Color & Control:

When grief goes to school

The words “back to school” often bring up a range of emotions for children; excitement to reunite with friends and share stories about the summer months, worry about the upcoming academic challenges and sadness that the summer is over. 

Yet, when a child or teen has experienced the death of a loved one, the thought of going back to school may take on an entirely new meaning. There are a number of things that parents can do to help their children feel safe and give them a sense of stability. 

1) Practice a consistent routine
Following a loss, your family is likely going through some very significant and difficult changes. The transition back to school is an additional change that children must adjust to. This transition can be made easier by creating a schedule that includes a bedtime routine, planning and discussing day-to-day activities (chores, making lunch, how they will be getting to school and back). Having a predictable routine can reduce anxiety and can help give children a sense of normalcy. 

2 ) Include the school as part of your support network  
Share the death or loss your family has experienced with teachers or school counselors and any concerns you may have related to how your child is responding to this loss. You may want to schedule an appointment to discuss this in person. Talk with your child about how and what they wish to share with friends or classmates. Oftentimes children are tempted to keep their loss a secret as a means to not stand out or be perceived as “different”, however this can eliminate opportunities for friends or classmates to be supportive. Encourage your child to talk about their grief with people they trust. 

3) Understand the impact that grief can have on children  
Grief impacts multiple areas of functioning including social, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and physical. There is no set timeline for the grieving process. Grief is as unique as the person experiencing it and there can be many ups and downs. It is not uncommon for children’s academic performance to be impacted due to decreased concentration and focus. Reassure your child that these changes are normal and temporary. The school can help by offering additional academic support if needed. 

4) Make a plan for school should they feel overwhelmed  
With input from your child and the school, decide on a point person or a safe place for your child to go to when he or she is in need of support. Make sure that the school has your correct contact information in the event they need to reach you. Discuss with your school any signs that your child is struggling as well as coping strategies that are helpful. Good communication will create a better and more responsive support team for your child. 

5) Take care of yourself  
Remember that just like you, you are also experiencing your own grief. One of the biggest ways you can help your child adjust to going back to school is by modeling how to express and cope with change and loss. Tips include: 

a) Making sure that you are getting your own support and are being patient with yourself.

b) Listen to your body

c) Spend time with others

Children’s Grief Centre, Hospice Calgary.

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