Teachers and Child Grief

I don’t suppose there is a more challenging profession than teaching.  Children are, after all, children.  When faced with a whole bunch of them, most of us would fail miserably to address anyone’s needs, I suspect.  I speak from the personal experience of having a few extras around even for an afternoon.  I generally feel triumphant if everyone has eaten and no one is seriously injured.  Some teachers, though, make it through days with large groups of surly teenagers.  I personally, can imagine few more challenging jobs.

As a parent, I have expected much more than just academic instruction from teachers.  I have expected that the teachers of my children would notice how my child was progressing or struggling, and if there were any social concerns.  Additionally, when I needed to address the most difficult and traumatic moments in my children’s lives, I called the school and asked if they knew what I should or should not do.  The school was my partner in raising my children, not merely a place to go for academic instruction. 

It surprised me, then, that school counselors and teachers received My Dad Died© eagerly, because they didn’t feel prepared to work with grieving children despite

significant experience doing so.  Then, the American Federation of Teachers did a survey (last year, 2012) and found that:

    1. 1.  69% of teachers had children who had lost a close relative in their class,
      • 2.  the surveyed teachers reported interacting with 8 students per year who have lost a close relative or friend, and
      • 3.  93% of teachers reported having no training in working with grieving children.
      • 4.  Additionally, 92% of the educators (teachers, assistants, counselors, etc.) felt that childhood grief is a serious problem for schools and needs much more attention. (see: http://www.aft.org/pdfs/press/release_bereavement121012.pdf)

It is repeated over and over in the literature (although I cannot find a citation) that when child grief (or any grief) goes “unresolved” it can result in anxiety and depressive disorders as well as adversely effect self-esteem.  We are learning more about the long-term affects of failing to allow children to express grief everyday.  At the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s 2012 national symposium, I spoke with social workers working with incarcerated children.  They told me that they were attending because large percentage of the children who are in major criminal trouble need grief counseling for losses of close family members and caretakers.  They reported that the losses suffered by the children occurred before the children began having problems with the law.  It all seems to add up logically.

Mental health professionals help us realize that “resolving” grief does not mean that the problem is fixed, or reparable.  It just means that a person comes to terms with it.  Expressing the grief, through talk, art, dance, etc., is part of coming to terms with it.  My children, and others, have said repeatedly that they just want people to listen sometimes.  Children are brilliant. They know there is no answer – no solution.  Being given the space to feel and express is an important release of tension and when someone listens attentively and validates one’s feeling, it helps the speaker feel more “normal”. Thereby building the person’s self-esteem, rather than making them feel more alienated and “alien”. 

Listening can be done by one person speaking and another actually listening, or via countless other methods.  One of the best services we received after the death of my husband was a plain little notebook.  The hospital social worker gave each of the children a few things, among them, a notebook.  My daughter drew pictures of her dad and our family non-stop for months on end.  She would usually show them to me, and thereby communicate her feelings.

Here are a few links for encouragement, advice, information and help.

http://www.samhsa.gov/MentalHealth/Tips%20for%20Talking%20to%20Children%20in%20Trauma_LOW_RES.pdf

http://childrengrieve.org/

http://www.crusebereavementcare.org.uk/Children.html

http://www.childbereavement.org.uk/Training