Skip to content

Children, Grief and School

by Lisa Athan, MA
Executive Director
Grief Speaks

Returning to school after the loss of a loved one or after any other kind of major loss can be quite overwhelming and challenging for many students. Many returning students feel vulnerable, different and ill-equipped to handle the wide range of emotions they may be experiencing. Research tells us that most grieviipng children and teens long to be treated normally, yet do appreciate it occasionally when a few caring peers or adults compassionately and privately acknowledge their loss. One freshman girl just shared with me that after returning to school following the death of her father, not one school staff member said a word to her. She told me that she didn’t want pity but since no one even acknowledged the loss to her, she felt

that she must act as if nothing had happened. Although she said, “my whole life is in chaos, but now at school I guess I should just pretend to be fine.”

Here are some ways children tend to be affected after the death of a parent, relative or close friend:

Confusion: They may feel quite confused. Their own powerful feelings may also be surprising to them.

Academics: Children who are grieving find it difficult to concentrate. They may not be able to focus on reading, writing projects or class discussions. They are often distracted. Many students will experience a drop in academic performance and their grades may suffer. Some students tend to do better after a loss, often claiming that they want to work hard to honor the person who has died. Teaching students to break up work projects into smaller pieces helps as well as taking short study breaks while studying. Having students work in groups also helps with assignments.

Feelings and Symptoms: Grieving children often show some signs of depression. They may feel sad or anxious. Some students will withdraw for a time. Many have difficulty sleeping. Some will experience frustration or anger outbursts. Some may become clingy or begin to act younger. Some complain of headaches and stomach aches. Some may not want to return to school. Helping them find healthy outlets for their feelings is vital. The more they can get it out (on paper, on the track, in drawing, talking, creativity) the less it comes out physically and through outbursts).

Guilt and Shame: Children often experience feelings of guilt, regret or shame. This summer while facilitating a sharing circle at Camp Clover, a bereavement day camp, quite a few children shared that they felt guilty about the death of their parent or sibling. Some shared that the guilt had turned into anger and they often got into fights at school. One girl said, “it is easier to be angry at some other kid, than to admit you are angry at yourself.” One teen camper shared that he had once hurt himself because of the guilt. The other campers told him that it wasn’t his fault and that he needed to talk to his parent and to his school counselor about his anger and guilt.

Isolation: Children often feel isolated by their feelings after a loss. They often feel that they are all alone and different due to the loss. Many students don’t know others who have also had a loss. Grief support centers are wonderful for many reasons but for this one in particular. Children and teens can attend a place like Good Grief and meet other kids who have also lost a parent or sibling. For a directory for a free year round grief support centers in your state or country simply visit The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon and find a center close to you.

Overwhelmed: Some kids are already struggling with learning, social skills, or mental health disorders. The extra load of dealing with grief can worsen these pre-existing conditions. Additional support and resources are needed so that the child doesn’t feel completely overwhelmed.

One grieving high school football player told me that, “not one of my teachers better come up to me and say sorry about my dad. I will be so upset and probably cry which is the last thing I want to do in school.” We worked with his guidance counselor and sent out emails to all of his teachers telling them not to say anything to him upon his return to school. I did tell him that I knew that it was bound to happen, that a custodian or other school person may say something to him at school as they would want to reach out. So we made a plan (like a fire drill). We talked about three places he could go if he was about to cry. He came up with the school nurse, guidance counselor or a trip to the bathroom to walk and wash his face off. He would ask his teachers through an email for permission if he needed to go suddenly to one of those places. He had been given a pass to hold on to. He also allowed those who wanted to say sorry to write a note to him that he would read in the privacy of his home. He felt much better about returning to school. Often after a loss people feel that much control has been taken from them so that giving students some control over things that they can control helps them to feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

Other common signs of grief are: talking about the loss a lot or not at all, asking many questions or not asking any, clowning around in school, crying, withdrawal from activities and friends for a short time, acting “fine”, over-reacting to situations, noncompliance with adults, sleep disturbances, pains in the stomach or head-aches, irritability, fatigue, wanting to rip or destroy things and reluctance to leave home. Sometimes a grieving student may mistakenly be thought to have Attention Deficit Disorder Hyperactivity (ADHD) or a learning disability when they are actually showing signs of grief. Indications that students may need further assistance are: dangerous risk taking, threatening to hurt self or others, violent play, total withdrawal from people and environment, a dramatic personality change occurring for a long time or to an extreme. Please refer to the web site, Grief Speaks. Scroll down to the page: Normal Signs of Grief and Loss in Children and Teens for more information.

About the Author: Lisa Athan, MA, Grief Educator and Grief Speaks Recovery Specialist is the founder and Executive Director of Grief Speaks. Lisa is a national speaker on coping with grief and loss in the lives of children, teens and adults. Lisa speaks in schools, agencies, universities, at conferences and delivers keynotes. She is the children’s bereavement specialist for an annual bereavement day camp, Camp Clover, in NJ. She has information and resources on topics such as death, helping children and teens grieve, what to say to a griever, coping with illness, adoption, incarceration, divorce, helpful quotes and more. You may find Grief Speaks on Facebook where Lisa shares daily quotes, articles and resources. There is also a Grief Speaks 4 Teens on Facebook. Lisa’s email: lisa@griefspeaks.com