Bereavement

How schools can help

Research indicates that up to 70% of schools are dealing with a bereaved child at any given time. Many staff members may feel anxious about how to support a child or young person when they have experienced a bereavement. Showing that you care about what has happened and how they are affected as well as listening to their needs are some of the most helpful things that a school can do.

Understanding of death, especially in young children, develops over a more prolonged period of time. It is clear that young children can suffer deeply as a result of the death of a member of their family. Their suffering is more intense if they do not have the opportunity to grieve openly, and do not feel that their feelings are recognised. Reactions to bereavement can include withdrawal, open distress, tears, panic, aggression, anxiety, fear or other signs of stress. Sometimes stress may take the form of unusual behaviour such as giggling, being very brave, acting out or total denial.

When the child returns to school the normality, routines and security of the school environment can help the child make gradual adjustments to life without the person they loved. There are many things that the school can do to help both immediately and in the long term.

Immediately

  • Contact with the family is very important.
  • Give out accurate information, following the family wishes.
  • Consult the young person/child regarding return to school strategies.
  • Let the class know about the pupil's return, being mindful of the pupil's wishes.
  • Help class prepare for return, consider cards, letters and school assemblies.
  • Discuss funeral with staff and pupils and who may attend.

When the child or young person returns to school, there are ways in which the child or young person can be supported:

  • Providing a safe space or person if time out is needed.
  • Consider the possibility of peer or mentor support from another year.
  • Be alert to verbal and non-verbal communication and changes in behaviour.
  • Support the staff supporting the child/young person.
  • Consider ways to commemorate the dead person if the pupil wishes and note significant dates.

School may also be an escape for the bereaved child – a place where there are no distressed parents and reminders. It may be six months or a year before the child or young person reacts. This is normal and not an excuse for attention seeking behaviour.