Working Through Death and Grief With Social-Emotional Learning

A student no longer pays attention in class because their parent just died. This student who is usually filled with joy and eager to learn has had their world rocked. Basic tasks like math warm-ups seem impossible. They have a hard time communicating with their friends. As a teacher, you feel powerless.

Grief is a part of life. You have likely experienced a death of some kind and it’s heartbreaking to watch your students go through similar losses right in front of you. From the start of the year, you can make room for grief in your classroom. You can talk about death and feel better prepared when you receive an email from a parent or administrator with bad news. Here is how you can help students understand death and process grief through social-emotional learning.

Create a Set of Best Social-Emotional Learning Practices for Discussing Death

Before you speak with any of your students, privately or publicly, determine how you will approach the topic of death. Teachers often don’t know what to say when a student experiences death, which opens the door for confusing statements or a perceived lack of empathy.

First, know that it’s not bad to say that someone died. Aubrey Freitas, a mental health staff writer at LoveToKnow Media, says it is better to use open language and clear words that won’t confuse students. Avoid phrases such as:

  • They have gone away for a while.
  • They are sleeping or need to rest.
  • They have passed away.
  • They were taken from us.

Each of these statements can lead to confusion. If they left, why won’t they come back? Did they leave because they were unhappy or didn’t love the family? If they were taken, who took them?

Freitas recommends using clear examples of death that students can understand. When a flower wilts and turns brown, it is dying. These descriptions can help you introduce the concept of death and answer any questions your students have about dying. An open conversation might be one of the most important things you can offer right now.

“Children often make assumptions that aren’t true, most commonly that they did something wrong,” writes educator Tamara Ulrich. “Secrecy, or unacknowledged and accepted emotions, can lead to the development of unhealthy attitudes and beliefs.”

Open discussions about death and dying also include talking about mental health disorders and suicide. It only hurts your students to hide the fact or try to sugarcoat that someone took their own life. Your students might already know about the death but are left wondering why no one is talking about it.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Kristin Francis advises parents and caregivers to be ready to discuss tragic events with even very young children. “Suicide impacts almost everyone directly or indirectly,” she explains. “Hearing about it from a trusted source, like a parent or caregiver, will assist your child with the right information and they can speak to others about it accurately.”

It’s okay if you feel out of your league when talking to your students about suicide. If your students have questions or your class was affected by someone who killed themselves, consider inviting a school counselor to your classroom. They are better equipped to handle these questions and can show you how to address them in the future.

Young family sitting on sofa in discussion with professional; social emotional concept

Have a Plan to Support Students and Families

Once you have your word choice in place for talking with students and families, you can create a plan to help those who are grieving. While a student might feel pain as they attend the funeral and take time for bereavement, they also might dread returning to the classroom.

“A lot of kids are afraid that when they come back, they’re going to look different, or kids are going to ask a lot of questions that they don’t want to answer,” says David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

Ask the parents and student to see if it’s okay to discuss the death with the class before the bereaved student returns to school. This can help students get questions out of the way while you prepare the class on how to be considerate when others are grieving.

The team at Cruse Bereavement Support also recommends creating a plan for talking about death in the classroom. This is important if a student lost a loved one (like a grandparent) or if a peer passes away.

For example, set a rule that no student can talk over another when one is speaking and that students are not allowed to make fun of the responses or feelings of others. You are trying to create a safe space for students to process and share their feelings. Students will have to tap into their social-emotional learning skills like self-management and empathy to share their experiences.

Grief comes in all shapes and sizes. The death of a pet can be just as hard on students as the loss of a human loved one. “I tell kids that I will be helping their dog so that it is no longer in pain,” says veterinarian Deb Eldredge. “I stay away from mentioning the afterlife because people have so many views.”

When she meets with families whose pets are close to death, Eldredge will explain that the animal is no longer comfortable or happy. They are living in pain and can’t experience things that bring them joy anymore — like fetching a ball or chasing a toy mouse. This approach can help a child understand how death is better for the pet so they are no longer hurting.

As an educator, you can create space in your classroom to mourn pets and validate the feelings of your students who are grieving them.

Save Social-Emotional Lesson Plans and Activities for Classwide Grief

There will be times when your entire class needs to sit with their grief or a group of students will want to talk through their feelings on certain topics. It is possible to be prepared when this happens.

Lauren Neidhardt at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility shares a lesson plan for a Grief Wall. With this activity, create a chart with four sections. Each section will pose a question:

  • How are you feeling in this moment?
  • What are you grieving?
  • How are you healing?
  • What do you need to hear right now?

This activity highlights how grief is a process. You don’t have to be grieving or healing separately, you can grieve and heal at the same time. You can have the tools to support yourself while also needing support from others at the same time.

Some schools are investing in grief support groups and community meetings for students to process death.

“I can remember being jealous of seeing girls with their fathers when I was little,” says Cori Lake Walls, founder of Steve’s Club, a grief and educational support group for students. When she became a high school teacher, Walls paid close attention to which students were grieving for a parent. “When I first walked into the classroom – my first-period class – I had four students that I met that had lost a parent and I immediately could identify and understand what they’ve gone through and what they were dealing with.”

Walls has worked to make Steve’s Club a place where students can meet with counselors at school, talk about their feelings, and form a community with others in their situations so they don’t feel so alone.

Two weeping women sitting side by side; social emotional concept

Grief Is a Long-Term Process

After grieving students return to class, their healing process has just begun. There will be times when they need to sit with their feelings and other moments when they experience joy and delight alongside their peers.

“After losing a loved one, a child may go from crying one minute to playing the next,” writes Rachel Ehmke, former managing editor at the Child Mind Institute. “His changeable moods do not mean that he isn’t sad or that he has finished grieving; children cope differently than adults, and playing can be a defense mechanism to prevent a child from becoming overwhelmed.”

Some very young children may start to regress developmentally. If you teach young students, you may notice that they start wetting the bed at nap time or revert to baby talk.

Chicago-area high school teacher Melissa Hughes, whose students experienced various types of trauma, created a safe corner for those who needed a space to calm down or sit with their feelings in the classroom. She called it the ‘Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself’ corner, named from the lyrics of an Ice Cube song. This is where students go when they are sad, angry, grieving, overwhelmed or frustrated.

While talking about death is important, keep in mind that your students are going through multiple forms of grief — and may be experiencing invisible grief that you don’t know about.

“Young people and teachers face forms of loss that extend beyond physical death,” Brittany R. Collins, author of “Learning from Loss: A Trauma-Informed Approach to Supporting Grieving Students,” writes. “Living losses are forms of loss such as those associated with divorce, housing insecurity, foster care, or a familial falling out.”

Collins adds that all forms of grief are found as a result of the pandemic, but some are harder to quantify than a COVID-related death. You might be aware that a new student moved to your class because their parents are getting divorced, but you might not see the extent of the grief they are working through.

Talk About Death and Grief Before Death Happens

It’s almost impossible to prepare someone for the death of a loved one; however, you can normalize conversations about death in your classroom through social-emotional learning. You can make time to help students understand their feelings surrounding death and the reactions that come from losing a friend or family member.

Rebecca Rolland, Harvard lecturer, speech pathologist and author of “The Art of Talking with Children,” says teachers often seem conflicted between teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) and sticking to the core curriculum. While they want to make time for discussions, they also worry about the learning loss that comes from missing class — even for grief.

“It’s a dilemma…that shouldn’t exist,” she writes. “Instead, we can use a framework of high-quality conversation that will bring these two areas together.” She specializes in helping students and teachers have open, meaningful conversations that broach difficult topics.

Teachers need to find time to have honest conversations about death. This could be something like helping students understand why some caterpillars turn into butterflies in a science box you order while others stay in their cocoons. Conversations about death can occur when leaves change color and fall from the trees.

“I see a dead blue jay on the sidewalk — pitiful and luminous — and my instinct is to avert my gaze and hurry my preschooler along,” writes school counselor Miranda Featherstone. “But really, the tiny corpse provides a relatively neutral opportunity to explain to him — gently, honestly — that all things die, that bodies can become so hurt or sick that they simply stop working and life ends.”

Girl outside putting an open book over her face; social emotional concept

Additional Social-Emotional Resources for Your School and Classroom

It’s okay if you don’t feel comfortable talking about death — at least not yet. There are tools and resources you can turn to online for support. These tools can prepare you for when a student experiences loss or your class lives through the death of a peer.

One place to start is Good Grief. The organization provides resources for schools, teachers and individuals to help kids process grief. It offers tips on communicating with grieving kids, common myths about grief, and planning for and navigating the holidays.

The Coalition to Support Grieving Students is another resource you can turn to. There are modules for classroom teachers, administrators, student support staff, families and community members. This organization works to create grief-sensitive schools that can handle loss on an individual or large-scale level. Whether a student loses a parent or an entire class experiences the death of a peer, your teachers and admin team can offer the right support.

Even experienced teachers will tell you it is hard when a student goes through the death of a close family member. It won’t get easier on your side to see these kids hurting. However, words are powerful. By learning how to talk about death, both you and your students can confront grief and learn to live with it, rather than trying to stomp down feelings to avoid pain.

Images by: rido/©, serezniy/©, Ben White, Siora Photography