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Preparing Students for the Return of a Grieving Classmate

The classmates of a grieving child are often unsure about how to react to their fellow student's return. The class can be helped by the teacher talking with them about:

  • Grief in general — what is it, what feelings are seen in grief, how long it lasts, etc.
  • Potential difficulties the returning student might have
  • Potential changes in the behavior of the grieving student

More information on these topics can be found in our brochure "The Grieving Child in the Classroom."

Often, understanding how they can help their friend is what the friends and classmates of the grieving student are most interested in. When you think about how difficult it is for adults to know how to respond to someone close to them who has had a loved one die, it's easy to understand how children and teens would need some guidance in this area.

How can you help a friend in need?

Someone you know has experienced the death of a loved one. You want to help but aren’t sure how. What do you say or do? How can you help a grieving friend?

Be there to listen if they want to talk about the person who died.

Be there to sit with them when they don’t feel like talking.

Be there to offer a hug when they need it.

Be there to visit, call or send an email, text message or card.

Be there and just be yourself.

What do I say?

When one of our friends has a loved one who died, we may want to be supportive but it is often hard to know what to say. While there is no perfect thing to say in every situation, there are some better things to say and some things that are better to avoid saying.

Do say:

  • "I'm sad to hear that your father (or mother, brother or sister, or friend) died."
  • "If you want to talk about what happened, I am here to listen."
  • "Tell me about ______." (the person who died and use the person’s name)
  • "I can't imagine how hard this must be for you."
  • "I don't know what to say, but I want you to know I am here if you need a friend."

Avoid saying:

  • "I know how you feel."
  • "I'm sorry."
  • "You shouldn’t feel that way."
  • Any cliché like: "Time heals all wounds." "He's in a better place." "You'll be OK."
  • "Try not to think about it."
  • "Be positive."
  • "It's time to put it behind you."

Remember, what you say is not as important as just being there. There is no way to make it "better" for your grieving family member or friend. What most people who are grieving need is someone to be there who will listen and not judge them.

What do I do?

Boy and girl talking

If one of your friends has experienced the death of someone they love, here are a few things that can be helpful for you to know about what they might be going through:

  • A swirl of emotions — When someone dies, people often feel many different feelings — sadness, anger, relief, confusion and many more. Your friend may feel sad one day and angry the next or scared and alone or full of guilt one after the other throughout the day or even sad and relieved at the same time.
  • They want to remember — Talking about the person who died can be comforting — even as they cry as they do it.
  • Drained of energy — When a person is grieving, usually their energy level is lower than normal.
  • They need support — It does matter if you go to the funeral home, even if you don’t know what to say — your presence can mean a great deal.
  • Feelings that last — The feelings of grief will come and go for your friend for a long time, usually longer than you expect.
  • Many layers of complexity — Besides missing the person who died, your friend is surrounded by others whom he or she loves and who are grieving too, adding to his or her confusion and sadness.

Remember, what you say or do isn't as important as just being there for your friend. It's difficult — but it can make a big difference in how they feel.

Make your school culture more sensitive to grieving children

Sad boy

Have the staff learn more about grieving children:

  • *Tours — Caring Team coordinators, school staff and school administrators are welcome to tour the Caring Place to learn more about the impact of death on children as well as how the Caring Place is a resource that can help.
  • Training — Caring Place staff members are available to schools for more in-depth training about the grief of children and its specific impact in the school environment, or for presentations about the Caring Place.
  • Consultation — Caring Place staff members are available to consult with school staff about situations in your school involving a grieving student.
  • School meetings — School meetings (e.g., in-service, PTA meetings or Act 80 days) can be held at no cost in the large meeting space at the Caring Place. In exchange for the meeting space, the Caring Place requests time on the meeting agenda to provide information about the programs we provide (Note: Breakfast or lunch may be able to be provided for these meetings.)

*Note about tours: All tours of the Highmark Caring Place have to be scheduled and coordinated ahead of time. We receive many requests and make every attempt to accommodate them all. However, in order to increase your chances of attending within your desired timeframe, we ask that you plan at least 6–8 weeks in advance for your school's tour.

Provide opportunities for students to learn more about grief

  • *Tours — Students can come to one of our facilities to learn:
    • More about the Caring Place
    • More about what grief is like
    • How they can help their friends or peers who are grieving.
  • Reports and Interviews — Students and/or Caring Team coordinators can report on their participation in the Caring Team. High school students also can interview a Caring Team staff member or school faculty member on morning television announcements.
  • News — Students can write an article for their school newspaper about what they learned on their tour of the Caring Place, or about a Caring Team related activity or event.
  • Children's Grief Awareness Day — Participate in Children's Grief Awareness Day.
group of teenagers