‘When a personal tragedy befalls someone, it is often difficult to know what is best to do or say. Teachers in schools are in much the same dilemma – when should they talk about it to the young person? When should they leave well alone? There are no easy answers; but it is clear that not facing the dilemma can often make things worse.’1
It is estimated2 that up to 92 per cent of young people in the UK will experience a significant bereavement by age 16, and four to seven per cent will lose a parent. This comes at a time in a young person’s life when they’re already experiencing loss: loss of childhood for one. Adolescence can be described as a ‘farewell to childhood’, as the teenager relinquishes childhood, grieves its loss, and begins the shift to adulthood. A bereavement during this time can intensify the issues related to the tasks of adolescence.
Given the statistics above, it is inevitable that, from time to time, every school is required to support a grieving student following the death of a loved one. Sometimes these bereavements occur as a result of accidents, suicide or other traumas. Staff can find it difficult to know how to respond to, or support, an affected student, or how to prepare their friends/classmates for their return to school. It is inevitable, too, that school counsellors will be faced with bereavement in their work.
However, death is something that some of us (including counsellors) prefer not to actively think about, so we are often ill-prepared when faced with it.
Young people spend the larger part of their time at school, meaning that staff are likely to be a major source of support, and, for some pupils, the school community feels like another family. If the student has a personal loss, school may be their sanctuary away from emotional turmoil at home and they will look to staff for support. On the other hand, if a child is grieving the death of a member of the school community (peer or staff member), complications can set in, as staff are part of that community. Difficulties faced by a school can therefore be magnified.
Wise before the event
The purpose of a bereavement policy is to help those involved at a time when there may be collective shock, upset and confusion. The policy will ensure that there is minimum disruption, effective communication and that the whole school community is supported through a sensitive time.
A robust policy will provide the school with a framework for staff to address a death and its consequences, enabling them to feel more confident with bereaved students and support them more effectively. It should also be designed to complement the work of the school counsellor, so clarity and cooperation between the two parties are key.
A policy is not a road map There is no map for young people to follow when grieving. Nevertheless, it is vital that various aspects of bereavement are considered, and made known to staff, when discussing the proposed policy and when supporting a bereaved student.
- Some students are apt to bottle up their feelings around adults, especially grieving adults. Young people who have suffered the death of a sibling or other young relative, are often referred to as ‘forgotten mourners’ because so much attention is paid to the parents of the deceased child. Similarly, students who have lost a peer, who was not necessarily a friend, may feel the same way, depending on the support received both at home and at school – the peer’s death may trigger unresolved grief from a previous or possibly imminent loss.
- Consequently, their behaviour, in and out of class, and with other students, may reflect this. Whilst no one can know what young people are thinking, cues can be taken from behaviour. Staff may notice various reactions: withdrawal, aggression, anxiety, guilt, fear and obvious physical symptoms. Grieving young people, often have shortened attention spans and may struggle to concentrate, which can affect schoolwork. They may attempt to deny feelings by repressing them, but grief eventually takes over and feelings leak out. Some feel they have to re-establish a self-identity, whether because of their changed families at home or their changed ‘other families’ at school.
- How a young person responds to a death can be influenced by cause of death. For example, someone bereaved following a sudden or traumatic death (suicide, murder, accident, heart attack) may feel shocked, confused or guilty, whereas someone who has helped care for a loved one through a long illness may feel relieved, empty and sad.
- Anticipatory grief is not much different from grief following a death. It might include intense sadness, depression and deep concern for the dying loved one. Feelings of fear, anger and denial are also normal. But unlike the grief that occurs after a sudden death, anticipatory grief does provide an opportunity to bring the relationship to a full circle, to gain closure, to say ‘thank you’, ‘I love you’ and ‘goodbye’. Gradually adjusting to life without their loved one, as he or she becomes unable to do certain things, may make it easier to accept the death. However, not every young person experiences anticipatory grief before a loved one’s death. Grief is a personal process and anticipatory grief is no different.
- With sudden deaths, young people often experience intense anger and have difficulty accepting the reality of the death. Normal grief reactions may be heightened, particularly if a young person is finding adolescence especially turbulent. Sudden death is obviously shocking and can leave the young survivor with a sense of unreality. Some become dazed. Others may have exacerbated feelings of guilt with lots of ‘if onlys’. It is not uncommon in young people to wish someone dead after a row and then the sudden death of the person can leave them with huge guilt and/or the need to blame someone.
- They may experience feelings of helplessness, almost as though the ground they’re standing on is suddenly shaky. Rage often accompanies the helplessness. And the stress of a sudden death can heighten agitation and trigger a fight or flight response.
- Another feature of sudden death, especially when due to suicide, accidents and murder, can be involvement from medical or legal authorities, which can delay the grief process until the ‘case’ is solved or reason for death established. There is often media attention, and loved ones may feel their loss has become public property.
- With suicide, shame is often felt by the bereaved, due to the stigma around suicide. Intense feelings of anger and rejection can also follow, leaving the young person asking ‘why?’. It is therefore essential that they’re not burdened with others’ opinions (some view suicide to be a moral transgression and a selfish act).
These various aspects must be considered and understood by staff, and it can fall to the counsellor to be the catalyst.
A policy in the making
Since 2003, I have been a secondary school outreach counsellor for a youth counselling agency in a London borough. Over the decade, demand for counselling has increased dramatically and in one school – the one central to this article – sessions offered have increased by 500 per cent. This isn’t solely in recognition of the increase and intensity of young people’s issues and a gradual removal of stigma around emotional matters, but more a reflection of the importance schools place on their students’ emotional wellbeing. It goes without saying that students function better academically if supported emotionally in their day-to-day development and in times of crisis.
I’ll explain what happens in this school
If the school is informed of a student’s bereavement, information is shared, sensitively, with key staff on a ‘need to know’ basis. The student is offered counselling, or at least an initial assessment with me, to establish for themselves whether counselling or another form of support could help. It is not forced upon them, just gently offered. If they choose not to have it at the time, they are made aware that the ‘door is open’. But it is never assumed the student will want or ‘need’ counselling.
Key staff are identified as ‘safe’ – who the young person knows they can go to if they feel overwhelmed. This would usually be their head of year, the welfare officer or a favourite teacher. Their wellbeing is monitored over time and appropriate interventions made, often involving me, as required. Likewise, if during my work with a student, I learn of their bereavement and, for whatever reason, the school hasn’t been informed, I am usually, with the student’s collaboration, able to share this, as necessary, with a relevant staff member if the young person prefers not to do the informing themself.
But as mentioned earlier, when a death in the school community itself occurs, complications can arise, along with potential chaos.
A couple of years ago, the school lost one of its students unexpectedly, at the end of a school holiday. Students and staff alike were forced to start the new term, shocked, confused and disconcerted.
Unexpected death in an ostensibly healthy adolescent naturally draws the attention of medical and legal bodies, and this added greater complexity to an already sensitive situation.
How the policy grew
As an immediate response, the school adhered to the local education authority’s official recommended guidelines, such as holding crisis meetings with staff and governors, nominating a spokesperson, and informing students’ parents/carers. It was their presence of mind and naturally reactive way of handling the situation – reflective of their ethos – that sustained and supported the school community in the ensuing weeks and months, and even today. And it was from the strategies put in place (listed below) and the school’s existing supportive ethos that the school’s bereavement policy emerged.
On the first day, post staff meeting
- A special assembly was held and a formal announcement made. The head teacher reminded the school community that they were like family – there for each other and grieving together. Students were made aware of the support available to meet their diverse needs.
- Staff were positioned discreetly around the school, making themselves available to those too overwhelmed to stay in class. For that day, students were given permission to leave class on a ‘no questions asked’ basis – they were trusted to use their judgment, and no one abused that trust.
- A group drop-in was established for students to come and share their feelings with peers – facilitated by me and a counsellor colleague. Maintaining the same degree of confidentiality as in one-to-one counselling, we were mindful of those who had been with the student around the time of death and who might have become vulnerable to PTSD – this was highlighted to appropriate staff, and those concerned were monitored accordingly.
- A memory book (photographs, poems, letters) was collated by friends, facilitated by the deputy head of year, who was aware of the need to ‘do’ something – newly bereaved people often want to do something symbolic to honour the dead person.
The next couple of weeks
- A memorial service was held at the local church for the whole school community, organised and performed almost exclusively by the deceased’s peers. It offered space to let out grief creatively and meaningfully.
- Those who had attended the group drop-in were given the opportunity to attend individual weekly sessions. Others were made aware of the counselling on offer in school. The structure of the counselling service within the school enjoys some built-in flexibility that enabled me to accommodate the grieving students who chose to, and felt ready to, attend.
The next few weeks
- Students felt to be most at risk were invited to come for a ‘check-in’ session. Some elected to go on and have counselling; others chose to be supported by school staff.
One year on
- A memorial service was held in the school grounds to mark the first anniversary. In the late student’s honour, a tree was planted and a bench installed, marking the death more permanently. Part of the counselling day was left open for those who wanted to drop in to share feelings and memories one year on.
Thus was a policy created
My sense was that an effective balancing act was achieved: balancing the ‘business as usual’ approach ie maintaining some sort of routine, albeit a flexible one (some semblance of ‘normality’ can help contain distress), with the recognition that the school community was in shock, grieving the sudden death of one of its members.
There have been several ingredients that appear to have contributed to the success of this organically grown bereavement policy, but the three key ones are as follows:
- Firstly was the recognition that something not uncommon but ‘abnormal’ had occurred and that the school community was not simply able to ‘get over it’ without acknowledging this.
- Secondly, staff worked very much as a team, with responsibilities appropriately apportioned. That there was an established trust and cooperation between myself and the school was reassuring (there was no scrambling around for local support services). Counselling in schools has been described as ‘the therapeutic world meeting the educational’3, with the question raised as to whether this is a ‘titanic clash or two worlds sitting comfortably together with the child held and nurtured between them’3. The latter feels apposite!
- Thirdly, staff needs were considered. Supporting the supporter is vital, yet often overlooked. Depending on their relationship with the deceased, they were either staring death in the face directly or vicariously and without support, and earlier unresolved grief could be triggered. With that in mind, they were signposted to the borough’s staff counselling service and to a bereavement counselling service for adults.
What the young people said
I was keen to learn from the bereaved young people I work with (in this and other schools) which staff interventions help most when grieving.
Teachers, (particularly supply ones) knowing about their loss, whilst understanding they may not wish to talk to them about it.
Being treated just like everyone else.
Not ignoring what’s happened.
Having the information on record/remembering anniversaries.
Understanding that putting it behind you/moving on isn’t that simple!
Having extra help with work so they don’t get behind.
Not having the spotlight on him/her too much.
Being permitted to leave class, without having to explain themselves if feeling overwhelmed.
Bearing witness to this school’s response to this bereavement, and the policy subsequently born of that, felt to be in stark contrast to the experience of my own adolescent child, a student in another school in another borough. During the same school holiday, a peer died. The student had been a cancer sufferer, but in remission, and so their death was unexpected.
The death was mentioned in passing in morning assembly that first day of term; students in the deceased’s year group were told that if they were upset, they could ‘talk to someone’ during break or lunchtime. Given there seemed to be no pastoral system to speak of, let alone a counsellor, I had no idea who that ‘someone’ was. There was scant acknowledgement of the death, students’ grief barely noted. The school enjoys academic acclaim, but I sometimes think about some of those students who, in future years, may end up in the Cabinet or as captains of industry, and who, if not supported elsewhere, could potentially be without the tools to process future losses in their lives.
In the school central to this article, not every member of its community was directly affected but they will undoubtedly have been impacted. They witnessed how a school community can pull together in critical times, and also learnt that it’s OK to feel sad, lost and confused; that it’s OK to be vulnerable, to ask for and to receive support. This could serve them well in the future should they be bereaved during their school career and beyond.
In this article, we have looked at – via some concrete examples in the case study – the creation of a school bereavement policy, unique to that school and borne out of a combination of exciting support structures, presence of mind and flexibility. In conclusion, I hope that these guidelines can be of benefit to other schools and school counsellors in formulating such a policy for their individual school.
This article is partially based on a workshop offered in September 2012 at King Alfred’s College, Wantage, as part of their School Counsellors’ Conference. Consent has been granted by the school for use of certain material in this article.
Jennifer Pitt MBACP (Accred) is Schools Project Manager/Schools Counsellor at a youth counselling service, and manager of a bereavement counselling service.
1 Yule W, Gold A. Wise before the event: coping with crises in schools. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; 1993.
2 Ribbens McCarthy J. The impact of bereavement and loss on young people. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation; 2005.
3 Edwards J. Agony or ecstasy. Counselling Children and Young People. 2009; September:13-16.