Returning to School After a Death

BY: Helen Fitzgerald

 
Returning to school in the fall is a time of mixed feelings for children: a certain sadness that summer vacation is over, combined with pleasure in seeing old friends and anticipation of what the new year has to offer. But there will be some kids returning to classes this fall who have other feelings that don't fit that mold. For them, the sadness of summer's end won't compare with the sadness they feel, and the excitement of seeing old friends and starting a new year will be overshadowed by something they know that others don't yet know--that someone in their family has died.

Children don't want to be different. That's why they all want to wear the same clothes, carry the same notebooks and backpacks, and use the same jargon. They feel comfortable when they see themselves as indistinguishable parts of a larger whole.

Above all, kids want to be seen as regular members of their group--not singled out as different. Your daughter's self-image is important to her. If she begins to see herself not as "the girl who had the Halloween party" or "the girl who won the spelling bee" but as "the girl whose mother died," she may feel pretty uncomfortable, and this may show up in her attitude and her schoolwork. Alerted, her teachers can help, and so can her friends.

Having a death in the family is certain to make a child feel that he or she is different, and parents need to be prepared to help. If you have had a death in your family--father, mother, brother, sister, or a revered grandparent or cherished family friend--there are many things you can do to make your child's return to school less painful and less likely to cause problems.

For one thing, the school needs to know something about what has happened, and your daughter needs to know that the school knows. I suggest that the two of you try to come up with a plan for telling her best friends first, and then others. Next, decide together what you will say to her teacher, the principal, or her counselor. Since her schoolwork might slip for a while as she recovers from this family tragedy, it's important for the people at school to know what is going on so they can give her extra support. Not knowing, they might criticize her for poor performance or punish her for daydreaming.

Your daughter's friends need to know what has happened, not only to offer support but also to avoid unknowingly saying something that could be hurtful. Without this knowledge, her classmates might tease her or unwittingly spread false rumors.

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