This is a hard topic for me to write about, but it’s one that has been quietly asking to be written for several months. Everyone has had an experience with loss in some way, including children in our care. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
1. Different children handle it in different ways.
Some children may get very distraught over a death, some may cry, get angry or be distant for a while, and some may not show any outward signs of sadness. In my former middle school after-school program, one of the children had been in a car accident. I arrived at the school the next day, greeted by two children running up to me announcing “Lydia’s DEAD.” It was such a blunt, unemotional statement that I didn’t believe them at first. They were doing what they could to cope at the time, and they probably had as much difficulty believing it themselves. When a loss occurs that affects a child in your program, whether it’s a pet or significant person in their lives, some children need lots of support; others need lots of space. It’s important to pay attention to know which, and it may change at a moment’s notice.
2. Acknowledge the children’s feelings.
Allowing children to express their feelings without fear of being dismissed or disregarded is critical in their grieving process. They need a safe space—it may be difficult for them to express their feelings at home if others are grieving themselves. Be a figure of stability in the child’s life, which may be in a state of confusion and disarray. You may also have to be there for the families as well, and acknowledge their feelings, too. I attended the funeral of the child who had been in the car accident. It was important to me to show my support to the family.
3. You may not be able to empathize with a child’s situation. That’s ok.
Empathy means that you have been in the position before, and have a first-hand understanding of what the children are going through. If you have never had a pet before and a child grew up with a dog that passes away, it wouldn’t be easy to understand why the child has such strong emotions about it. Even if you have been to funerals of great-uncles or third cousins, a child who experiences the death of a sibling or parent is going to have a very different level of grief. Sympathy is always appropriate—to feel sadness or concern for someone going through a hard time. Express sympathy to let them know you care; they’re going to need to know that you will listen even if that’s all you can do.
4. It may take the children days, weeks, months or years to come to terms with it.
Death gets easier to manage with time. The amount of time differs from child to child. When I was teaching in a school where several of my cousins attended, one of their teachers approached me early in the school year. It was the one year anniversary of my grandfather’s death and my young cousin had arrived at school crying. I was able to console her, as she knew I was having similar feelings. You may have children in your program who, weeks after a death occurred, are still bringing it up. You may have children (or parents) who share that it is the anniversary of a death that unearths feelings of grief. Just because it wasn’t a recent event doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal to them.
While I know this may be a hard topic for you as well, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.