For students of any age, the death of a parent is an especially difficult time. Adults who have lost a parent need time to go through the grieving process. They draw on past experiences of death and heal through the passage of time. School-aged children who suffer the loss of a parent are often dealing with their first experience with death. They have neither the time nor experiences to learn to cope.

In addition, it is difficult for many children to watch the surviving parent struggle to cope with the loss of a spouse and begin to move on. Children take their cues from adults and if the surviving parent is having a difficult time coping, the child likely will struggle as well.

The stress of changes and adjustment often has a negative impact upon the child’s ability to concentrate and interact in the school day. The teacher and other school staff can play a significant supportive role for the grieving child.

Losing a Parent During the School Years is Common

According to the United States Census Bureau about 1 out of 20 children experience the loss of a parent before they graduate high school. There are over 120,000 orphans in America and another 400,000 children who live without permanent families.

Progress in school is an area impacted negatively by the change, stress and instability of the child’s life. Studies have shown that these children are at risk to have slowed academic progress, heightened behavioral problems, and increased potential for dropping out of school without a diploma.

Type and Timing of the Death

No matter whether the death was expected or not, when a parent passes away it is a very traumatic event. Death can occur in a variety of ways – through drugs or alcohol, automobile accidents, suicide, cancer and illness or even engaged in acts of war – and each require unique coping skills to guide the process and healing.

Grieving a death from a natural cause is very different than grieving a death from a tragedy. The age of the child at the time of loss will also impact the duration and intensity of the grief. Adults in the school system should be aware of the unique responses that students will have to circumstances of the death of a parent.

Telling the Story is Therapeutic

After a death, many children want to share their understanding of what has happened to them with others. Psychologists have agreed that telling the story is a healing experience for most children. One of the strongest things that adults can do is listen to the story of the young ones who are grieving.

The child may tell the same story many times. In addition, the child may want to talk about positive experiences or characteristics of the deceased parent. Reassure the child that adults care for the child and will be there to provide support. As much as possible, react with the same calm, consistent demeanor each time the child wishes to speak.

Administrators Can Inform and Oversee

As soon as possible, an administrator from the school should contact the surviving parent to offer condolence and to receive accurate information on the details that can and should be shared with the school community. The school can be a big help to the surviving family by serving as the communicator of information. This is vital to the positive grieving process because misinformation or miscommunication can cause negative setbacks to the process.

The death should be acknowledged by the school community. If circumstances allow, several key adults will want to be present at visitations and the funeral service. The school may have a crisis or emergency team in place to assist in getting information to the school community and providing support to those most affected by the loss.

Faculty, staff and other administrators should be given as much information as is available as soon as possible. They will be receiving the questions from the school community immediately and should have accurate information for reply. The professionalism of the informed staff will be a source of comfort and strength to the bereaved family.

Not everyone will be affected by the death in the same way. Some adults and children who have very little contact with the bereaved student and family may experience intense grief because of the loss. Students who are having difficulty in processing the death or who are demonstrating radically changed behavior should be referred to the school counselor for assistance.

The Role of the School Counselor

School counselors’ generally work in conjunction with the classroom teachers to evaluate a child’s progress through the grieving process. The counselor can offer tips and suggestions to teachers and staff who are working with the student, and provide encouragement and direction to the family.

Similar to adults, children are unique in their understanding and ability to cope with the loss from a death. Much of their understanding depends on their age and developmental levels, their mental and emotional levels, their religious beliefs, the teaching and support of their parents and their past experiences with death. School counselors’ are often trained in both developmental education, along with significant hours of training and clinical practice in working with children.

The school counselor can provide a safe place for the student to talk about feelings. By removing the child from the classroom for opportunities to talk, the student may feel less pressured by the rigors of the academic and social school day.

In addition, the school counselor can spend enough time with the student to determine what plan of support can be developed for the child. By consulting with teachers, administration and the family, the counselor can determine what help can be provided in the school environment and make recommendations for more thorough evaluation and support.

The Teacher Can Foster Healing

Children who experience the death of a parent will automatically feel separate and alone. They will feel different than their classmates. They are experiencing several emotions that they have never felt before. Their stability and security has been shaken by the loss of one of the most significant people in their life. School can be both a distraction and a reminder of their circumstance.

Here are a few things that a teacher can do that may assist the child through the grieving process.

  • Make an effort to have a couple of contacts a week with the surviving parent. Inform the parent of any changes in behavior or academic difficulties that the child may be experiencing. Reassure the parent of the progress or stability that the child exhibits. The contact will not only help the child see that the important adults in their life are working together, it will also bring confidence and stability to the surviving parent.
  • Provide as much routine and structure for the child as possible. While the student will need patience and guidance and occasionally some adjusted expectations, routine and structure to the school day will help bring comfort and assurance to the child.
  • Acknowledge the feelings that the child expresses. One of the most common feelings for many children is the fear that they will lose the other parent in a tragic way as well. Helping the child understand that the feeling is normal, with the added assurance that the other adults are going to stay in the child’s life can be helpful.
  • Many students are involved in a variety of reading experiences in the classroom. Literature which features diverse family structures, including books that deal with the loss of a parent, can be included in the reading choices of the classroom.