Let’s get something straight – grief doesn’t take it easy on anyone. But for children, it’s almost impossible. While their childhood is reserved for asking questions like, “Who am I?” and “What do I like?”, bereaved children are forced to ask themselves “Will I ever be happy again?” and “Will I ever get through this?”
Sadly, most – if not all – children aren’t prepared to deal with these answerless questions and the complex emotions they evoke. So, when faced with loss, they have difficulty communicating their grief and needs. As a teen who has experienced parental loss, I’ve been stuck trying to answer these same questions. While grappling with my grief throughout the years, I’ve learned the importance of self-advocacy in communicating my needs. But I had to learn the hard way. Three years after my dad died, during a class discussion, my fifth-grade teacher brought up my parent loss with the entire class. Though her intentions were to commend my resilience, I couldn’t help but feel exposed, embarrassed, and disoriented. I had to hide my tears. It was through this experience that I learned that when it comes to my parent loss, I can’t assume others know how I feel. Though in no world is it okay for a fifth grader to have to experience what I did, it’s the reality of grief. Most people won’t understand what you feel, and you can’t control the actions of others. However, whether it’s telling a teacher you may need to take a moment during the school day or letting a friend know you need a hug, you have the power to communicate what you need.
Stability and Safety: the Power of the Student-Teacher Relationship
Perhaps surprising to many, during the early years after my father’s death, I felt numb.
I didn’t fit the image of a little girl crying over her father’s death. In fact, most kids don’t. The reactions of kids who have lost a loved one may vastly differ. Where one kid might’ve wanted to be alone, I just wanted to go back to school.
I wanted to go back to the welcoming, consistent environment full of people who always seemed to know what I needed. Somehow, without my telling them, my teachers recognized my needs as a child. And when I did return to school after my parent loss, they somehow also understood my needs as a bereaved student. While I don’t know if this was pure teacher-intuition on their part, I do know that there are ways teachers can support their bereaved students.
Before a bereaved teen enters the classroom, their teacher should be well-equipped to support them. Adolescence and grief is a complex, confusing, tumultuous combination. To even attempt to support a bereaved student, teachers must gain a greater understanding of the bereaved adolescent experience. They can do research, observe the student in class, and talk to other teachers who have a relationship with the student to understand what the student’s particular needs may be. Because while grief is universal, grieving is a very personal experience.
Teachers have the power to significantly impact a student. They can cultivate and nurture a space that provides stability and safety. This environment can help students maintain a sense of normalcy while every other aspect of their lives has been flipped upside down. And so while teachers offer the beautiful gift of education, they also offer important individualized relationships that establish security and comfort in a bereaved student’s life.
An Opportunity to Create a Safe Space for Bereaved Teens
When parent loss flips your world upside down, school feels trivial. Yet, after loss, you’re not just expected to go to school, you’re expected to continue on as if nothing happened. But, while at school, you’re faced with one of two scenarios. You’re either isolated and left without support– because people’s own fears prevent them from reaching out– or overwhelmed with pity as people bombard you with questions, “I’m sorry’s”, and unsolicited hugs.
However, this does not have to be the experience of bereaved children. Schools can work to provide a safe environment by offering space and time to talk. Faculty and staff can check in with a bereaved student, and offer support and understanding. While they might not understand how the student feels, they can recognize the difficulty of being a student, growing up, and grieving a loved one.
At the end of the day, school is more than just a building where kids go to take tests and listen to lectures. It’s where they grow as humans. It’s at school where kids learn to socialize, problem-solve, and process events in their lives. By creating an environment where teens feel safe to process their grief, schools can play an integral role in every bereaved teen’s grief journey.
About the author: Amelie Liu is a bereaved Chinese-Jewish 16-year-old born and raised in Chicago. She spends her time participating in Model UN, reading, and writing. When she was just seven years old, her father drowned in Lake Michigan saving two boys. However, it wasn’t until she was fourteen that Amelie first began her grief work. In the summer of 2018, she started working on SLAP’D (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies)– an online platform that helps teens who have lost a parent find hope and connection through shared experiences. While working on SLAP’D, she began to realize bereaved teens’ utter need for in-person connection. Thus, in 2020, Peer Healing was born– a teen-led adult-supported grief curriculum. Because Amelie and her team were forced to move the curriculum online due to Covid-19, Peer Healing manifested into a virtual grief curriculum with the capacity to support bereaved teens all across the world.