The death of a student has a profound, deep impact on the P-H-M community. In order to provide support to students, families and staff, P-H-M is offering some tips from the National Association of School Psychologists regarding the process of grief, possible reactions to grief and loss, and ways we can support our children.
The process of grief is personal. The process will be impacted by a person's developmental level, religious beliefs, cultural practice, mental health, family supports, personality and previous experiences. Generally, there are four phases to grief, although the phases may not occur in a linear fashion:
Shock and Numbness (stunned, difficulty thinking clearly)
Yearning and Searching (restless, angry, guilty, bewildered)
Disorientation and Disorganization (extreme sadness, possible continued guilt and anger)
Reorganization and Resolution (accept the loss)
Understanding the process as well knowing children's response to grief may manifest differently than it often does in adults will help us meet the child in their moment of need. The following is a general guideline of what to expect at different ages:
- Preschool - Regressive behaviors, decreased verbalization, increased anxiety
- Elementary - Elementary aged students may ask questions to understand what happened, so it is important to be patient. While it is important to be truthful, over-sharing details is too much for a child to handle at this age. Therefore, it is best to stick the facts and be brief. Up to the age of approximately eight years, the child may engage in magical thinking and believe they hold the power to bring the deceased back to life. Listen and recognize the feelings, but do not validate these feelings. Children ages nine to twelve may be less comfortable sharing feelings so help children who are in this age range show grief in other ways. Symptoms of grief at this age may include: decreased academic performance, difficulties with attention/concentration, and attendance; irritability, aggression, and disruptive behaviors; somatic complaints; sleep/eating disturbances; social withdrawal; guilt, depression, and anxiety; and/or repeated re-telling of the event.
Middle and High School - Students in middle and high school may seem to express their feelings much like an adult would do so. Provide opportunities to allow the student to share their feelings, especially privately, but do not force the child to share. People in this age range may share more with a close peer present. Older teens may tend to use more physical contact to show support and empathy (e.g., hugging, linking arms, etc.). Possible grief reactionary symptoms may include decreased academic performance, attention/concentration difficulties, and attendance; avoidance, withdrawal, high risk behaviors or substance abuse, difficulty with peer relations, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbing or depression.
When the grief reaction starts to impact daily functioning for a long period of time or if your child is having extreme reactions, your family may want to consider seeking outside help if the following symptoms or behaviors are present: changes in eating habits, wishing to be with the deceased, fear of being alone, significant decrease in academic performance, or increased somatic complaints (e.g., headache, stomach, body aches). If there are thoughts of suicide, it is vital this is taken seriously. Call 911 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Naturally, when our children are grieving as parents you want to help. It is important to remember you provide so much support just by being present and actively listening to your child in a non-judgmental manner. During the process, it is helpful to maintain routines as much as possible to provide predictability during an unpredictable time, structure and comfort. Although listening is key, it is also important to talk with your child and ask questions to gain an understanding of what your child is thinking and feeling so you can provide guidance and support. You may also need to tell your child it is okay to grieve while discussing, encouraging and modeling healthy coping strategies.
If you or your child need additional supports, here are some helpful places to start: