Suggestions for How to Cope with Loss
The National Association of School Psychologists has numerous resources for school staff and parents/guardians on how to assist high school students in coping with the loss of a friend, peer, or loved one. These suggestions are also available online: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis
To assist in dialogue with your son or daughter, we have included some strategies that you might find useful. Please realize that these are merely suggestions that you may find helpful as a resource to your family.
- Be patient. There is no timeline for the grieving process. Everyone heals at a different pace. Give it time; know and remind yourself that feelings might come and go and come back again.
- Encourage your family member to surround themselves with caring people. This may sound obvious, but it cannot be stressed enough. Make sure that the friends and relatives around them are compassionate individuals who care about them and will be sensitive
- Grief is a healthy and natural response to death. It is a necessary process as part of the healing.
- Anger is a normal feeling experienced by those who grieve. Remind your family member to not be afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed to seek outside help if necessary. Ministers, therapists, counselors, and doctors can help when grief becomes too heavy to bear alone.
- Take care of yourself. Remind them to take time to rest, get some fresh air and exercise. Eat healthy meals and drink plenty of water. Take some deep breaths or learn some relaxation techniques.
HOW TO SUPPORT YOUR CHILD AND YOURSELF THROUGH GRIEF AND LOSS
Death and loss within a school community can affect anyone, particularly children and adolescents. Whether the death of a classmate, family member, or staff member, students may need support in coping with their grief. It is important for adults to understand the reactions they may observe and to be able to identify children or adolescents who require support. Parents, teachers, and other caregivers should also understand how their own grief reactions and responses to a loss may impact the experience of a child or teenager.
SUPPORTING GRIEVING CHILDREN AND YOUTH
How adults in a family or school community grieve following a loss will influence how children and youth grieve. When adults are able to talk about the loss, express their feelings, and provide support for children and youth in the aftermath of a loss, they are better able to develop healthy coping strategies.
Adults are encouraged to:
- Talk about the loss. This gives children permission to talk about it, too.
- Ask questions to determine how children understand the loss and gauge their physical and emotional reactions.
- Listen patiently. Remember that each person is unique and will grieve in his or her own way.
- Be prepared to discuss the loss repeatedly. Children should be encouraged to talk about, act out, or express through writing or art the details of the loss as well as their feelings about it, about the deceased person, and about other changes that have occurred in their lives as a result of the loss.
- Provide a model of healthy mourning by being open about your own feelings of sadness and grief.
- Create structure and routine for children so they experience predictability and stability.
- Take care of yourself so you can assist the children and adolescents in your care. Prolonged, intense grieving or unhealthy grief reactions (such as substance abuse) will inhibit your ability to provide adequate support.
- Acknowledge that it will take time to mourn and that bereavement is a process that occurs over months and years. Be aware that oftentimes grief reactions last longer than six months, depending on the type of loss and proximity to the child.
- Take advantage of school and community resources such as counseling, especially if children and youth do not seem to be coping well with grief and loss.
TIPS FOR TEENS WITH GRIEVING FRIENDS AND CLASSMATES
Seeing a friend try to cope with a loss may scare or upset children or teenagers who have had little or no experience with death and grieving. Some suggestions teachers and parents can provide to children and youth to deal with this “secondary” loss:
- For children and teens who have experienced their own loss (previous death of a parent, grandparent, sibling), observing the grief of a friend can bring back painful memories. These children are at greater risk for developing more serious stress reactions and should be given extra support as needed.
- Children (and many adults) need help in communicating condolence or comfort messages. Provide children with age-appropriate guidance for supporting their peers. Help them decide what to say (e.g., “Steve, I am so sorry about your father. I know you will miss him very much. Let me know if I can help you with your paper route….”) and what to expect (see “expressions of grief” above).
- Help children anticipate some changes in friends’ behavior. It is important that children understand that their grieving friends may act differently, may withdraw from their friends for a while, might seem angry or very sad, etc., but that this does not mean a lasting change in their relationship.
- Explain to children that their “regular” friendship may be an important source of support for friends and classmates. Even normal social activities such as inviting a friend over to play, going to the park, playing sports, watching a movie, or a trip to the mall may offer a much-needed distraction and sense of connection and normalcy.
- Children need to have some options for providing support—it will help them deal with their fears and concerns if they have some concrete actions that they can take to help. Suggest making cards, drawings, helping with chores or homework, etc. Older teens might offer to help the family with some shopping, cleaning, errands, etc., or with babysitting for younger children.
- Encourage children who are worried about a friend to talk to a caring adult. This can help alleviate their own concern or potential sense of responsibility for making their friend feel better. Children may also share important information about a friend who is at risk of more serious grief reactions.
- Parents and teachers need to be alert to children in their care who may be reacting to a friend’s loss of a loved one. These children will need some extra support to help them deal with the sense of frustration and helplessness that many people are feeling at this time.
There is no right or wrong way to react to a loss. No two individuals will react in exactly the same way. Grief reactions among children and adolescents are influenced by their developmental level, personal characteristics, mental health, family and cultural influences, and previous exposure to crisis, death, and loss. Sadness, confusion, and anxiety are among the most common grief responses and are likely to occur for children of all ages.
The Grief Process: Although grief does not follow a specified pattern, there are common stages that children and adolescents may experience with varying sequencing and intensity. The general stages of the grief process are:
- Denial (unwillingness to discuss the loss)
- Anger or guilt (blaming others for the loss)
- Sorrow or depression (loss of energy, appetite, or interest in activities)
- Bargaining (attempts to regain control by making promises or changes in one’s life)
- Acceptance or admission (acceptance that loss is final, real, significant, and painful)
Grief Reactions of Concern: The above behaviors are expected and natural reactions to a loss. However, the following behaviors may warrant further attention for high school students:
- Emotional numbing or depression
- Avoidance or withdrawal
- Peer relationship problems
- Substance abuse or other high-risk behavior
Signs That Additional Help Is Needed: Adults should be particularly alert to any of the following as indicators that a trained mental health professional (school psychologist or counselor) should be consulted for intervention and possible referral:
- Severe loss of interest in daily activities (e.g., extracurricular activities and friends)
- Disruption in ability to eat or sleep
- School refusal
- Fear of being alone
- Repeated wish to join the deceased
- Severe drop in school achievement
- Suicidal references or behavior
Minuteman High School is here to offer counseling support for students and staff. If you are a parent/guardian with additional questions about resources and support, please call the school’s guidance office at 781-861-6500 and press 3.