On February 24th 2015, I attended the Education Students’ Society’s professional development event “Coping with Grief“. Greystone Bereavement Center, had their presenter Sylvia Keall MSW, RSW come to the university to provide Education students with information on how to help future students cope with grief in their lives.
Teachers are not just the vessel to provide students with valuable information, they are also viewed as a mentor, a protector, and in some cases a friend or ally. Even though teachers want nothing bad to ever happen to their students, it is inevitable that during a teaching career you are guaranteed to have some tragic event occur to one of your students. This can include the loss of a close family member, parent, sibling, or close friend or classmate, a divorce, a parent leaving, or other stressful and life changing events.
The presentation that I experienced dealt explicitly with the death of a loved one because it is one of the more challenging griefs to explain. The idea that at some point every person will experience loss and death is a hard concept to accept, but the older we get the more we understand that not everyone can live forever. Explaining this to an adult has moments that are challenging, but explaining this to a young, innocent child is very difficult. Loss stays with us, no matter how much time has passed there are times where the loss is harder than others, this is most noticeable around holidays, birthdays and anniversaries because you cannot help but feel like someone is missing. There will be a time where grief is more noticeable or fresher, this is when the student made be going through tougher times. Ideally schools have counselors that are educated to properly deal with the situation and focus on the needs of the student, however in rural communities the counselor may not be in your school 100% of the time, making it more challenging for student to feel like their needs are being met.
As a teacher, having the understanding of what grief is, and how it affects a person will give them an advantage towards supporting the student and recognizing warning signs of a tough situation. Grief is the internal response, but mourning is the external response that is often noticed first. It is important to note that “We cannot assess anyone’s grief merely by observing how they express it externally” ( Keall, Feb 24th, slide 5 of presentation). Grief is a holistic experience, impacting the Physical (changes in eating/sleeping, and illness), Mental (trouble with memory, concentration and moments of confusion), emotional (sadness, anger, fear, guilt, loneliness, and shame), and finally the spiritual (questioning the meaning of life, religious uncertainty). Recognizing signs and being able to have students explain what they are feeling helps the teacher inform the counselor of any concerning information.
As a teacher you need to be prepared for an amount of time where the student may be either needing your attention and support or withdraw and acting out. These are both signs that the student needs someone to talk to, while the idea person is a counselor there are cases where the student feels more comfortable talking to the teacher and will provide more information to the teacher than to a counselor. If this is the case it is important that the teacher takes more of a listening role than a talking role, being careful to give any advice. Keep notes which you can relay to the counselor and let the student know that anything they say you will need to pass on. Anything that the student says should not be mentioned to anyone except the counselor and if needed administration.
There are four tasks that may help grieving students,
- to understand and begin to make sense out of what is happening or has happened
- to express emotional responses to the loss
- to commemorate the loss through some formal or informal remembrance
- to learn how to go on with life
These tasks are positive to helping the student overcome grief, but they do not happen quickly and may have many road blocks preventing the task from being completed as the student would like, as a teacher encouraging the student and listening when needed will aid them in completing the tasks regardless of the road blocks preventing them initially.
There are many different possible changes to the student that may occur after experiencing death such as; decline of school work, absences, isolation, tiredness, constant need to communicate with family, anxiety, depression, use of drugs and/or alcohol, increase in inappropriate behavior, low immune system, feelings of loneliness, questioning “why” regularly. These are only some of the things that can happen but there is a large list of other possibilities. As a teacher you must be aware of your own actions and words, being sure to not single the student out, or to make them feel additional stresses for the first little bit. However, you cannot use grief to make excuses for the students, they need to remember to take responsibilities for their actions and that grief does not make them invincible. Even person’s experience with grief is different, and as teachers we cannot fix the problem, our job is to be their when needed, support the student and ensure that there is open communication as needed.
It is not easy, stay positive and do not allow the student to think that you are stressed or bothered by their grief.