Skip to main content

Grief in Schools

Children who have experienced a death may have some common reactions for some time after the death. These reactions often include being distractible and forgetful, feeling fearful or having a sudden outburst of tears. Because grief is a process, it takes time for the child to work on. Teachers, as trusted adults in the lives of children, can play an important role in supporting grieving children.

A student's reactions to a death

After the death of someone a child has loved, he or she may have a number of reactions for quite a while afterward (especially if it was a parent who died — these reactions might last for years). Realizing what the child might be experiencing could help prepare the student, the adults in his or her life and those at the school as well. Beyond that, there are certain actions that parents or guardians and school teachers and administrators can take to help a grieving child find their way back into their old classroom.

Grief is the natural human response to the death of a loved one. It's the connection to the person no longer with us.

Grief is complex and it's a process, not an event. It's not a single feeling or experience. It's a confusing mixture of many feelings, thoughts and sensations swirling together.

Grief is not just the sadness of missing someone. It's the reorganizing of an entire life.

Grief is feeling out of control.

Grief is love, not ever wanting to say goodbye.

Distractible and daydreaming

For children (and adults), not much is clear immediately after a death and it can take many years to discover the full implications of what is truly lost, what is actually left and what is possible in life without the loved one.

How do we make these deep discoveries? By going over and over in our minds every aspect of our lives — as it was, as it is, as it could have been, as it might be, as it no longer will be ...

It's no wonder a grieving child is distractible.

So they stare. They drift off into space. They're sidetracked easily by movements and sounds in the classroom. They think about the person they loved — the person they love still — wishing they were still alive, remembering them, wondering what their loved one is doing now, wondering how they themselves are going to survive without them.


Feelings written on notes

For the same reasons, a grieving child can be much more forgetful than they used to be.

There is much more than usual going on in a grieving child's mind. It makes sense that some things get pushed to the back burner — or out of the mind entirely. They can forget to do homework or to turn in completed homework. They can forget a project is due. They can forget that something needs to be signed by a parent. They can forget pencils, books or anything else.


A grieving child might have fears that weren't there before. After a loved one dies, a child's natural fear is, "Who will die next?" And right after that is, "And who will take care of me then?"

Many children become afraid to separate from their parent or parents after a death. Or they become afraid that something terrible is going to happen to their family and they want to be there to protect them.

Grieving children can also be nervous about being in social situations with their peers where they might be singled out, talked about or picked on. Oftentimes, fear is the unseen motivator behind a number of behaviors.

Sudden outbursts of tears

At any time during the day, a grieving child might be reminded about the person who died. Thinking about their loved one can easily cause the child to become tearful or to cry.

Daily life contains many hidden pitfalls for children who have lost a close relative. New friends ask how many siblings are in the family. Other kids complain about their parents. The school sponsors a father & son camp-out. The loved one's birthday arrives or the anniversary of their death does. All of these and more might lead a child to feel overwhelmed.

It's important to understand that these "grief attacks" or "grief bursts" are very common to those in grief (child or adult). In addition, there is not always a visible or understandable trigger to them.

A process not an event

The death of someone we love is not an event — it's the first chapter in a lifetime of living without that person. At every age, we have to discover how we're going to manage without this person whom we love so dearly.

Grief is a long process — and for many children, the second year after a death is harder than the first year.

It's important not to assume that a child will "just get over it" after the passage of a certain amount of time. If grief is love not ever wanting to say goodbye, then grief doesn't have a final ending point. Grief changes and sometimes moderates over time, but the journey of grief is a lifetime journey.

How to be a supportive person

Teachers especially, as well as other school personnel, don't need to be afraid to talk to the grieving student about the death they've experienced.

Sometimes adults mistakenly keep a low profile with grieving children. Teachers are important to students as a source of support for the hours they're in school. It can be very helpful for a child to know that their teacher is open and willing to listen to their painful feelings and their memories of the good times as well.

As much as we'd like to take away the grief our students are feeling, we can't. Listening, even more than talking, is the most important thing a teacher can do to provide the child with support. When the child is spoken to, it's important to use concrete terms (like "dead" and "died") and avoid terms such as "passed away" or "lost" as these can be confusing to a child.

Find ideas on how to help a grieving student during the school day.

Find ideas on how to help prepare other students.