school child

It’s the beginning of a new school year. Yay.

Students are either terrifically excited about seeing their friends, starting new classes, and getting back into familiar routines, or suffering from terrifying nightmares. (By the way, some of their teachers may be returning to school with similar feelings!)

For the students who have experienced a significant loss of a loved one within the past few months, or even past few years, there may be particular challenges ahead. Take for instance, Jeff and Sarah whose father, Ian, died from cancer last April just after Spring Break. This year, Jeff is entering Grade 10 at a new school and Sarah will be in Grade 6.

Three Tips about Grief at School

Their mom, Betty, is wondering what she can do to help her kids start the new year. Here are 3 tips which may make it easier for her to make some decisions:

  1. It take time for the reality of a death to move from head knowledge to the heart – that’s when we really start to feel the impact of our loss. For many of us, this can take anywhere between three or four months, up to a year. Chances are that Jeff and Sarah may just beginning to experience their own unique traits of grief as they start the new school year.
  2. Grieving will affect Jeff and Sarah’s brains and bodies in ways that may interfere with their ability to learn.
  3. Chances are that Jeff and Sarah’s new teachers may not be aware of Ian’s death, or have any experience helping grieving students.

Many, if not most kids, when asked if they want their parents to talk about their loss to their teachers will answer with a resounding, “NO!” In their “new normal world of chaos” they want to school to be the one place that things can be as ordinary as possible. If Betty finds herself in this position, I wholeheartedly suggest that this is one of those times when negotiating with Jeff and Sarah HOW, not IF, to let their teachers know what’s happening is the way to go.

When the teachers understand the cognitive challenges ahead for grieving kids, they can make assignment and learning modifications that will help them be more successful in their studies.

Five Tips for Parents to Help their Grieving Kids Start the School Year

    1. Talk to your kids:
      • About the reasons why it’s important for the teachers know about the current situation and what led to it.
      • To decide if they would like to participate in the teacher meeting.
      • About what information they do, or don’t want their teachers to know. Sometimes, it may be necessary to flange out their reasons for their decisions, and negotiate as need be. For example, if Jeff doesn’t want his teachers to know that he often cries about his dad, you could still share with his teachers that he is feeling sad.
    2. Call the school and set up a one-hour meeting in the third or fourth week of school. Things will have settled a bit in the school by this time, and the staff will be better able to attend and participate fully in the meeting. Ask to speak to whoever will be the staff member organizing the meeting – it varies from school to school.
      • For children in elementary school, ask for a meeting with the Principal or Vice Principal, and your child’s key teacher.
      • For junior high students, ask for a meeting with your teen’s designated Assistant Principal, the Guidance Counselor and/or the Resource teacher.
      • For high school students, ask for a meeting with your teen’s designated Assistant Principal, the Guidance Counselor, and /or the Resource teacher.
      • If your child’s school has other resource people available, such as a Social Worker, ask to have them at the meeting as well.
    3. Be prepared to tell an abbreviated version about the family loss and how your child has been reacting or coping at the end of the last school year, and at home. Here’s a chart that may help kids, parents, and teachers identity common grief reactions for kids and teens.


    1. Offer a list of grief resources to the school staff with whom you’re meeting. Ask that the information be intentionally shared with each of the student’s teachers. If teachers don’t know what a grieving student needs, how can they be helpful? Look here for resources:
    2. Develop a communication strategy:
      • Between the parent and a key point person at the school
      • Which occurs at regular intervals i.e. the first and third Friday of each month
      • Which is easily accessed i.e. through email
      • Which involves feedback from the student’s teachers i.e. the key point person asks the teachers for concerns
      • Which involves feedback from the parent about significant events or days in the family grief journey i.e. the upcoming birthday of the deceased Dad

As the school year progresses, the communication strategy can be tweaked or re-worked.

The important thing is to let the teachers know that they have grieving kids who will need some special care in their class this year. Above all else, their kindness and compassion will help change those students’ lives. Really.

Written by Wendy Kurchak B.MusA, B.Ed, CT
Wendy is certified in thanatology through the Association for Death Education and Counselling and is a retired guidance counselor from the Calgary Board of Education

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