“Well, I think, I think loss is something that’s very hard to describe in words. It’s a mix of a lot of things. It’s a mix of anger. It’s a mix of thinking you’re guilty of something. It’s a mix of numbness.” (Student)
Other modules in this section address the learning challenges that children often experience after a death, as well as the guilt and shame commonly seen in grieving students. This module addresses some of the additional reactions that students may demonstrate. Learning how children understand and feel about a loss can guide school professionals to intervene in ways that help them cope. Children’s thoughts and feelings can often explain their behaviors both immediately after a death and after some time has passed. Actions that might be perceived as misbehaviors may be better understood in the context of a student’s reaction to a death.
After a death, students may have a range of reactions besides the guilt, shame, or learning difficulties described in earlier modules. Adults are sometimes confused if a grieving child doesn’t behave as expected. Younger children might appear happy and playful. Children or teens might say unkind things about the person who died. It is important to remember that grieving children are experiencing deep and powerful emotions, even if this is not clear from things they say and do.
For example, children may appear unemotional on the surface because they are working to keep powerful feelings hidden. They may express anger and resentment because the loss leaves them feeling anxious and out of control. They may act impulsively and take risks in an effort to master new feelings of personal vulnerability. They may regress and act like a younger child in an effort to gain attention and be comforted.
Education professionals can take steps to let children know they want to listen and are willing to help.
- Ask grieving children what they are feeling. Invite them to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
- Observe and listen. Ask them to describe what they wish to convey in their words, actions, or creative work.
- Normalize the emotional experiences of grief. Let them know that over time, these feelings usually become less powerful and talking about them often helps.