“When my dad died, some schoolwork, mostly history or reading, a story about death or a history section about war, it really, it really, make it hard to kind of focus on it. ‘Cause in the back of your mind you’re always thinking, what actually happened, what happened to my dad.” (Student)
Grief triggers are sudden reminders of a person who has died. They elicit powerful emotional responses in grieving children. They are especially common in the first few months after a death, but may occur at any time. This module describes how to respond to grief triggers in a school setting in ways that assist a grieving student and create a supportive environment appreciated by all students. The module also offers guidance on how to plan and introduce lessons on topics that might elicit triggers. These steps help minimize distress and maximize support for grieving children.
Grief triggers are especially common in the first few months after a death, but may occur at any time. Three helpful things to know.
- Grief triggers can be intense and unsettling for students. The strong reaction is often unexpected. The student hasn’t prepared for the flood of powerful emotions and may feel frightened or out of control.
- School professionals can support students experiencing grief triggers. Explain ahead of time that such reactions may occur. Let students know that, while intense, the immediate experience will pass. Collaborate to develop a plan for grief triggers (for example, identify a safe place such as the library or counseling office where the student can go; work out a signal that allows the student to leave quietly when necessary; invite the student to call a family member or arrange support from a counselor).
- Anticipate likely triggers and take steps to minimize them. Triggers often occur around holidays or anniversaries. Introduce activities in ways that acknowledge absences and offer alternatives for all students. For example, for a Father’s Day activity, acknowledge that some students may not have a father that is currently alive or actively involved with the family. Invite those students to focus on the memories of their father if they wish, or another important male adult in their lives.
View the video by chapters:
What grief triggers are and why they can be distressing
How to anticipate and minimize the impact of grief triggers on grieving students