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3 Things We Get Wrong in Responding to Child Grief — And How to Do Better

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Child drawing sad face on the paper. Close up hands and picture.
 (Evgeniia Siiankovskaia/iStock)

It’s easy to rattle off the visible effects the covid-19 pandemic has had on schools, starting with school closures in 2020 and continuing through mask debates, teacher burnout and ongoing behavioral challenges. One of the less visible effects of the pandemic is the number of grieving students now populating American schools. More than 200,000 children under 18 lost a parent or in-home caregiver to coronavirus, according to COVID Collaborative, a coalition of experts in education, the economy and health that released a report on the subject last December.

Those kids, along with those who lost other relatives, are carrying their grief with them into classrooms. Unacknowledged and unaddressed, it can hurt their ability to learn and engage with school. But most adults in schools aren’t specifically trained to respond to child grief. School counselor Gen Nelson said that’s what led her to current work supporting grieving kids and raising awareness about their needs. In her first year working at a middle school, she had a high number of students who’d experienced the death of a parent or sibling. “I didn’t have much for resources, but I knew I needed to do something to help them,” she told MindShift. She started a grief group for the students and began educating herself. As she learned more, she presented at conferences and ran more grief groups. This past summer she left her school counseling job to become the program director at the Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield, Missouri. At the American School Counselors Association national conference in July, she discussed some of the things we get wrong in responding to child grief and how we can better help students navigate the challenges of loss.

1. Using vague language

“His aunt died.” “Her father is dead.” Nelson said adults need to get comfortable using direct language when discussing death. Vague terms, such as “passed away” and “lost,” can confuse young children and layer unnecessary fears onto their grief. “Sometimes it feels harsh to use the word ‘died’ or ‘dead,’ but it’s important to use those concrete terms,” Nelson said.

Nelson also said to eliminate the phrase “committed suicide,” which connotes crime or sin and can create shame for family members. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I’ve had many, many, many conversations with teens who have been left behind by a parent that died by suicide. And that word matters,” Nelson said.

2. Trying to fix it

It’s natural to want to fix or solve a problem when we see a young person in pain, especially for adults who have devoted their careers to helping kids. But there’s no solution to the loss of a loved one. “There is no fix. You just have to bear witness,” Nelson said.


Attempting to fix grief often can come in the form of well-meaning platitudes. When Nelson asks bereaved students what things people have said that bothered them, the most common responses include sentiments like, “It’s going to be okay,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “They’re in a better place now.” These messages are invalidating, Nelson said, because “the implied second half of the sentence is, ‘So stop feeling so bad.’” When she asks kids what did feel helpful, the responses are straightforward: Someone who was present. Someone who let them cry. Someone who saw their pain and made space for it.

In addition to listening, teachers can make space for grief by allowing flexibility in how those students complete assignments, Nelson said. And they can encourage students to reach out when they’re having tough days and need more grace or care.

3. Avoiding discussions about loss

Even with other grown-ups, adults in the U.S. tend to be uncomfortable or clumsy when acknowledging someone else’s grief. “It’s very difficult for us to sit and be truly empathetic with someone in grief,” Nelson said. “That’s what’s needed, but it’s very difficult because it makes it feel too close to us.”

So how to talk about it? Ask questions about the person who died. Say their name. Be cognizant of major life events, including holidays, birthdays and death anniversaries. Check in with students at those times. “For someone who is grieving, it is a gift to hear their loved one’s name and memories aloud,” Nelson said. Remember that loss still hurts after the first anniversary, and healing isn’t linear. Teachers should avoid assignments and events focused specifically around a mother or father role, as that can “trigger a fresh wave of grief for students,” Nelson said.

Make space for grief and the sharing of memories, but also recognize — and teach students — that there’s no right way to grieve or to feel. Some kids may be angry. Some may be sad. Some kids may have had a complicated relationship with the person who died. “Grief doesn’t mean that you’re just glamorizing the person that died and everything’s wonderful and they were just the best person ever. Maybe they weren’t. And that’s okay. We have to honor that,” Nelson said.

Nelson told MindShift that teachers and school counselors can work together to support bereaved students by keeping an open line of communication. Teachers can have eyes and ears in places counselors can’t be, she said. Counselors, in turn, “can help teachers know when certain triggering dates or events happen so teachers can treat the student with the extra level of care they may need.”

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