At the time of writing, the nation was officially in a period of national mourning following the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. As with the deaths of other people who were firmly in the public eye, this has had a profound impact for some, opening the floodgates on previously pent-up grief.
Prince Philip was a firm supporter of the teaching profession. According to a letter he sent to the Chartered College of Teaching in December 2020, he was well aware of the immense pressures facing the profession, thanking teachers and school staff for their “selfless dedication”.
While adults may be able to rationalize the expression of grief that can be triggered by major events such as the death of a member of the Royal Family, or the experience of living through a pandemic which has seen the death of millions around the world, for children this can be far more challenging and potentially more complex. And dealing with the actual grief of the loss of a loved one can trigger feelings that children and young people have possibly never experienced before.
As schools return following the Easter break, it would be useful to remember that the events of the previous few weeks may have affected some children more than others.
Psychologist, Charlotte Taylor, suggests that, “Firstly, it's important to recognise that there will be lots of children and young people that will have lost members of their family because of Covid-19, and because of restrictions, they may not have been able to say goodbye. In addition to being unable to say goodbye due to restrictions, some children will have felt unable to grieve fully because so many people have lost members of their family. There have been so many deaths in the media that children may have felt they can't be 'too sad' because everyone else is sad, too. They may feel, for example, that if they have lost an elderly grandparent that they don't have the right to be as sad as someone that has lost a parent or a sibling; all of these factors mean that we could have a lot of children with unresolved grief sitting in our classrooms.”
In addition, the public reaction to, and media coverage of, the death of a senior member of the Royal Family may have created an opportunity for children and young people to address their own grief. For some this could be a “permission” to grieve. It is important to appreciate that some children may have strong reactions and complex emotional responses, even though the trigger – in this instance the death of the Duke of Edinburgh – may not appear to directly affect them. “It is really important for us to remember that we should not judge or question,” explains Taylor.
The charity, Marie Curie, which is the UK’s leading end of life charity, suggests that it is important for the adults around children and young people to talk about what is happening when it comes to grief. Helping children to feel empowered to say and do what feels right is also important.
Grief UK runs a “Helping Children with Loss” programme to support adults in helping children and young people through grief. This grief may be triggered by the death of a loved one, or it could be through the divorce of parents, the loss of a pet, moving house, changing schools, bullying at school, losing a much-loved friend through relocation and so on. Unresolved or unacknowledged grief, Grief UK explains, may manifest as difficulty concentrating, reduced participation or interest on class, angry outbursts, violence, trouble sleeping, nightmares, or frequent absence from school. Supporting children through this is vital for their on-going development and wellbeing.
Taylor feels that in terms of grieving, there are some universal requirements: being given permission, feeling safe (and knowing where to go if they need safety), and having the opportunity to choose how they grieve. She explains, “Some questions I would ask a school would include:
- where can children go if they feel sad?
- when and where will children have the opportunity to process grief independently (an art room open at lunch time is a great idea)?
- what is your 'bolt hole' policy - if children become overwhelmed with emotion during class where can they go and how can they indicate this need quickly so that they can get out (hand on head means 'I need to go to the chill out area' for example)
- how do your activities allow for individuality (some children won't want to write a letter or draw a picture, some might want to make a playlist whilst others might like to do a dance). We don't have the right to determine how people grieve so must give everyone an opportunity to find their way.
“My advice to schools includes keeping the conversation going. This can't be a 'one off' task or slot in the schedule. I advocate traffic light postcards - each child writes out how they behave when their mental health is good/ok/bad which gives us the chance to know how each child in our class responds and what warning signs to look out for in each child. Allow for a question or comment box that children can share notes in and request if they are answered or responded to privately or in class.”
Celebrating the life of the person or situation lost is important, but Taylor explains that thinking about what you have gained from your time or interaction with the person is key. How have they made the child's life better or brighter? How have they shaped the way they think, what lessons have they taught them? What memories have they given them?
“This is important because it means children are given a building block to create their recovery on - it's difficult to feel better if you are talking about how sad you are feeling or how much you are going to miss someone - this route gives children the opportunity to focus on something more positive and build on those feelings and experiences or qualities to honour and remember,” explains Taylor.
Helping children deal with grief – 5 ways
- Be aware of unresolved grief – there may be children struggling to deal with grief due to the restrictions of the pandemic. Listening without judgement is key.
- Empower – children need to feel empowered to say and do what feels right when it comes to their grief.
- Be vigilant – grief can manifest in many ways in young people.
- Prepare – what support do you have in place for grieving children? A bolt hole? Somewhere to process grief independently? Key staff to listen and hold the safe space for grief?
- Keep talking – in what ways did the lost person, or situation, make the child’s life better?
Find out more…
Charlotte Taylor: HOME | Thisischar
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.