Monday, August 17, 2015

Helping Kids Grieve

Saying goodbye is never easy.  Teaching kids to say goodbye in difficult and seemingly permanent circumstances is even harder.  This year, my school went through a season of loss that was heavy.

A longtime staff member died unexpectedly.  Three school families lost their fathers, one to a long battle with illness and two suddenly.  Staff members experienced the loss of grandparents, parents, and grandchildren.  So many deaths in such a small community hit us hard, and we were left to pick up the pieces and carry on for the kids.

So what did we do?  What did our classrooms look like with kids actively grieving?  How did we teach the kids the religious, social, and moral skills needed to navigate these waters, when many of them were experiencing death for the first time?

I am not an expert, and I have no formal training in grief counseling, etc.  But I am a teacher that spends hours with kids each day, and had to learn quickly how to help them try and understand hard things.  From a pure teacher-to-teacher standpoint, I'd like to share some of the things that I did in my classroom and what we did as a school community to help the students in our school grieve and the support the families that needed us.

This situation is one chief reason that I am grateful to be in a Catholic School.  Everything we talked about could ultimately point to the truth of Christ and the hope of heaven.  That is why we are there, after all. 

Ideas for a school community during a time of loss:
  1. Communicate visitation and funeral information to the larger school community and clarify if the family has any immediate needs. Offer a collection to the school families towards the chosen memorial- it might be easier for some to funnel their contributions through the school or be given more time to donate besides at just the funeral services.
  2. When appropriate, have a memorial or prayer service held during school hours, especially if many students will not be able to attend the funeral. This was done after the sudden death of one of our staff members.  Our priest joined the kids in sharing happy memories, prayed for him and his family, and focused on heaven.  It was short, age appropriate for even our little kids, and was necessary for our school community.
  3. Have a Mass said for the repose of the soul of the person who died.  If possible, schedule it at a time when students and staff can attend.
  4. Think of some ways to creatively remember the person who has passed away.  Have a picture, statue, etc. dedicated somewhere in the school building.  Have a special dress up day, meal, or snack celebrating something the person loved.
  5. Give the opportunity to support the family after the initial grief period.  While many families are inundated with food and offers of help immediately after a death, our school sent gift cards to restaurants and cash about a month after their loss to help provide continued support over a longer period of time.
  6. Offer a school Rosary, Holy Hour, or spiritual bouquet of some kind and communicate those prayers to the family.  We made prayer cards for the kids with the Eternal Rest prayer on one side and the person's picture on the other.  We used that to pray together, and many students kept that card taped on their desk for the rest of the year.
  7. Send handmade cards with personal messages from the students.  This was a great opportunity to teach the kids about how to help someone who is grieving- what to write and how we can support them.
Click here for a copy of the prayer cards we made- You could add a picture, a name, etc. to the other side.
Here are some examples of cards made by students for family members:

The staff member who died was known for loving Mountain Dew and donuts, so after our school prayer service, each class enjoyed a snack as a way to remember him.  While we ate, the kids freely shared some of their favorite memories of the person.  We were all laughing and crying, and it was a good positive outlet.
He also wore a plaid flannel shirt nearly everyday, so on a chosen day we all wore plaid to remember him.  We took an all school picture and it was featured in the yearbook.
Special care has to be taken when the loss directly affects someone in your classroom.  Here are some ideas for a classroom during a time of loss:
  1. If a student or parent is suffering from a long term illness, make sure that the students in your classroom support them during that time.  Actively and frequently pray for the person and send get well cards and signs.
  2. After a loss, speak openly to the kids.  Allow time for them to share their grief and concerns as well.  Whenever possible, especially in the early days, offer a safe place or designated person where the kids know that they will have someone to talk to.  We don't have a school counselor, etc. on staff, but there were days when we had some retired teachers, volunteers, and our priest in the building so that kids would have someone to see if they needed.  
  3. Allow the kids to send cards and letters to the family of the person that died.  As was mentioned before, this is a great teaching opportunity to guide them through the etiquette of grief.  This experience is teaching them to live out the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in a real way.
  4. On that note, if a student in your class has lost a close family member, work with the other kids on how to support that student when they return to school.  We discussed how the student might not want to talk about it, or they might want to tell someone everything.  We practiced things to say to their friend and how to help them when they got back.  
  5. Let the kids brainstorm practical ways they would like to be involved in helping.  Organizing a spiritual bouquet, a Hour Hour, having a Mass said, starting a fundraiser- kids want to help.  Let them use that fuel to do good.
  6. Lift up the soul of the person in prayer.  Pray for their families frequently.  Use formal prayers, but also let your students hear you pray openly in your own words, and let the kids that wish to do the same.
  7. Send home a care package of resources.  You can include booklets about grief and loss both for adults and children.  Send a card or note.  Give a special gift that would remind them of the person they love.  With kids, I like to give a special age appropriate journal or notebook with new pens, stickers, post its, etc.  I write them a note encouraging them to use the journal to write and draw their feelings, memories, worries, and prayers.  They also can use the journal as a place to put special pictures or cards they receive during this time.

There are a few books I have used with kids during a time of loss.  No book is perfect, but I know that they can create opportunities for conversations or give kids a source when they are not ready to talk.

<a href="">When Someone Dies: A Childrens' Grief Workbook</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />
When Someone Dies: A Children's Grief Workbook This one is probably my favorite resource that I have recently used.  It is an inexpensive "workbook" that can be kept by the kid.  It would probably be good for 2nd-6th graders.  I liked the personal letters inside with stories of other kids who had experienced the death of someone they love, the Bible stories, the practical ideas for helping, and the information about the meaning and symbols in the Catholic funeral liturgy.

<a href="">Somebody I Know Has Died</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />
Somebody I Know Has Died is another inexpensive booklet that could be given to kids to keep.  Contrary to the juvenile illustration on the cover, the Q&A content on the inside is written at much more of a junior high reading level.  While not impressed with the layout and design, the content still could make it worth using.

<a href="">What Happens When We Die (Childrens Bible Basics)</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />
What Happens When We Die (Children's Bible Basics) is a book I have in my resource library.  It focuses on the meaning and truth of heaven and is told through the eyes of a young boy talking to his mom.  It would be good for lower elementary.

I sent home a care package to one of my students after a death in her family and I included the first two books above, cards from her friends, and a special note, as well as this new journal, pens, stickers, etc.  We also include some resources in the care package for other members of her family.

While I don't ever want to have to repeat a year like this one, we all know that death is a natural part of life.  We are not meant for this world, and while we long for heaven, we have to comfort those that are still here.  I hope that these ideas will be useful to you if you ever find yourself struggling to help kids get through grief.  Please let me know if you have any questions or ideas that could work well for others.

Other resources/ideas can be found here and here and here.

"And He who sits on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.'”
~Revelation 21:5


Linking up this post with the #BISsisterhood Link-Up // GOODBYE
Go visit for more posts on saying goodbye.

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