Bereavement, the state of having experienced the death of a loved one, is common among school-aged children and increases risk for mental health problems. Approximately 5% of children in the United States will experience the death of a parent before age 18. One of the most stressful life events that a child or adolescent can face, parental death increases risk for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and lower self-esteem. Nearly 40% of students will experience the death of a peer, and 20% will have witnessed a death. Students may also experience the death of an instructor or other trusted adult.
Leading Causes of Death
According to 2015 data from the CDC, the number one cause of death among all persons in every age group from age 1 to 44 is unintentional injury, such as motor vehicle traffic, drowning, fire/burn, and poisoning. Additionally, unintentional injury is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 45-64. The number of deaths due to unintentional injury is in the tens of thousands and affects individuals at every stage of development.
Students may also experience other traumatic loss, for example, due to homicide or suicide. Homicide is in the top five causes of death among persons aged 1 to 44, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among persons in every age group from age 15 to 34 and the third leading cause of death among young people aged 10-14. When you consider death of a peer, parent, or instructor from just the three causes of death noted above, educators are likely to encounter students who are bereaved and grieving.
Uncomplicated Bereavement and Traumatic Grief
Grieving is the emotions experienced during bereavement including intense sadness and a longing for the person who died. Grief is not a state, but is a process an individual goes through which varies in its intensity and duration from one individual to the next and is related to the developmental stage of the bereaved. When grieving progresses as expected, with sadness diminishing over time, it is called uncomplicated bereavement, and eventually, the person develops positive memories and feelings for the individual who has died.
Grieving that does not progress as expected, is prolonged and intense, and is associated with substantial impairment in work, health, and social functioning is called traumatic grief.
Risk factors for traumatic grief include:
- Previous traumas
- Prior mental health problems
- Impaired functioning of parents and family
- Poor/lack of social support
- Secondary loss (e.g., changes in lifestyle or location due to death)
Schools Play an Essential Role in Helping Grieving Students
Schools play an essential role in students’ lives and can provide support to grieving students that their families may not be able to provide. Educators often have perspective and distance from the loss that can enable them to be more objective. Schools are vital in helping to meet the needs of grieving students for a number of reasons:
- Students spend the majority of their day at school and educators are familiar with a student’s day-to-day behavior
- Schools are a familiar and supportive environment
- Schools have a variety of differently trained staff who have the expertise to respond to a child appropriately and understand their developmental issues
- Large numbers of students can be supported together at one time
- Mental health stigma is less for services provided at a school
- School support staff can work collaboratively with the family
If educators are reluctant or don’t know how to talk with students about bereavement and grieving, many student’s needs will go unmet. But when educators are properly trained, they can help all students better understand death and loss as well as assist students who may be grieving a loss due to death. With appropriate information and training, educators can also provide guidance and information to all students in advance of a loss due to a death and instruct students on how to ask for support from the school and provide support to their peers.
SSI Guardian’s new Bereavement and Grieving Training Curriculum
SSI Guardian is offering a new training curriculum called, Bereavement & Grieving: How Educators Can Help Students Cope. This curriculum builds on educators’ existing expertise and perspective and empowers teachers by providing information and skills to support grieving students and work collaboratively with their families and communities.
- Impact of Death and Loss on Students
- The Role of the Institution and Educators
- Understanding Bereavement and Grieving
- Developmental Issues in Grieving and Bereavement
- Uncomplicated Bereavement and Traumatic Grief
- How Educators Can Help Students Cope
- Special Topics: Death of a Student or Teacher, Suicide, Mass Violence
- Mental Health Problems
Centers for Disease Control (2017). Injury Prevention & Control. Retrieved on August 17, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/fatal.html
Goodman, Robin F. et al. (2004) National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2004) Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials: In-depth information on childhood traumatic grief for school personnel. [PDF Document] Retrieved February 9, 2106 from http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/schools_package.pdf
Melhem, N. M., Porta, G., Shamseddeen, W., Payne, M. W., & Brent, D. A. (2011). Grief in children bereaved by sudden parental death. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(9), 911–919. http://doi.org/10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.101
National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, USC School of Social Work. Guidelines for responding to the death of a student or school staff. Retrieved February 9, 2016 from https://sowkweb.usc.edu/download/about/centers-affiliations/ncscb-guidelines-responding-death-student-or-school-staff
Schonfeld, D.J. & Quackenbush, M. (2010). The grieving student: a teacher’s guide. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Dr. Clarke was instrumental in developing and facilitating active shooter response and violence prevention training for all faculty and staff at Community College of Aurora (CCA). Dr. Clarke currently serves on CCA’s Behavioral Intervention Team and consults in the areas of mental health, classroom management, and safety.