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Back-2-school: supporting your grieving child

One of the most difficult, abstract concepts for children to understand is the idea of death. Most children under the age of 8 years old don’t have a full understanding of what it truly means to die, and for someone they had built an attachment with, to no longer be physically present in their lives. Grief is a complex feeling for adults, multiply that by 5, and you might be closer to what grieving is like for a child. Preparing your grieving child for back to school will be important for a few reasons; new milestones without a loved one will be challenging emotionally, they may be feeling stressed and anxious at the idea of people talking about their loss, and lastly, feeling safe again outside their home will be a process. Here are a few strategies to adopt with your kids, to ensure the smoothest transition back into school environment.

1. Have a talk with your child - Creating spaces for your child to express themselves will be important. Encouraging them to talk about their feelings, while normalizing that feeling anxious, scared, and overwhelmed are all valid sensations within their bodies. Do regular check-ins with them, children most often don’t disclose everything that’s on their mind in only one seating. If your child isn’t ready to talk right away, ensure that you leave the door open for dialogue for when they are ready to disclose. For non-verbal children, you can prompt your child with Art (painting, drawing, colouring) to express their feelings. By creating such space, you are allowing your child to feel supported and understood which will appease the anxiety.

2. Inform your school staff of the situation - Communicating the loss with the school staff that are involved with your child will allow them to be alert to any mood changes, issues at school or any sudden behavioural issues. Knowing what might be affecting you child, can allow the schools to be more responsive and perhaps connect the child with some supports within the schools. Teachers, classroom assistants, school counsellors, will interact daily with them, so being informed on the type of grief your kid is going through will only enhance their well-being within the school.

3. Find grief support for your child - Whether your child is taking the loss well or not, being able to process what they’ve just been through will be important. Sometimes children prefer to talk to someone external to the family unit, as they don’t want to burden family with their feelings. Continuing to be available for them is still important but finding some form of grief support can also support them throughout their grieving process. This can be a 1-on-1 counselling service or a grief group depending on what your unique needs are.

4. Adjust your expectations of academic success - Different people take challenging experiences differently. Emotional distress can create saturation in the brain, making it difficult to perform as well as usual in tasks that require critical thinking, memory, and executive functioning. All things, we use in school to excel. Students returning to school after the death of someone they loved may struggle with their schoolwork. Because of this, they might struggle with concentration which affects the ability to focus and complete tasks. Ensure that you are communicating and normalizing that this phenomenon is common in grief as well to talk about different ways to approach the assignments, so they don’t feel like something is wrong with them.

5. Set routines and boundaries - I know many people feel guilty setting boundaries with a child when they are grieving, however one doesn’t affect the other. Aside from their academic matters, some kids will have significant behavioral changes. This happens because they are having a difficult time expressing how they feel and dealing with their thoughts, and the only thing they’ll know how to do is to act out. Students can become harmful to themselves or others, become disruptive and more. Some students may present as the opposite by being withdrawn and isolating from people. Although you will adjust your expectations of them, you must retain routines & boundaries for them to continue having a constant even through their emotional storms. As the adult, you must clarify the rules and consequences while being empathetic and listening to their needs. For big significant changes in behavior, seeking additional supports from school and community is recommended.

I’m perfectly aware that these are just tips and suggestions. Everybody’s grief journey is unique and will embody different sets of challenges. I’m hoping you can find a rhythm that works for you, and if it’s hard, then as a parent/guardian you can seek additional support too. There are incredible professionals that specialize in supporting grieving children and their caregivers. There are also many resources to tap into online, see below. Happy Back to school!


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