How I support pupils when someone important to them has died

By  Helen Daniels, Primary School Teacher, Argyll and Bute

We mustn’t underestimate the huge significance in allowing children the safe space to be sad, to let them cry, to discuss those tricky emotions and share stories about the people they’ve lost. 

Teaching really is one of the best jobs in the world, and getting it right for every child is at the heart of all that I do. But I’ve always had one stumbling block - I didn’t feel equipped to support pupils who had lost someone they loved.

My own mum died when I was 15 years old. I do remember being asked if I wanted to speak to someone, but it was too soon, I think I was in denial. Then I went into survival mode.

Two years ago I saw a Child Bereavement UK training session for teachers and decided to sign up. It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done and have attended several since. Not only have I gained the knowledge and confidence to support others, I feel I’ve been given the keys to unlock my own unresolved grief.

The thing is, it’s not rocket science. I think teachers already have the tools they need. It’s the confidence to talk openly about death and dying that’s missing. Often we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, but saying something is far better than saying nothing. Using the words ‘death’, ‘dying’ and ‘dead’ are so much more helpful to a young person than ‘passed away’ or ‘gone,’ but I’ve literally had to practice this at home. It’s not an easy shift to make.

I cannot put into words how powerful it was for me to say, for the first time in 25 years, “My mum is dead.” There is significant freedom in accepting the reality and then finding coping strategies to process the grief. I wish I’d been helped to say it sooner, I was too good at pretending ‘everything was ok.’

Child Bereavement UK have a beautiful animation about ‘puddle-jumping.’ It illustrates how children jump seemingly effortlessly from being in a state of loss, to being in a state of resolution (moving on/participating in normal everyday activities.)  Both elements are crucial. Often, adults are good at helping children to keep busy, distracted or trying to cheer them up but we mustn’t underestimate the huge significance in allowing children the safe space to be sad, to let them cry, to discuss those tricky emotions and share stories about the people they’ve lost. 

Teaching is a demanding job, we must ensure we take good care of ourselves too. The most important thing I’ve changed about my practice over the last two years, is not being afraid to ask for help. After all, it’s the very thing we encourage our young people to do. Child Bereavement UK’s staff, training and resources really are fantastic - be empowered by them to make the difficult journey for a young person, a little more manageable.


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