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.
The more painful the loss, the more tempted a child may be to try and keep it secret. By no means, should you agree to this. Such a significant secret is much too big a burden. If it was her father who died, she would live every day dreading questions about him, or discussions about fathers in general, or inquiries about life at home. She would find it awkward to have friends over to the house. And, of course, at the heart of her desire to keep her father's death a secret would be an unhealthy denial of the grief she is carrying.
What adults need to recognize is that children's grief is not a passing thing, and the death of a close relative is not something easily dismissed. Just because your son seems to be OK doesn't mean that he is OK. Just because your daughter says, "Don't worry about me," doesn't mean that you should take her advice. All too often, children blame themselves for a death, even though they had nothing to do with it. Younger children, especially, see themselves as having enormous power and blame themselves when something bad happens. I have seen the frequent outcome: angry, disruptive behavior, sloppy schoolwork, and distraught parents not knowing what to do.
In the months ahead, just as his teachers are observing him, I believe it is important for you to check your son's homework carefully, not only for accuracy and neatness but also for what he is writing about or drawing. Many hidden feelings and worries come out in a child's writing or art. Watch for signs of withdrawal, crying, or depression, and waste no time in finding a therapist if they persist more than two or three weeks.
If you find that your daughter is deeply troubled by the death, I suggest that you do some research into the resources that are available in your area and bring them to the attention of her teachers and counselors. There may be a children's support group that she could attend, or her school might consider starting one. If you strike out on that, you might find help at your local mental health center. There are many more services provided for children today than there were just a few years ago (though still not enough), and they could be of enormous help to your daughter. I have helped many thousands of such troubled children, and I know that grieving children do respond when given a chance to express their grief.
The death of a family member is one of those unfortunate events that, much as we wish otherwise, deeply affect our lives. Children can't be expected to ride them out any more easily than adults. But unlike adults, they have few resources to help them. That's where a parent comes in.
If you work at it, are honest with each other, and share your tears and feelings, the death in your family could bring you and your child closer than you ever were before. That won't make up for the loss you have suffered, but it will enrich you both.