Seven ways to support children with traumatic grief at school
This blog post is written by Carolyn Grace, Senior Training Consultant, School Services Program.
“Hi my name is James, I’m thirteen and at this camp, I am remembering my foster mum who took her life…”
Those words pierced my heart as I listened to James introduce himself at a grief and loss camp for children and young people. At this particular camp, there were many children who had a foster or grandparent carer die.
Many of the deaths experienced were traumatic; due in part to because of the circumstances in which they died. Tragically, some of these had been either homicides and suicides.
As a Camp Leader and Mentor, as well as in my previous work as a School Counsellor and now as a Senior Training Consultant, I have seen or heard about the impact of traumatic grief in the lives of many children and young people.
For these young people who are already dealing with trauma in their lives from either abuse, family violence or neglect, dealing with an additional traumatic event such as a death of a carer is devastating and adds another layer of grief and loss to their traumatic lives.
Traumatic grief can be defined as
- The concept of a person suffering from grief because of a death, which may have been sudden, violent or unexpected
- The traumatic distress from the death that can interfere with a normal or typical grief response
WHAT WE MAY SEE IN CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE – UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT
Coupled with dealing with trauma reminders of their original trauma experiences such as intense fear, helplessness and hypervigilance, experiencing the traumatic death of a parent or caregiver evokes a further sense of fear and disenfranchisement. This is because of the shame, alienation and labelling that is associated with the loss. It has been said “you may have grief without much trauma, but you can never have much trauma without grief. Ignoring the trauma component of grief, or the grief component of trauma, is surely negligent” (Simpson, 1997 p. 6)
Other characteristics of traumatic grief include:
- Self-blame, anger, deep sadness, which can be internalised or externalised – “was it my fault that they died?”
- A shattered view of themselves and the world – a lost sense of security, trust or control – “I am unlovable, everyone leaves”
- A sense of powerlessness, which is overwhelming and overpowering
- A sense of loss and betrayal
- Dissociation, detachment or absence of an emotional response.
- Wanting to either reenact the trauma or avoid all reminders of what has happened
- Preoccupation with the person who has died (yearning, longing or searching)
- Difficulties in their social, emotional and relational functioning
(Jacobs, 1999; Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007; Lewis-Herman, 2001; Sweeney, 1997)
In addition to this, children and young people are triggered by loss reminders and change reminders. Loss reminders cue the child to remember the person who died. Listening to people talk about the person who has died, seeing pictures or navigating celebrations such as Christmas, Mother’s or Father’s Day or Grandparents Day, may have a significant impact.
Change reminders are cues that prompt thoughts about how their way of life or identity has changed. The child may think, “Do I have to move house again?”, “Who’s going to care for me now?” “What if I lose that person too?”
WHAT CAN WE DO IN THE SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT? – SEVEN WAYS TO SUPPORT A CHILD OR YOUNG PERSON
Recognise that the child or young person will be dealing with both the impact of trauma as well as traumatic grief. Alter classroom expectations to allow a child to deal with their grief.
Grieving is an individual process and respect needs to be given to the unique experiences and the different ways a child and young person may express their grief. The school may have more than one child from each family, and so there may need consideration given to this.
Caring and connected relationships are important in supporting the child or young person to grieve. It’s critical to recognise the age and stage of the child while remembering that traumatised children/young people may be operating at a younger developmental age which may impact on their understanding of death and reactions to grief. Ensure that relationships within the school that are safe, supportive and important to the child are maintained and prioritised… making them as available as possible…
Children and young people may have difficulty understanding and articulating their feelings and understanding the feelings of others. Hence, they attempt to understand their experience of loss from their own frame of reference. It is important to actively listen to the child, reassure them that they are loved, care for them and keep them safe. Make time in the school day to reassure, listen and care for these students.
As much as possible children and young people should be able to continue with their regular routines. At school, focus on providing consistency, predictability and safety.
Allow the child or young person to choose special ways to remember the person who has died. Perhaps they would like to write a poem or draw a picture or make a memory box.
Seek to refer the child or young person and their family if additional support is needed. Traumatic grief treatment integrates trauma and grief-focused interventions to help manage trauma symptoms and typical grief processes.
Are you interested in learning with us? If you would like to find out more about the great courses and workshops we have on offer, click here!
If you would like further information on how you can support a child or young person, please check out these websites.
Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
The National Centre for Childhood Grief
Winston’s Wish, UK
Cohen, J.A., Mannarino, A.P., & Deblinger, E., (2017). Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents, Second Edition. The Guildford Press: New York
Dillon, I. (1994). Exploring grief with your child. Pal Alto: Enchante Publishing.
Dyregrov, A., & Dyregrov, K. (2012). Complicated grief in children. In Stroebe, M., Schut, H., van den Bout, J., & Boelen, P. (Eds.). Complicated grief: Scientific foundations for health care professionals. (pp. 68–81). London, UK: Routledge.
Hall, C. Understanding of loss and grief in children. Community Paediatric Review, 11 (3) December 2002 (pp 1 – 4).
Horowitz, M.J., Siegel, B., Holen, A., Bonnano, G.A., Milbrath, C., & Stinson, C.H., (1997). Diagnostic disorder for complicated grief disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154.
Jacobs, S. (1999). Traumatic Grief: Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention. Bruner/Mazel: New York
Kail, R., & Cavanaugh, J. (2007). Human Development – A life-span view. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education.
Lewis – Herman, J. (2001). Trauma and recovery. London: Pandora
Mannarino, A. P., & Cohen, J. A. (2011). Traumatic loss in children and adolescents. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 4, (pp 22–33).
Simpson, M.A. (1997). Traumatic bereavements and death-related PTSD. In Figley, C.R., Bride, B.E., & Mazza, N. (eds) Death and trauma: the traumatology of grieving, (pp 3 – 16). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis
Stroebe, M.S., Hansson, R.O., Stroebe, W., & Schut, H. (Ed.) (2001). Handbook of Bereavement Research. American Psychological Association. Washington DC.
Sweeney, D. (1997). Counselling children through the world of play. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.