Dealing with grief: how schools can offer sanctuary, normality and support

Teachers can be faced with the death of a pupil, colleague or family members. Tom Sherrington, the headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford, offers a personal insight on how to cope. This is from the Guardian…

Losing someone you love is perhaps the toughest life lesson of all. Within our extended school communities there is almost always someone who has recently lost a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a friend or even a child. For those directly concerned it can be incredibly painful and bewildering and the impact of their loved one’s death can be felt for a long time. I’ve often thought that we are at our best when our schools show that they are not just a place of work or of learning; schools are the focal point of their community, and even serve as an extended family for many people.

How we handle bereavement says a lot about our values and we need to be ready to deal with a wide range of circumstances. In recent years a number of students and members of staff at my school have lost a parent, sometimes through sudden tragedy, sometimes after a long fought battle with illness. They have all needed to be cared for in different ways.

Grief is deeply personal and children and adults need to be able to handle things their own way. When I was 12, I lost my father in tragic circumstances that I’ve described here so I have personal experience to draw on in supporting others in my school. Some need a good cry every so often and the space and time for that to happen. Some want school to be their sanctuary from the grief and despair they face at home. It is equally important to say: “It’s ok to cry” as “Its ok not to.” As a society, we are not particularly open or comfortable in this situation; it’s a great help to have people who can cut through the awful awkwardness that too often surrounds a grieving person, someone who knows what to say. It might be a trained counsellor, but it could be anyone. The most important thing is make sure they know that there is support; that you will be there for them, whatever they need.

Crucially, there is no formula and it’s a mistake to think there is. It’s useful to talk it through early on although, after that initial intense period, school is often where people just want to get on as normal.

Beyond the immediate aftermath to someone’s death, we need to recognise that it can take months and years for adults or children to come to terms with their feelings of loss and loneliness and the simple fact of missing someone. This is where high quality all round pastoral care and staff wellbeing are key. Out of the blue, a sudden sense of loss and anger can return and, at times like that, the reports deadline or the physics homework really don’t seem to matter.

Of course, when a member of the immediate school community dies, the situation is magnified. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to take a special assembly as head of year 7, to tell my year group that one of their lovely classmates had died. In fact she had been killed in a brutal assault by an intruder in her London flat. It was May 1997 and her name was Katerina Koneva from Macedonia. She was 12…

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