks after the death and can last minutes, days, weeks or months. Children may appear not to understand what has happened or may behave as if nothing has happened. They may refuse to acknowledge any loss or escape into fantasies.

3. Growing Awareness: In this stage, children may feel peculiar if they have never experienced such intense feelings. They may be bombarded with uncontrollable anger, guilt, depression, yearning and anxiety.

a. Children may feel anger at the person who died, for leaving; at God, for allowing the person to die; at medical services, for not preventing the death; at others, for causing the death (as in a traffic accident); or, at themselves, for not being able to stop the death.

b. Children may feel guilty about imagined or real negligence toward the dead person. Children often think they should have loved the person better. Or, they may think their feelings about the death are not appropriate.

c. As children begin to feel the pain of the loss, they may become depressed and may experience feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth.

d. Children may experience anxiety as they realize changes have occurred and begin to wonder how those changes will affect their future.

4. Acceptance: This stage usually takes place the second year after the death. Children begin to re-learn and adapt to the changed world and its new conditions.

Expressions of Grief

Ragouzeos (1987) points out that grief does not have a timetable. Although children and adults may experience similar grief stages, children do grieve differently from adults. The limitations of their life experiences and maturational stages affect how they view and cope with death.

Children generally do not grieve regularly or constantly. At times, they may appear unaffected by the loss or may seem to be handling their grief. Children often do not have the vocabulary to express their feelings and may, instead, act out their grief. They may fluctuate between being very upset and not being upset at all.

Typical reactions include seeking attention, becoming anxious about separation from parents, acting out difficult behaviors or having difficulty sleeping. Children may be reluctant to go to school, have difficulty completing assignments or become overly conscientious about schoolwork. They may want to talk constantly about the person who died or they may not want to talk about the person at all. They may overeat or undereat, complain of headaches or stomachaches or develop a fear of the dark. We must remember that grief is a process and children, as well as adults, usually take approximately two years to adjust to death (Arent, 1990; Lagorio, 1993; Mills et al., 1976; Schaefer & Lyons, 1988; Ward, 1993).

Abnormal Reactions

Some reactions to death, however, are not normal and signify the need for outside intervention. Teachers who observe the following behaviors in bereaved students should not hesitate to refer the children to professional counseling:

* pretending absolutely nothing has happened

* constant anger toward anyone and everyone

* pervasive depression and isolation from friends and family

* physical assaults on others

* cruelty to animals

* excessive misbehavior, fighting or other serious socially delinquent acts

* involvement with drugs or alcohol

* frequent panic or anxiety attacks

* truancy or a phobic fear of school

* threat of suicide

* persistent physical illness (Aldrich, 1993; McIntier, 1993).

Conveying Basic Concepts of Death

Whenever possible, teachers should discuss death and grief with students before the loss of a loved one occurs. Children gain more benefit from lesssons about death before a crisis. Although every question that children have about death cannot be answered, teachers should be honest and forthright with students concerning the following basic concepts:

* Death is inevitable. All things in life die; it is a natural occurrence. Students need to realize that death is part of the life cycle; neither the child nor the deceased are being punished for specific thoughts or actions.

* Death is irreversible. Children need to be told that death is permanent. No matter how much one wishes otherwise, the dead person will not return. Children who expect someone to come back, as if from a trip, may experience intense anger and hurt when the deceased does not reappear.

* Being dead means that all life functions stop. Children should understand that all activities, such as movement, sensory functions, thinking or eating, have ceased and will not start again. Children lacking this understanding may experience anxiety over the deceased person's physical well-being. They may worry, for example, that the person is cold or hungry.

* Living things die because of definite reasons. Teachers can help students understand that people die because of illness, injury or old age, not because of someone's thoughts. Children who have no knowledge of this concept often think they caused a death because of "bad" thoughts about the person, and consequently experience unresolved guilt (Schonfeld & Kappelman, 1992).

Teachers can convey these basic concepts by referring to naturally occurring events and situations, such as the death of a pet or finding a dead bug. Teachers may also wish to use a commercial program guide for teaching about death and grieving. Most of all, teachers can help students cope with loss by being open and honest about death and encouraging discussions of feelings and ideas.

Helping Students Cope

Teachers' demeanor and actions can do much to help student cope with feelings of pain and loss. Whether the loss is an individual student's relative or friend or a faculty member or student at the school, whether expected or unexpected, teachers can be prepared to help their student move through the grieving process.

General Tips

* Gather as many facts as possible. Be prepared to stop rumors and be truthful about the death. c Share your own feelings of loss and grief.

* Be open and honest. If you do not know the answer to children's questions, tell them so.

* Explain funeral rituals, customs and services to those children who plan to attend the funeral.

* Be understanding of students' feelings of anger, fear and guilt.

* Expect children to function in the classroom. Encourage them to try their work.

* Be flexible with schedules, assignments and schoolwork; children who are grieving have short attention spans and may have difficulty concentrating on tasks.

* Be patient with children who talk constantly about the person who died.

* Remember that grieving takes time and children often fluctuate between the stages of grief.

* Most important, be available when children need to talk. Encourage open communication and acceptance.

Acknowledge children's feelings, even confused feelings, and really listen to what they have to say (Aldrich, 1993; Arent, 1990; Lagorio, 1993; McIntier, 1993, Ragouzeos, 1987; Ward, 1993).

Specific Strategies

* Reach out to the family of the deceased person by talking with them about the person who has died. Remember special moments or favorite activities. Encourage children to express their feelings.

* Use journal writing to help children work through their feelings. Journals can be shared or kept private. Students may record their memories of the person or describe their feelings about death.

* Draw or paint pictures of the deceased or of a remembered activity with that person. Display a deceased student's work.

* Help students create a memorial book that contains writings, pictures, letters or small mementos connected to the person who died.

* Make a collage of pictures or words cut from magazines that remind students of the person who died.

* Create a special art project, such as a mural, pottery or weaving, in memory of the deceased.

* Read books about death and grief. These stories demonstrate that grieving is a natural process and help students realize that all children experience fears, anxieties and anger. The Grieving Student in the Classroom (Ragouzeos, 1987) includes a list of appropriate books and films.

* Plant a tree, shrub or entire garden at the school as a memorial to a deceased teacher or student.

* Start a fund in honor of a student or faculty member who died. Use the money to purchase books for the school library. Inside each book bought with the money, place a bookplate that honors the person.

* Children may want to write letters, stories and poems, or create artwork about the deceased to send to the family.

* Have a memorial service at the school so faculty and students can honor the deceased. Ask a local clergyman or community leader to preside (Aldrich, 1993; Arent, 1990; McIntier, 1993; Ward, 1993).

Death is an intrinsic part of life. Children are exposed to death in the natural world, as well as by what they see or hear in the media. When the loss of a loved one occurs, teachers can facilitate a healthy grieving process by maintaining awareness of the situation, demonstrating care and concern and encouraging honest communication (Aldrich, 1993; McIntier, 1993; Ragouzeos, 1987).


Aldrich, L. M. (1993, February). The grieving child. Learning, 93(21), 4043.

Arent, R. (1990, October). Helping children grieve. Learning, 90(19), 54-57.

Gramer, M. (1987). The grieving child in the classroom. Lancaster, PA: Hospice of Lancaster County.

Lagorio, J. (1993). Life cycle: Classroom activities for helping children live with change and loss. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr.

McIntier, T.M. (1993,June). Guiding the child through death and grief. Paper presented at the meeting of the Carondelet Management Institute, Mobile, AL.

Mills, G. C., Reisier, R., Jr., Robinson, A. E., & Vermilye, G. (1976). Discussing death: A guide to death education. Homewood, IL: ETC Publications.

Ragouzeos, B. (1987). The grieving student in the classroom. Lancaster, PA: Hospice of Lancaster County.

Schaefer, D., & Lyons, C. (1988). How do we tell children ? New York: Newmarket.

Schonfeld, D. J., & Kappelman, M. (1992). Teaching elementary schoolers about death: The toughest lesson. The Education Digest, 58, 16-20.

Ward, B. (1993). Good grief. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Paula Westmoreland is a Learning Disabilities Teacher at Hayneville Middle School, Alabama, and a graduate student, School of Education, Aurburn University at Montgomery.
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Author:Westmoreland, Paula
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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