By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.
Good grief may very well be my favorite oxymoron because, really, is there any such thing as good grief? While that’s up for debate, there are definitely some good resources and strategies educators can use to help students grieve and say good-bye to someone (or something) they loved.
While grief looks different in everybody, there’s one thing about the process that’s the same: It’s painful. So painful, in fact, that some days may seem impossible to get through. But despite how it feels as we travel through it, grief doesn’t last forever, and children do make it successfully through to their new normal. What makes the burden easier to bear is being cared for, supported, encouraged, and loved while they experience the five stages of grief as laid out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross back in 1969: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
One way that caregivers can help children through their grief is to talk with them about the five stages so they know what to expect. Validate their feelings of sadness and helplessness. Let them know that it’s okay to feel angry, lost, and alone. It may empower children to know that they will have you by their side as they traverse through all five stages of grief on their way to full healing and emotional wellness.
An effective way to normalize their feelings is by connecting with someone else’s story. Some go-to picture books with a grief/loss theme include:
- Wishes for One More Day by Melanie Joy Pastor. When their grandfather Poppy passes away suddenly, two young siblings find comfort in writing a book in which they can share their special memories.
- Good-Bye, Sheepie by Robert Burleigh. This text beautifully conveys Owen’s love for his dog Sheepie and gently handles what it’s like to lose an animal friend.
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. When his cat Barney dies, the narrator’s mom helps her son grieve by encouraging him to make a list of ten things he wants to remember about their family pet.
- Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. The author uses a soup metaphor to share Granny’s grief experience with older readers: Everybody’s recipe is unique and takes differing amounts of time and ingredients to be ready.
- Sad Isn’t Bad by Michaelene Mundy. A school counselor wrote this book to help comfort students who are enduring the loss of a loved one, to help them lean into the hard feelings and the pain, and to help give them hope that their hearts will heal.
- What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain. Simple and insightful, this book speaks directly to kids about what death means and how to cope with the loss of a special person.
Books alone, however, aren’t likely to be enough to help our grieving students move from their shock to accepting their new normal. Use books as activity springboards. Engage your students in writing, drawing, or other art activities to help them express their feelings of sorrow, confusion, or dismay. Walk alongside them as they make a memory book or jot a list of things that they are going to miss. Writing poetry or doodling to meditative music can also be cathartic for expressing and managing feelings.
If creating something tactile isn’t their thing, encourage your students to move through their feelings literally and figuratively through dance, tumbling, walking, running, calisthenics, rollerblading, or some other gross-motor activity. Remind them that any exercise done outdoors will provide the added bonus of fresh air and the sights and sounds of nature. Normalize their need to work out those uncomfortable, hard feelings in order to feel better both emotionally and physically.
Sometimes feelings get so big that they can easily overwhelm children. Younger children may express these feelings in behavior changes while older children might start to shut down or internalize their grief. If this happens, calmly help them understand that these overpowering feelings won’t last forever. As you encourage them to emote, talk them through the therapeutic benefit of tears. Let them know it’s okay to cry. Support them with a listening ear as they battle through the dark and difficult days trying to make sense of and maneuver through their loss. Sometimes that’s all they’ll need: someone to listen to them, understand them, and maybe even cry with them.
Everybody grieves at his or her own pace, and grief can come in cycles. Let students take the lead as to when and how much they want to talk about their grief, their loss, and their pain. Make sure not to avoid talking about the loved ones who have passed away as if they weren’t ever there. Remembering them out loud is important; saying their name will give your students permission to do the same. Conversely, don’t force students to talk about them if they’re not up for it. I’ve had students tell me, “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” And that’s perfectly okay, too. Carve out some intentional time for them to be a kid, to play, and to have fun. Our task is to honor their wishes while gently reassuring them that we will be there when they are ready so we can help them grieve with hope for healing and a happier tomorrow.
Depending on where your students are with their grief, they may want to honor their loved one with a memorial of some kind. We’ve installed a bird feeder in our nature center, dedicated a bench in our butterfly garden, built a rock garden outside of a classroom window, planted a lemon tree in front of the school, and set a bird bath near the playground. Ask the student what ideas he or she might have and help shape that into an actionable plan. Research together to make sure the idea works in your climate so that the memorial fits and can be somewhat permanent.
If grief persists or a child gets stuck and isn’t progressing through the stages in a healthy manner, referral to an outside counselor or agency for additional grief work would be warranted.
Currently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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YouTube video: Against Grieving in Silence | Rachel Stephenson | TEDxCUNY