Helping To Prepare Them To Return To The Classroom
When children experience a death, it can be very confusing for them. Perhaps this is the first time they have lost a loved one, or maybe they aren’t old enough to fully understand what death means. The concept of someone they love disappearing and never coming back can be nearly impossible for a child to wrap his or her head around.
As adults, we know how difficult the loss of a loved one can be. Even for us, it can send us into depression, turn our lives upside down, and make us feel as if we can’t go on another day without that person. Your child will be dealing with all of those same feelings, but they won’t have the words to describe them or the mental capacity to understand them.
Children & Grief
Death, by its nature, is bewildering. It doesn’t seem like something that should ever happen, and it certainly doesn’t seem fair. To add to the situation, if your child lost someone close to them, you most likely did as well.
It can feel nearly impossible to support someone else in grief when you’re feeling so raw with grief yourself, but your child is counting on you, especially as they try to transition back to regular activities, such as school.
Returning to school after a loss seems like an astronomical feat, but we promise it’s possible, and it may even help your child feel some semblance of normalcy as they work through this new territory of death.
The Impact Of Age On Grief
To be clear, children aren’t too young to grieve, but it may look different in them than it would in an adult who understands the complex emotions they’re feeling. Children still feel grief, but they might deal with it differently. Their behavior might be different than you expect, or they might become very withdrawn and not want to share their feelings. They may even refuse to acknowledge that the death happened for a while.
Depending on the age of your child, they will deal with this differently. If you’re consoling a teenager working through the loss of a loved one, it will likely look much different from how you would console a 5-year-old. To help put in perspective just how different it could be, let’s assess how different ages understand and process grief:
A YOUNG CHILD (3 - 5 YEARS OF AGE)
The understanding of death a young child has is limited. They will likely see the death as temporary and believe that the person who passed will come back or can be visited. When you try to explain death to them in terms that make sense to an adult, using things like “soul” or “heaven,” your child will not grasp those concepts.
They are very abstract terms and concepts, so it can’t be expected for a child this young to understand what you’re trying to explain.
A young child will escape grief through play. They may not understand why everyone around them is sad, or where their loved one went, but they will display their emotions in play. They will feel sadness but likely for a shorter amount of time than you or an older child would.
Though it may look like they have recovered from the grieving process, they certainly haven’t. You may see your child find a new person that they cling to in order to replace the person they lost. Their sense of security will be ripped away from them, so don’t be surprised if you see tantrums or behavioral outbursts.
SCHOOL AGE CHILD (6 - 10 YEARS OF AGE)
With children that are a bit older, they will likely understand that death is permanent and fixed and that their loved one will not be coming back. Though they understand it, they might not be able to grasp how life is supposed to move on. They’ll likely experience major fears about dying themselves or losing someone else they love.
You’ll have to work hard to help them understand that you do get through the death of a loved one. It’s also possible that they feel guilty about the death, thinking they could have stopped it or saved their loved one.
As your child develops the words to express their emotions during this time, be patient with them. Try to get on their level and understand the complexity of their experience. It will likely be much more difficult to help them grieve than it would a young child, since the young child doesn’t fully understand the loss.
A child in the 6-10 year range understands the loss but still cannot rationalize or process it properly. You may see them act out or start to slip in school once they go back.
PRE-ADOLESCENT (11 - 13 YEARS OF AGE)
The pre-teen years of life are filled with enough confusion, crazy emotions, and big changes, that adding a death on top of those can bring your child’s world crumbling down. Not only will they understand that death is permanent, but they’ll understand that death is inevitable, and everyone, including themselves, will someday experience death.
They may be very curious about odd details surrounding the death that wouldn’t be normal for an adult to ask. This is them processing and trying to understand, so answer all their questions as best you can.
Keep in mind that children at this age are dealing with a pendulum of hormones and their emotions can flip on a dime. You may see the seasons of sadness, anger, silliness, and questioning all in the same day, or even the same hour. Remember that as much of a rollercoaster as these emotions can be for you, it’s even more of a rollercoaster for them.
ADOLESCENCE (14 - 19 YEARS OF AGE)
Children this age will have a more similar reaction to death to you than a younger child would. They are closer to the adult levels of being able to process and understand death.
A major underlying emotion they’re likely to feel in this age range is fear. They will fear death for themselves and those around them, they’ll fear the uncertainty of the future, and they may even fear how people will perceive them after the loss of their loved one.
Another emotion that will be prominent is anger. They may experience anger at the deceased, feeling abandoned or betrayed by them. Know that this is a perfectly normal response at this age. They may also feel angry at “God” or a higher being if your family subscribes to any religious practices. This anger at religious structures could cause them to leave their practice or feel disconnected from it.
Their outbursts will look different too, as they often show outbursts through defiance. You may notice them experimenting with drinking, drugs, or sexual encounters. Do your best to make sure your child is safe as they grieve.
The Stages Of Grief In Children
As your child moves through their trauma and processes their grief, their behavior can change and adapt over time. Keep in mind, there are multiple stages in the grieving process, and each one connects to different feelings and behaviors. As a reminder, here are the five stages of grief:
While it’s not healthy to remain in denial forever, denial is the first stage of grief to protect us from dealing with the overwhelming reality all at once. You may see that children spend more time in denial over the loss of a loved one than adults regularly do.
While all ages go through a stage of denial, children, who are newly processing an intense death for the first time, need to slowly open up to the permanence of death. While denial seems counter-intuitive for working through trauma, it’s the mind’s emotional shield from feeling all the pain at one time.
Once the initial shock has worn off and reality starts to set in, children may experience intense feelings of rage and anger. Since their new earth-shattering reality isn’t being suppressed by denial any longer, anger is the logical next step.
Psychologists agree that anger is a healthy reaction to death, though it can feel painful to watch as a parent. A child who is struggling with the death of a loved one may feel anger towards other family members, the deceased themselves, or a divine power.
They want someone to answer for the pain they’re feeling even though it’s impossible to do so. Anger is a normal, healthy part of the grieving process and the anger will eventually dissipate. The more intensely your child experiences this stage, the more quickly they might go through it.
In normal times, humans are taught to control their anger and not release it, but you want your child to feel this anger and display it so they can work through it with your help.
If you hear your child mutter statements like “I’ll do anything to bring dad back!” or “I’ll never be bad again if I can just see Uncle Scott again,” they may be in the bargaining stage of grieving. At this point, your child feels like they might be able to change the reality if they just work hard enough.
You may see this stage coincide with other stages or weave in and out of the different stages of grief, but at some point, you will likely hear your child try to barter to bring back their loved one. It’s a normal feeling – the willingness to do anything to change reality and take away the pain – and the situation of death is especially painful.
Once the bargaining fails, your child will likely sink into a deep place of despair. They may feel as if life just isn’t worth it and the pain is too much to bear. You will see signs of hopelessness, a withdrawn personality, and a feeling of emptiness.
If your kiddo is struggling to get out of bed, has no interest in doing their favorite activities, or refuses to talk about their feelings at all, they’re likely experiencing depression. Depression can feel like the heaviest of the stages because instead of seeing some emotion from your child, you see a disinterest in life and lack of emotion at all. They feel helpless and life seems worthless to them at this point.
The pain of a loss this big seems insurmountable to developing kids, so be patient, while doing the best you can to help them see the beautiful parts of life that make all the pain worth it.
Though it may feel impossible, there will come a day where your child leaves the fog of their depression and opens up to the idea that life can go on after a loss. Helping children with grief is often more difficult than dealing with the grief itself, but children are truly resilient. It may take months and months to get them to a stage of acceptance, but eventually, they will understand the permanence of the situation and accept their new reality.
Once the fog lifts, you’ll feel that your child is hungry for connection from the people they love that are still around, so take advantage of the longing they have to reconnect. At this point, they will adjust to their new reality and realize that though life will never be the same, it is still worth living.
Don’t expect every day to be filled with happiness and zest for life, there will still be unbearable sad days or bouts of depression, but overall, your child will see the worth in life and make sense of how to move forward in it.
10 Tips For Going Back To School
Helping a child deal with grief is difficult enough but helping a child deal with grief and returning to school can feel insurmountable. The transition back to “normal” life may seem unimportant after such a great loss. Realistically, having a routine and predictable days can be a great source of comfort for your child and for you. It’s normal to miss the time you were spending together and want to keep your little one cuddled up on the couch next to you forever but moving on with your lives is an important step for both of you.
As you’re preparing to help your child be successful back at school, it can feel like there are a million things to do and prepare for, so we have compiled a helpful list of the main things to consider. Expect there to be bumps in the road as your child heads back into the real world, but you will get through it and, in time, life will feel a bit more normal.
TIP 1: NOTIFY ADMINISTRATORS & TEACHERS
Most adults have experienced great loss in their lives, and your child’s teacher and school administrators are no different. Not only will they empathize on a human level, but educational professionals want all children to succeed academically and in life. By communicating openly with your child’s teachers and school staff, you’ll build a whole new support system for your child as they return to school.
Logistically, it’s critical that the educators in your child’s life are fully aware of the situation so they can provide care and academic attentiveness that your child will need. Grief and school don’t always go together, but you may be pleasantly surprised at how supportive and knowledgeable the school staff will be during this time of transition.
As your child grieves, they may struggle in school or deal with emotional outbursts during the day, and their teachers need to be able to support them in their grief. You may also need to work with administrators to get work excused or help develop a schedule for your student to get caught up
Don’t forget to set up a communication loop with your child’s teachers so you can regularly get updates on feedback on how your child is adjusting back in the classroom.
TIP 2: SET UP SESSIONS WITH SCHOOL COUNSELOR
Most schools are equipped with mental health professionals on-site, so be sure to take advantage of this resource for your child.
Not only can you set up sessions with your child and the counselor, but they can also help keep an eye on your child’s behavior and tendencies during the day to give you a professional opinion on how they’re adjusting back into the classroom.
School counselors are fantastic support systems. They are seen by the students as separate from teachers or administrators, and students are often more comfortable being open and vulnerable with the school counselors.
TIP 3: INVOLVE YOUR CHILD IF THEY WANT
As your child prepares for returning to school after loss, involve them in the conversations if they want to be involved. You may be surprised at how intelligent they will be in helping determine what will help them through this transition. They may also have an opinion on the information they want their teachers and school administrators to know.
You don’t want your child to feel out of the loop in this; they have felt so little control during the loss of their loved one, that reinstating some sense of control in their life can be very powerful.
Have the conversation early on with your young one about how they want to handle their return to school. Don’t be surprised if they’re reluctant to return to school at first but keep working with them on outlining the details they feel comfortable sharing, and what they might need during the day to be successful in school.
For more details on how to support your kiddo in this time, read this.
TIP 4: HELP PREPARE FOR OTHER KIDS
The social component of school is a big deal, and it’s likely that your child will feel anxious about talking to their peers or reconnecting with their friends. They may not want to share details of their loss with their friends or peers, and that’s okay.
It’s a good idea to practice some potential conversations at home so your child can process how to deal with each situation or decide what they want to say when prompted with inquiries.
This is another great time to remind your child about the support their teacher can offer. If students are saying things that make them uncomfortable or asking questions they don’t want to answer, their teacher can help them set some boundaries or talk to the other students about the situation.
Many of the other kids at school will have not yet experienced such great loss, so explain to your little one that they may ask questions or make comments that are inappropriate because they don’t understand death or loss in the way your child now does.
TIP 5: EQUIP THEM WITH COPING SKILLS
Just because there is a return to normalcy does not mean that there won’t be bouts of sadness, anger, and big emotions for your child. They may experience these feelings at school when they’re away from you, and it’s important for them to have the tools to work through their feelings during those times.
Perhaps you can help them pick a trusted friend they can talk to when they’re struggling or work with the teacher to identify a codeword when they need to step into the hallway for a few quiet minutes.
These are small, discreet items that can be kept on their person all day without disrupting class but still allowing them to have a physical reminder of the person they miss so much.
TIP 6: GIVE THEM PERMISSION TO ENJOY SCHOOL
Remind your child that it’s okay to be happy and have fun at school. That’s what their loved one would have wanted, so there’s no need for them to feel guilty on the good days. If they’re struggling with guilt on their happy days, then their happy days are essentially robbed from them.
It’s so valuable for them to experience untethered joy after such a great loss as it’ll remind them that joy can still be felt after pain.
Make sure you model this behavior in your day-to-day. Experience the joy that comes after loss, laugh hardily with your family, and don’t feel guilty about it. Children pick up on even the faintest of hints, so if they sense that you feel guilty after a good day, they might think they’re supposed to feel guilty after a good day, too. Relish in the sunshine, love big, and laugh hard.
TIP 7: GET THEM EXCITED ABOUT ACADEMICS
Your child needs happiness and excitement back in their lives, and school can be a source of those things, so it's a great time to remind them of that.
If they really love a certain subject, ask them about what they’re excited to learn in that subject or talk about fun field trips coming up. Your child’s teacher may be able to help outline some good things in class coming up so you can give your kiddo a list of things to look forward to.
Before your child heads back to school, get them excited about learning by doing just that – learning! A family trip to the zoo or aquarium can be a fun distraction and remind you both how fun it can be to learn new things.
TIP 8: GET THEM SOME NEW CLOTHES
This may seem a bit materialistic, but after experience child grief, your kid will be a changed person. If you get them a new outfit to wear to school they may feel as if the transition and change in their life is okay, and it is.
Change is a normal part of life, so even small tangible reminders of that can pack a lot of punch in reinforcing the fact that change is part of life.
Maybe there is a pair of shoes your kiddo has been begging for, or a trendy, overpriced athletic sweatshirt they want, so get that item for them. If they feel confident heading back into the classroom, they’re more likely to adjust back at school and feel good about themselves while doing it.
TIP 9: ASK AN OLDER FRIEND TO CHECK IN
A built-in buddy system is a great way to make your child feel supported at school. If they don’t want to share with the kids in their class or talk to their teacher about how they’re feeling, connect them with a student who can mentor them or a family friend who is in an older grade at the same school.
This buddy can check in on them at lunch and recess and make them feel like someone is looking out for them.
TIP 10: GIVE THEM RESPONSIBILITIES AT SCHOOL
A wonderful way to ensure your child is engaged in the classroom is to work with their teacher to identify some things they can be responsible for. Not only will this make them feel needed and valued, but it will give them a sense of purpose and importance back at school. It can also make them feel just a bit special as they head back into a difficult reality.
Depending on their age, these responsibilities may look different. For younger kids, being a line leader or helping spray down the boards after class are great options. For older kids, they can help tutor or even grade papers.
These tasks aren’t meant to burden or overwhelm your child, so don’t force this, but giving them purpose in the classroom can make the adjustment back much quicker.
Additional Resources That Support Children
There are many built-in support systems at your fingertips, but with major grief in children, sometimes more help is needed. If your child is still struggling to head back to school and re-enter their normal day-to-day, there are a few other resources you can tap into to help.
GRIEF COUNSELING OR THERAPY
School counselors are amazing, but if your child doesn’t have a great relationship with their school counselor or they don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable at school, look into professional therapy or grief counseling. Professionals can help your kiddo work through their big feelings and cope with their new reality. They are trained and have dealt with similar situations, so you can trust their expertise.
There is also the option to explore group therapy. In a group therapy setting, your child will work with a therapist in a group setting of other kids who are experiencing loss. Not only can this help your kid understand that this happens to others, but they may find new friends who “get them” on a different level than anyone else can.
ONLINE SUPPORT GROUPS
Online support groups can be a wonderful resource if your child isn’t comfortable talking during group therapy or is more comfortable chatting via text about their experience. There are online support groups for just about everything, and many can be found for children experiencing loss. Make sure you monitor online activity and ensure your child is on a safe platform.
There are a ton of books on grief out there, including ones meant for children experiencing grief. You can find picture books for younger children and more mature books if your child is older. These books can help your child process their situation on their own terms and at their own pace. If your child is struggling with the loss of a parent, we have a helpful guide on how to navigate this devastating time.
TALK TO YOUR CHILD'S DOCTOR
In this day and age, many general practitioners or family doctors take a holistic approach to their patient’s care. Discuss what’s going on with your child’s doctor so they can keep an eye on your little one and help you find additional resources if needed.
Back To School Tips Frequently Asked Questions
How do you help a grieving child?
Grief looks different for everyone, no matter what age they are, so what your child will need from you may look different than what you expect or what your other child needs from you. At the core of it all, your child needs to feel heard, seen, and loved in this process. They need your forgiveness for their angry outbursts and their emotional lows, and there could be many.
When it’s time, they will need to see you go on with life in a healthy and joyful way; if their biggest model for how to handle this pain can’t move on and find joy in life anymore, it’s difficult to expect them to. They also need you to recognize when the help they need is more than you can give them. Don’t wait to get your child professional help in these circumstances.
What if my child refuses to go back to school?
Don’t rush your child back to school after a death in the family; you’ll need to be sure you have discussed the timeline with them and talked about how it might look on the hard days so they know what to expect. If enough time has passed and your child is in a deep depression or dealing with major anxiety that won’t let them return, they likely need to see a professional.
A child psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist can all assist in working through this transition time with your child to make them more comfortable with returning to school.
How long do you get off school if a family member dies?
Each school is different, so be sure to talk to the administrators to discuss your child’s school policy on death in the family. At their core, schools try their best to be supportive of this time and don’t want to rush a child back into the academic setting before their ready, but by partnering with the school early on, a timeline can be decided and everyone, including your child, can get on the same page about what returning to school will look like.
Should I go to school if I am still grieving?
Grief can last a long time. If grieving people didn’t return to school until they were done grieving, it may take months or years for them to go back. It’s really not about waiting until the grief is gone completely but waiting until it’s manageable enough to carry with more “ordinary” days.
There will still be hard days, or maybe every month there’s a day that you or your child will have to take off to deal with grief but returning to school can provide some much-needed structure and routine. Getting back to some normal activities can help remind those who are grieving that life is still moving and worth living.
How do you deal with grief at school?
Set up a contingency plan with your child and your child’s teacher. If there’s an especially difficult day of grieving during the school week, your child can potentially have some quiet work time away from the class or go visit the school counselor who is wonderful at helping a child deal with grief.
If things get really bad, give your child a code-word with their teacher if they need to return home for the rest of the day. All this structure can be put in place and make the child feel truly supported, even if they never need to use it.
When should children return to school after a family death?
There is no set timeline here. Missing too much school can be overwhelming to recover from, and the structure of school can be a help as your child works through grief. After learning the school bereavement policy, discuss with school staff what they have seen work in the past, and when they think a decent time to return might be.
On your side, monitor your kiddo and test the waters by asking them when they want to return. You might be surprised at how soon your little one wants to go back to school. Kids usually love learning and going to school, but they especially love the distraction of being with their friends.
Will going back to school be good for my child?
Returning to school after a loss can be very good for your child. They can interact with the people they enjoy and not be surrounded by sadness and reminders of their loss all day. When they’re home, they can feel the grief in you and the house itself.
Every picture they see on the mantle of the person they lost is a reminder of their loss, opening the wounds again and again. Spending weekdays without multiple reminders of their crushing pain can be very liberating for them.
Is it okay to spoil my child while they grieve their loved one?
It’s very common for a parent to spoil their child who is experiencing a death in the family. You want them to have anything that makes them happy or gives them even the smallest spark of joy, and that’s normal. After such a devastating experience it can feel like no one will ever be happy again.
So go ahead and spoil your kiddo as they heal and as you heal but know that it can’t go on forever. At some point, they’ll have to learn how to work through these feelings instead of masking them, but you don’t have to rush into that.
Stick Together: It Will Be Okay
In all the pain, it can feel as if nothing will ever be good again, but that’s not true. You will find happiness and joy in life and the pain and sadness will lessen to a dull ache. While you have such a big hole in your heart, try to fill it with the love that remains and memories that will last forever.
October 15, 2021 by Jeri K. Augustus