Friday 20 December 2019

Where to start when you find out a student or colleague is grieving

Did you know that 1 in 20 children experience a significant loss every year? Given that statistic, every teacher likely has a student in their class, right now, who is grieving. Grief is a very common experience in childhood, yet teachers receive little guidance as to how to help their students deal with this very difficult emotional journey.

How can teachers help students experiencing grief?

The subject of death and dying is very rarely discussed in Alberta’s classrooms. Grief and grieving could be taught in health class, however, most adults feel uncomfortable with doing or saying the right thing, or further traumatizing a grieving student, so rather than bring up the topic, it is often avoided. As a result, children and youth might be getting their information about the process of death and dying from television or movies.

Understanding that grief is a complex and unpredictable experience, teachers would benefit from recognizing some of the physical and emotional signs and symptoms of grief. Of concern, the range of physical and emotional responses to grief can inadvertently be mistaken for learning problems, prompting educators to make learning accommodations rather than helping the student cope with the actual cause of their distress. The physical symptoms expressed by grieving students might include body aches, nausea, pain in their head or chest, and fatigue. Their expression of emotions may vary from sadness, anger, frustration, confusion that can manifest as separation anxiety, inability to focus attention, unwillingness to engage in previously enjoyed activities, or self-blame for the death of their loved one.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students ( provides an excellent series of modules about grief and the grieving process to help educators to support bereaved students. They suggest taking a student-led approach to conversations with children and youth who are dealing with loss. Asking questions like Can you tell me how you are feeling right now? or What have you been thinking about since your loved one died? is a great way to start the conversation. Children and youth are more likely to feel safe with talking to their teacher about their grief if that adult expresses an openness to listen to them without judgement.

What if the bereaved person is a colleague?

Adults experience the same physical and emotional symptoms as children and youth. The same questions asked of youth can be asked of colleagues. The main recommendation with grieving co-workers is to recognize that grief is a long term process, and that the adult can not simply ‘get over it’. Depending on who the colleague has lost, their responsibilities for executing wills and completing other paperwork, and the overall impact to their daily life, the adult may feel intense and long term symptoms of grief. Offering emotional and other support as needed and over time is a key part of helping colleagues heal.

For more information or resources, check out the following links:

A Child’ Concept of Death by Stanford Children’s Health:

Grieving Students (Coalition to Support Grieving Students):

Rainbows: Guiding Kids through Life’s Storms:

Death and families – when ‘normal’ grief can last a lifetime: