Saturday, September 15, 2007

Students and Grief: What is a teacher to do?

by George Crawford

The second week of school is now over. Once again I am faced with a task that all teachers have had to deal with. Helping students learn to deal with grief. A girl in one of my classes has a grandparent that is not doing too well. She has been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis isn’t good. This middle school age student is on the edge. She is trying to deal with the aspects of her grandmother in the back of her mind. She also has to deal with the issues of schoolwork and the daily life at school. She is sensitive and sometimes comments from her classmates don’t help.

As a teacher, I try to offer support, caring words, and share some of my own experiences. I also try to tell her that if she needs to talk that I will listen and the other teachers in the building will listen also. As teachers, what are we to do?

Every year across Maine, teachers and school staffs have to deal with the issues of grief. Sometimes the grief comes from the family of the students. At other times it comes from within the school community. Grief is something that teachers, students, and everyone have to deal with.

Things to Think About:

How can I help my students deal with grief?

What are some resources for dealing with grief in schools?

Does my school have an approach or plan for dealing with grief?



Jim Burke said...

An important topic, George. Thanks for initiating the discussion and the excellent link.

Your idea of being there just to listen, not to necessarily offer advice, but just listen, is right on.

I also think the Kubler-Ross work is worth considering for some sort of sense of what is going on when we grieve.

Kubler-Ross Stages:

Denial (this isn't happening to me!)

Anger (why is this happening to me?)

Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...)

Depression (I don't care anymore)

Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)


Diane Whitmore said...

In many ways, our culture is not one in which people are comfortable with talking about death or with open displays of grief. One is described as "handling a loss well" if he/she is calm and not shedding tears, but such restraint may be more about making other people comfortable than about expressing one's own feelings. I would think it would be helpful at the elementary level if children's books were read in which characters die and people are sad, so children learn that death and loss are part of life and that sadness is to be expected.

In Mexican culture, the Day of the Dead is an annual event in which families put up displays with photos, flowers, food, and memorabilia dedicated to their deceased ancestors and friends. On that day, people believe that the spirits of their dead loved ones come back to this life to join them for the day. The holiday ends with an all-night party in the cemetery near the grave sites. To people not familiar with that culture, that may seem lurid. But to Mexicans, it honors the memory of their dead loved ones and maintains the relationship after death.

I remember a day when I was in fifth grade. Our teacher started the day by telling us that the mother of our classmate Jimmy had died the day before, and that Jimmy was going to be out of school for a few days. She asked us to be extra nice to him when he came back as he would probably be very sad for a while. But she also asked us not to stare at him as though we were expecting him to burst out crying at any moment. Clearly those words from the teacher made a big impression on me, as I still remember them forty years later. Seems like that was a really effective way to explain loss to fifth graders.

Then next year in sixth grade, very near the end of the school year, a classmate died on a Saturday in an accident in which she walked through a sliding glass door at a friend's home and cut a major artery. That year, I don't remember the teachers saying anything. But I do remember a lot of girls crying, a lot of boys avoiding the crying girls, a stressful atmosphere, students not knowing what to do with their feelings, and a lot of storytelling around the cafeteria table at lunchtime that generally began with the words, "I heard that..." and ended with all kinds of disturbing and probably untrue scenarios regarding the circumstances of the girl's death. So not surprisingly, the say-nothing, pretend-nothing-happened approach was not effective.

Excellent choice of topic, George; thanks for bringing this up.