Guidelines for Teachers and School Counselors

Know what signs to look for when helping a grieving student

Counseling children in grief is not part of the training most teachers and school counselors receive. Parents whose children are grieving the death of a loved one could be helpful to their children's teachers and counselors by passing on these suggestions from Helen Fitzgerald, a grief therapist who has worked with bereaved children for over two decades.

  • Learn about /explore your own feelings about grief and loss. Understand why you react as you do when that topic comes up.
  • Educate yourself about the process of grief.
  • Use the correct language. If it is a death loss, say the word "dead" or "died."
  • Avoid using euphemisms or clichés, such as: .when you lost him" or "It's part of God's plan."
  • If possible, set aside regular times for the student to come in and talk.
  • Listening is so important. It isn't necessary to talk or come up with answers. Silence really can be golden!
  • If you can't answer a particular question, it's OK to say so. Sometimes the best response is something like: "I don't know how to answer that, but perhaps we can find someone to help us." Or you might say, "That's a really good question; let me think about it, and I'll get back to you."
  • Accept and encourage the expression of feelings. Help the student identify feelings, and teach good coping techniques.
  • Be objective and accepting as the student shares thoughts and feelings with you.
  • If you and the student are comfortable, it's appropriate to reach out and touch him/her on the arm or some other "safe" place as you talk.
  • Encourage the student to read and educate himself on the process of grief.
  • Be patient; the work of grief takes time.
  • Help the student find available resources. Perhaps start a grief group in your school.
  • Invite the student to come back at any time that you are available to her.
  • Watch for signals that warn of complications:
    • Grades dropping for more than two weeks
    • Withdrawal from school activities and/or friends
    • Spontaneous crying
    • Use of drugs or alcohol
    • Little or total lack of emotion regarding the loss
    • Hyperactive without a sense of the loss
    • Prolonged inability to acknowledge the loss that has happened
    • Extreme reactions to the grief that seem to be lasting too long
    • Change in health
    • Prolonged depression
    • Talking or writing about dying
    • If a counselor notices any of these signs in a child, he or she should contact a parent with any concerns he or she has

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