According to tradition, the Buddha’s father tried to shield him from human suffering by raising him in a lavish palace where death was never mentioned and sick and old servants were not allowed to enter.
Intentionally or not, some adults and educators have a tendency to do the same thing with their children and students by avoiding the topics of death and loss.
“I can very much empathize with the parent’s instinct or an educator’s instinct to protect children from this very, very painful and very serious topic,” says Christy Denckla, PhD, a clinical psychologist and research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “As a culture, as a country, we tend to not speak about it very directly. A lot of times parents and educators maybe have a fear of eliciting anxious responses from kids, or negative responses from kids, or causing emotional difficulties for children by addressing the topic. But, in fact, the opposite is the case. By using direct language, by using clear language, we provide a scaffolding and an infrastructure for kids to start to communicate these words and these thoughts and to have a space to talk about it.”
From the more than 550,000 people who have died from COVID in the U.S. to a national reckoning with racism and ongoing racially motivated violence, this year has been characterized by loss and suffering. A recent study in JAMA estimated that nearly 40,000 children in the U.S. had lost a parent due to COVID. Beyond COVID, it it is estimated that 1 in 14 children in the U.S. will lose a parent before they reach the age of 18.
Experts say educators should be addressing this loss and these hardships in the classroom in a safe and thoughtful way.
When and How To Discuss COVID Grief in The Classroom
In addition to providing professional counseling and appropriate support services, educators should acknowledge the difficulties of the past year but they should not attempt to turn their classrooms into group therapy sessions. “What absolutely shouldn't be done is children going around the circle detailing the traumatic events that they and their families have endured,” says Sarah Lowe, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yale School of Public Health.
Instead, she says, educators should focus on addressing what is going on in a developmentally appropriate way while teaching skills such as emotion regulation and coping, as well as social support building. Schools should have some sort of mental health screening process in place to provide one-on-one therapy and other mental health resources to students who require it, she adds.
“The educational environment can be a great place to discuss this, and I think it should be part of the curriculum with the precondition that there is a general infrastructure for emotional safety that's in place,” says Denckla.
For younger students, Denckla says stories can be a great tool for introducing the topics of loss and death. Another effective approach for students of different ages is to introduce various mourning practices or memorials into the classroom. “This can be a really incredible format to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism, because there are so many traditions of grieving and mourning and acknowledging ancestors,” she says. “Things like lighting candles, maybe having flowers, making pictures, making cranes. There's some really great classroom activities in which children can make something or engage actively in the process of acknowledging someone who has died that can really be quite engaging and very inspiring.”
Recognizing Different Types of COVID Grief
Students are experiencing different types of grief in the pandemic, says Colleen Shannon, LICSW, an associate program director for youth and community outreach at The Children’s Room, a nonprofit child bereavement center in Massachusetts:
- Students who experienced a death of a family member prior to COVID and may still be grieving that death.
- Students who experienced a death during COVID that was not from COVID but whose grieving process has been impacted by COVID.
- Students who have experienced a death loss from COVID.
- Students who haven’t experienced a death loss but have experienced all the ambiguous losses from COVID, ranging from missed graduations to birthday celebrations to sports seasons and everything else that has been cancelled this year.
“One place to start is by just naming what’s there, that we have these different students with different levels of loss and experience that's been happening in the past year,” Shannon says. “Each of those groups of students needs slightly different things.”
For the students suffering from the general loss associated with the year, establishing as much routine and predictability as possible is helpful. For example, Shannon suggests having a scheduled check-in with younger students that happens the same time each day and could take the form of a song, and happens regardless of how or where the class is being offered. “So they know whether we're online or we're in person will always start our day with this, or we’ll always end our day with that,” she says.
Students who have experienced a death loss often require more individualized support, so it is good to have a system in place to identify them and provide support through class subject matter that might be difficult.
“What happens for a lot for students who are grieving is that they might be in a classroom and the conversation might be a biology class about cells and then cancer gets brought up and the student gets very activated or very distressed around that conversation,” Shannon says. “That student may feel embarrassed and not not know how to leave the classroom without making a big scene, so having a signal between the student and the teacher, and having a place for that student to go get a drink of water, collect themselves, and then come back in is a great strategy for those students who have had a death loss.”