How Teachers Can Help Students Dealing With Loss

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Losing a parent, sibling, or loved one is hard. It’s an isolating experience that makes you feel “other” in a school where you used to belong. I know this firsthand.

When I was in 5th grade, I lost my mom and I can still recall the ways people reacted. Friends wrote me cards, kids I’d never spoken to before suddenly offered to carry my books, and in retrospect, even my teachers were understandably a little lost on what to say or do.

Some acknowledged her death, but others avoided speaking about her altogether. It made my grieving process a conflicted one, because I wasn’t sure if talking about my mom was a good or bad thing.

This silence made me believe others pitied me. It also reinforced the idea that my experience was unique—when in reality, 1 in 7 Americans will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20.

Then I had a really awesome high school teacher who became my long-term mentor. He was editing my college essay, and in a passage where I used the word “survive” to explain how I dealt with my mom’s death, he wrote in the margins, “No, you thrived.”

And just like that, one teacher made something that weighed heavily on me become the one thing that made me different... in a good way. I don’t know where I’d be today without his reminder of just how much growth my mom’s death spurred in me. This teacher saw value in my story and it’s one of the reasons I see value in stories of others like me.

In fact, it’s my life’s work: I’m the founder of a website called Too Damn Young, which gives teens a platform to share their stories of loss and an online community to help them feel less alone.

ShutterstockBased on my own experience and from working with other young adults, I’ve rounded up some tips for approaching grief and loss in the classroom:

Talk About It

Being able to talk with my teachers about my loss was the main thing that got me through high school. At home, I didn’t bring it up because I was unsure how receptive those around me would be. At school, everyone seemed neutral, which made it easier to open up. Often my teachers started the conversation after I had written about my mom or they noticed I was particularly sad. The main takeaway here? Don’t be afraid of reminding students of their loss, because chances are it’s never too far from their minds anyway.

Ask What Your Student Needs  

Some students feel relieved jumping back into their regular schedule and diving into homework. These may be small steps in helping gain a sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, others may find returning to school daunting—whether they’re afraid of not keeping up with classwork or they’re unsure how to approach friends.

One way to help hesitant students ease back into a daily routine is by simply asking what makes them most comfortable. Some examples of adjustments to propose: meeting with the guidance counselor on a regular basis, receiving extensions on assignments, or assigning one faculty member as a point-person to relay messages among all teachers.

Allow Students to Incorporate Their Loss Into Projects

Many teens have written to me at explaining how an art or writing project helped channel their grief into something positive. Encourage your students to express and explore their loss through class assignments if they choose to do so.

Remind Them They’re Not Alone

Many kids tell me they feel alone in their loss, especially if they don’t know anyone else who’s gone through the same thing. My high school guidance counselor often asked me to connect with other students in school who were grieving. This helped me realize I wasn’t alone. Other resources that can help them feel less isolated—in addition to Too Damn Young—are Comfort Zone Camp and Students of AMF.

Remember every person grieves differently, so there’s no clear-cut way to help everyone. But by being conscious that even the smallest act of understanding goes a long way, you’re opening up a dialogue your student may have not known existed. Trust me, it can make a huge difference.

For more about teens and grief, read "The Secret World of Grief" from the March 2014 issue of Choices.