Helping bereaved children at school

I'm working on a feature for a teachers' magazine about how staff can help pupils whose mum or dad has died. The wonderful charity Winston's Wish reports that this happens to 22,000 youngsters every year in the UK - that's one every 22 minutes.

Support available varies from school to school. Heartbreaking stories abound about how a lack of support and understanding can add to children's anguish. One little boy at primary school whose solider dad was killed in Afghanistan was refused permission to take in his medal, because it was feared it would upset his classmates.

At parents' evening I was taken aback when a teacher began to tell me he felt one of my daughters was 'letting herself down' by not concentrating fully in lessons recently. As this came around a month after Neil  died, I had no hesitation in butting in and telling him that as far as I was concerned, her getting out of bed and making it to school was enough of an achievement for me and cough, she most certainly wasn't "letting herself down".

"My mum rocks," she announced later and for once I took a compliment. I felt it was important for me to politely say to the teacher "let me stop you there," and important that my daughters saw me do that too. I'm affected by an inability to concentrate much four months on so the thought of them being reprimanded for that so early on was upsetting.

But overall I have to say that my family's experience of help at school has been hugely positive. Both my daughters' form tutors, their head of year and their headteacher have been very supportive, patient and understanding. 

Their on-going support and readiness to work with others has really made a difference and brought me genuine peace of mind that my daughters continue to find school a lovely place.

But it's such a shame that the support available is so variable at a time of such agony and can have a profound and far-reaching effect on the lives of so many children. Teachers need to be aware of the unique needs of bereaved children and recognise the challenges they may bring to the classroom, learning about how best to respond to them. That's where training from Winston's Wish can be so vital. 

Have you got an example you can share of how your children were treated at school when they had lost someone so very close? (This isn't for the purposes of my article, I'd just love to hear from other parents about their experiences as I'd love to see it discussed more.) 

I'd welcome any comments on this, named or anonymous and would like to possibly use the responses in a future blog post to help others. Thank you for reading. 

  

27 comments:

  1. I remember being off school for a few days when my mum died. When I returned to school everyone was very sympathetic, I later discovered that the whole school had been told during assembly. I found the whole thing overwhelming and had to have another week off school. Similarly to your daughter, I wasn't able to concentrate fully and my Dad was called into school because I had doodled on one of my exercise book covers. My Dad made it clear, to the teacher, what he thought about her dragging him in for such a small thing, a month after my mother had died.

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    1. Hi Laura thanks for commenting so thoughtfully, I remember looking at the teacher and wondering if his parents were still alive and wondering how he would cope with such loss. I can't imagine how difficult it was for you to go back after a few days and then to know how to react when you find out everyone knew! How would anyone react to that? We are just supposed to get on with things in so many ways, unbelievable xxx

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  2. I remember being very upset on my birthday one year in primary school because I had shared it with my grandad and he had passed away. A teacher from another class was brilliant, read me a wonderful book about people we love and let me into the teachers lounge for a glass of juice and a quiet minute. It really helped me and because it wasn't even my teacher I think it meant more. She must have told my teacher and my mum because I remember everyone being extra nice to me that afternoon

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    1. Hello - those little extra touches of kindness can go a long way, how wonderful that memory has stayed with you.

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  3. My children's nursery were amazing when my Mum died. My daughter's keyworker made a memory book with her, full of photos which she asked me if we would like to bring in. I couldn't face doing the book myself at that time, and so I was so appreciative of someone taking that task on for me. My daughter still refers to it now and I am so glad they captured those memories with her, 3 year olds forget so fast. As an ex secondary teacher, I know it is so challenging in a rigidly structured prescriptive environment to give this kind of support and I know teachers would benefit from more training. When I was teaching I had very little experience of loss to guide me.

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    1. Hello - thank you for sharing that, your daughter's keyworker sounds like such a caring member of staff, what a lovely thing for them to do together. It's interesting to me that you have hit on the fact that you had little experience of loss to guide you in a work setting - for us, I don't think there's anything that could ever have prepared us for this agony but I'd always expected my daughters' first experience of loss to be an older/perhaps more distant relative than their dad - this part of our experience makes me want to scream, when I think about all they will miss.

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  4. Hi Linda I realised I hadn't expressed my sorrow for your loss. So sorry about that. That sense of what will be missed is such agony. I have found some comfort in the Gibran quote, the one that starts when you are sorrowful...
    And in writing, keep writing :)

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  5. Mine aren't in school. To be honest, I think that was probably a good thing as there was no pressure to conform to an acceptable time frame and no crass comments to deal with. At one point I got in touch with Cruse but although they talked the talk of supporting kids, they were a chocolate teapot in reality

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  6. We did get the clubs etc they went to to warn other kids and try to be supportive but in all honesty they could not compute we were asking for a long period of understanding, not just a week or two. It was beyond the gym to understand that their brother dying altered how they felt about their own safety and mortality permanently.

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  7. hank you for commenting so frankly, it's very interesting to me to hear about your experience as a home ed mum, I was thinking about this as I set off back to work just now, what you say here is so vital on so many levels, for me, I was thinking that the help we have been able to benefit from at school has brought me some peace of mind, I think I would have been even more at sea without the direct contact and help from my daughters' head of year and form tutors. I haven't been in touch with Cruse, but I have had a fair bit of contact with Winston's Wish, ringing their helpline the most recent time yesterday, they were very helpful. I think the element of understanding that support and love and care needs to be there for beyond even 12 months is a long way off, a lady I interviewed yesterday who works with Winston's Wish said that when a young child had suffered a close bereavement, the onset of adolescence years later could bring it all back and that within schools greater communication between primary and secondary schools was needed. Merry would you mind if I added your comments to the comments at the bottom of my blog post as I would like to be able to keep hold of them in one place to possibly refer back to and share experiences with the aim of helping others at a later date, thanks again and do forgive me, I know I can go on a bit. x

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  8. Merry (via facebook)28 September 2012 at 08:54

    Just to add, I know my youngest has returned to her grief with each new stage of her on development. My husband lost his mum when he was ten; he's been very much a guardian of their process from the beginning and tried to make sure we don't stumble into some of the mistakes made around him a the time.

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  9. What about when they lose a sibling also? My daughter has not coped we'll at all and her school (a catholic) were worse than useless. I was so glad when she left, they did nothing but lie to us all even a CAF team about how she was coping and it wasn't affecting her grades etc but it did, they used to asked her questions in front of her school friends etc, now she is at college they have sorted out counselling already for her but its wrong she has had to wait 3yrs for the educational side of things to help her, I did everything I could as well as holding up hubby and son xxx (sorry for essay) x

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  10. Hi A, not an essay! Thank you for sharing, it makes me so sad to hear how awful support -- or lack of it can be and the effect this can have, I have some information about losing a sibling I can dig out for you, i won't be able to look for it until tomorrow afternoon, I think I need to write about this again at some point. I want people to read and care about these stories where help is absolutely not as it should be xxx

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  11. Thank you, we got the winstons wish stuff when it happened and her being 13/14 didn't want to know, big brave girl I can cope syndrome, you may use it of course but don't put my name ect if you don't mind. It was her step brother but they had been best friends from a very young age and I don't know but I feel she thought we cared more about the other siblings as they were more 'blood' related but that was further than the truth xxx

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  12. My daughters are 13 and there's a massive difference in how they're coping, we have a counselling session tomorrow and there's so much I want to say! I'm so sorry to hear all you have been through Angie, I will just use the initial A. It is such early days for us but already I know there are people who expect us to be 'back to normal' and we will never be that, somehow we need to find a new 'normal' with all the guilt, pain and bewilderment that takes.

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  13. 3 yrs on and still hurts, simple things make us smile though the same as they do cry, wishing you all the best in dealing how you feel best xxx

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  14. (Lisa via twitter)28 September 2012 at 09:04

    When my mam died me and my siblings just had to get on with it, there was no help. I'm so glad children now receive help. Still affected by it now, nearly 30 years later. Counselling would have helped all of us at the time, I'm sure. (I've added this comment - LA)

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  15. When Livvy died the schools were really supportive and offered a place for them to go if their emotions overwhelmed them. But to be honest they were short in their supportive time frame.

    My girls are nearly four years on in their journey but are at very different stages.

    My youngest is scared she will forget Livvy as her memories are fading. Her last experience with school and grief was a bad one it was Livvys birthday and she was sad and the teacher told her that she couldn't be sad every year she needs to move on. I was like she can be sad whenever she wants.

    My second eldest is the one worrying me, she is so very angry at life. She doesn't get why she had to lose her sister. She is rebelling in everything. School really don't understand and see her as uncooperative and have pretty much given up on her.

    Its heartbreaking as how do you explain why you have to face such pain when the truth is you yourself have no answers.

    We haven't had any formal Counselling and to be honest I really wish we had.

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    1. Hi Sara, I am touched that you have taken the time to comment here in such a meaningful way. Sometimes I wonder about how much my own grief is adding to what my girls are going through and that makes me feel so very guilty (I'm saying that as your thought about not knowing the answers has reminded me.) I'm so sorry to hear what a time you are all having of it, I find the teacher's attitude so misguided but I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise. My own experience has shown me how heartbreaking a child's inner rage can be. Do you think there is any support that can still be offered? Would you call Winston's Wish? I spoke to them on the phone about grief, anger and unpicking 'normal' teenage behaviour while also struggling myself. I broke down in tears as I always do, but the conversation gave me specific answers about what I could say to help us move forward. It was tough to hear and tough to say but I have to say it helped. Lots of love to you all xxxx

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  16. It's crazy but before we were allowed to foster we had to undertake a grief assessment which we passed with flying colours. We were still grieving but in a normal way. Who in the world is normal.

    As for you grief affecting the girls it allows them to show theirs. I tried to put on a brave face a one if the things my daughter said to me was it was hard for then to be sad when I was trying hard nig to be.

    Also to be totally honest trying to cover my grieve left me struggling inside and covered me in a darkness I couldn't escape.

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  17. I hear you Sara, one of the most useful (if that's the right word) things anyone has said to me and it might have been on here in response to my post about how my grief feels, I can't remember, was that I should let my grief in. I don't have a choice but I think it's just to be expected that along with the pain and anxiety, comes guilt, it's such early days for us all but we are hanging on on there, but another thing I have done is recognised that for us, not only is help available, also wise people kindly nudge us to take it, we are taking all the help we can, for example a course of complementary therapies at St Giles, I let them know I was missing an appointment because of work, I thought that would be that but they organised a different date and time for me. In some respects it's hard to admit/accept we need that help but if I think about what has happened happening to someone else, I acknowledge of course they would need it, losing the love of your life is going to be unbearable and far too 'big' a thing for me to know what to do all by myself. Thanks for your comments and allowing me to ramble on. I have always admired families who foster and for you to offer a child a place of safety and love after all you have been through is remarkable IMHO xxx

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  18. My dad died 40 years ago when I was just 4 years old and I remember how Father's Day used to be such a difficult time for me at primary school. Each year, while everyone else was encouraged to make cards for their dad, I was encouraged to make a card for my grandfathers.

    The teachers probably thought this was a good, sensible alternative and a way of overcoming that awkward moment. However, it make me feel different from all my friends. It was a reminder of how much I missed him and didn't make me feel better at all. It hurt and I had nowhere to express those feelings.

    In retrospect I would have much preferred the opportunity to have, like everyone else in class, made a card for my dad. One which celebrated his memory and acknowledged my feelings about his death, instead of awkwardly brushing it under the carpet. Father's Day should have been an opportunity to remember and not one to 'make do' as if he'd never existed.

    I don't know if things would have been different if counselling had been available back then. All I know is his death has always felt a part of me. Even though I don't dwell on it, the grief never goes away entirely. It just comes at the most unexpected moments.

    But I don't look at this negatively. Instead, ever since I was a child, I've taken it as a sign of appreciating how much my dad meant to me and how lucky I was to have known him for a few short years. My sister was only 2 when he died, and has no memory of him at all.

    So, bless you Linda for covering this, a topic that is so close to my heart. Huge hugs to you and your daughters. My thoughts are often with you. xx

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  19. Thanks so much Karen, the thought of Father's Day looming for years to come is a difficult one in all honesty. I get so upset about times Neil won't be there in our daughters' lives but have said that these things -- weddings for example, need to be joyous occasions and that Neil wouldn't want it any different. I really appreciate what you say about how you think about your dad, I know but find it difficult to say that's where our girls need to be, it's too raw, thank you again for your hugely encouraging and thoughtful comment.

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  20. Hi Linda,

    Back in 2000 my triplet daughters started high school a week after their baby brother was stillborn at full-term. I wrote to the head to say what had happened and to ask that their form-tutors and head of year be informed, in case it affected my daughters' settling in at school. My girls didn't want to take any time off. That approach worked. Staff were sensitive, without being intrusive.

    But in terms of the legacy, that was harder. It wasn't till I had bereavement counselling four years later that I realised how much I'd been bottling up for their sake; and how that had led to them in turn bottling up their feelings. My counsellor reminded me that as a family we were "all swimming in the same water", an image I found really useful. I don't know whether, if my daughters had had some opportunity for bereavement counselling, that would have helped them at the time. But that certainly wasn't something the school was geared up for.

    Though I took my time seeking it, I found having a neutral listener to offload to massively helpful; I suspect they might have benefited from the same.

    Hoping school continues well for your daughters, and very best wishes to you all. xx

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  21. Hi Wendy, thank you so much for taking the time to comment here so fully and thoughtfully, I'm so sorry for your loss and to hear of all you have been through, too often stories of schools not taking these things on board seem to crop up, or that we as adults bottle them up. I am going to try my best to keep going and to keep listening to my daughters, we all love each other very much but it's hard - and we can end up yelling, it's grief talking xx Thanks for all your kindness and encouragement.

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