It’s September which means many families are preparing for the start of school. When families are also grieving, this transition can bring a mixture relief, dread, excitement, and trepidation.
Much like work for adults, children and teens spend a majority of their time at school, and they take their grief with them. For some children and teens, returning to school is comforting. They find support in the structure, familiarity, connections with friends, and the opportunity to focus on something other than grief. For others though, it can be a challenging venture that brings additional stress, uncertainty, and worry. What to think through and how to help depends on a number of factors. How old is your child and what grade are they in?
Who died in their life and what was their relationship? How did the person die? When did the loss occur? There’s no formula for how the answers to these questions affect someone’s grief, but they are important to consider as you sort through how to best support your child or teen in returning to school.
No matter our age, we engage with grief on many levels: emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioral. Whether it’s the emotional ups and downs of relating with peers, focusing on schoolwork, or having to talk about family culture and beliefs for a project, school can be a place that connects with multiple facets of grief. If a death or other loss occurred over the summer, returning to school can be extremely charged. Even for those who are familiar with being in school while grieving, each year brings new challenges and milestones to face without the person who died.
Transitions can be difficult for anyone, but especially so for those who are grieving. As your family moves from the rhythm of summer to school, children and teens may be worried, irritable, or overwhelmed. You can help with this transition by planning ahead and talking with them about upcoming changes related to bed/wake up times, chores, pick-up/drop-off routines, homework expectations, and after school activities. If your child has first day fears about finding their way around or what their teacher(s) will be like, see if you can arrange a time the week before school starts to take a tour and even meet the staff. Knowing what to expect can be reassuring for both children and teens.
One of students’ biggest back to school concerns is wondering who knows about the death and what details they have. If the death happened over the summer, or if your child is going to a new school, ask what they would like shared with teachers and classmates. Your child’s first instinct might be to keep the death a secret. Often they fear being treated differently or being seen as “the kid whose (parent/caregiver/sibling) died.” While it’s important to honor your child’s wishes, talk with them about the challenges of trying to keep the loss a secret. Doing so takes a lot of energy and can limit their ability to open up with friends. The other side is when teachers know your child is grieving, they are better equipped to be supportive and understanding. Depending on the size of your school community, it’s possible that other students already know about the death, whether from social media or the adults in their lives. Given that, talk with your child about the power of being able to tell their own story, rather than people finding out in other ways. For younger children this could mean a teacher telling the class, with or without your child present. With older students, offer to talk with their teachers and also forecast with them what it will be like to tell friends that someone in their life has died.
There are many casual conversations where family and friends may come up. Anything from “What do your parents do?” to “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” to “Why do your grandparents pick you up after school?” can catch your child off guard. It’s helpful for them to have ideas ahead of time for how to respond. We’ve heard over and over how awkward it is for students to return to school and be met with a flurry of “I’m sorry for your loss,” and hugs from classmates they’ve never really talked to before. Teens in particular are sensitive to what they consider to be saccharine sympathy (“Oh you poor thing,”) or people trying to relate by saying, “I know how you feel, my dog died last year.” There’s also the challenge of offhand comments which can be particularly painful for grieving students. Examples include: “This class is killing me,” “My mom is driving me crazy, sometimes I wish she would just die,” and “I’m so bored, I could shoot myself.” Again, it’s useful to talk with your child about these types of comments and strategize replies that work for them. Depending on how the person died, there can be additional challenges related to how other people respond. This is particularly true for deaths that are traditionally met with societal stigma such as suicide, murder, and drug overdose. As one teen in our groups shared, “The challenge with suicide is there are a lot more ways for people to be insensitive about it.” Talking openly with your child about the death and answering their questions is a great way to help them feel more comfortable and secure when faced with judgment from others.
Here are a few other general back to school aspects to consider:
Returning to school is a significant experience for every student and particularly for those who are grieving. No matter how your child feels about the start of school, we hope these ideas and suggestions will provide you with a good foundation for talking with them about their concerns and finding ways for them to feel supported and understood. For more information, please see our guidebook, Help for the Grieving Student, A Guide for Teachers.
Source Dougy Center for Grieving Children