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Supporting a child in your class when they return to school after their parent or sibling has died

The longer you work in schools, the more likely you are to experience this sad occurrence. Depending on the circumstances, the whole school community might be impacted. As a former primary teacher and school counsellor, I quickly realised no two situations will be the same, so I wanted to provide you with some useful points to help you navigate this journey...


School – A place of normality – a possible sanctuary


There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the best time for a child to return to school. Each person and situation are different. What I can say though, is that in my experience, primary aged children have generally found school to be a place that allows them to feel some normality, predictability, and familiarity.

It can provide a welcome surface-level distraction from everything happening at home, so returning to school relatively soon might be very beneficial for some children.


Conversations before the student returns to school


Whether the death was expected or sudden, children in this situation have told me they have appreciated their teacher and/or principal asking them and their carer what they would like their classmates to know, what they don’t want shared and how the school might be able to support them.

Often this includes:


  • Teachers only providing basic information to the class/grade. EG: “Flossie’s mother has died in a car accident and Flossie and her family are really sad.”

  • Wanting teachers and students to treat them the same as before, and for friends to ask them to play but not get mad if sometimes they don’t want to.

  • Not wanting everyone asking them questions about what happened or constantly asking how they are. Perhaps you and the child could agree on a word or hand signal the child could give indicating they need some extra support or a break. On this point, it can also be useful to ask the child to nominate a couple of staff members they could go to during the school day if need be. EG: School counsellor, school support staff, pastoral teacher or one of the school leadership team.

The other students


When you discuss the above with your class, you might find they want to ask you some questions. This is normal and okay. Provide answers that respect what the family is willing to share but it is also a wonderful opportunity to explore grief and loss. Check out another of my posts for a list of some useful books to read to children about loss.

A very common, and normal thought children in the class might have is, “does this mean my mother could die too?”. You and I both know the answer is “yes” but follow it up with something along the lines of “most parents don’t die until they are quite old, and their children are all grown up.”.


Depending on the circumstances of the death, what the child has seen and heard, you might need to have a conversation with the child about what is not appropriate for them to share with other children. If you find the child is ‘over-sharing’, please support them to find somebody appropriate they can talk to.

"Honest listening is one of the best medicines we can offer the dying and bereaved." Jean Cameron

Some things which might happen for the child

  • They might experience brain fog, forget instructions, and have lower concentration. Consider how you might be able to support them if this occurs. EG, provide some extra breaks, write instructions down, discretely reduce workload.

  • They might be sleepy – they’re probably not sleeping so well. They might have extra jobs to do at home; might not be in their own bed or home.

  • Grief waves – that very normal, yet overwhelming sad feeling and tears that seemingly come out of no-where. It might be helpful to let the child know this is something that might happen to them and plan what can be done if it does. EG: getting a drink of water, chatting with a support staff member, spending some time doing some drawing, sensory activities or a walk around the playground.

  • Their behaviour might not be appropriate. They’re still trying to process what has happened to them with a brain that isn’t fully developed until around 24 years of age, plus add the anger, confusion and tiredness that accompanies grief, and it makes sense that they might not care so much about doing the right thing at school. It is however important that school rules are still respected, so consider how to firmly, yet compassionately deal with behaviour breaches.

  • If the child was already having friendship challenges, unfortunately some peers might say some deliberately hurtful things to the child. Please be on the lookout for this.

  • They might need a 'heads up' if the class is going to be doing activities celebrating Mother's Day and Father's Day. Ask them if they would like to participate. Some children might still like to do something in memory of their parent whereas others might prefer to go to a different room. Please give all children a choice when it comes to participating in these activities.


Staff wellbeing

It’s okay for staff members to experience their own grief. Some may have known the student’s loved one well or perhaps the situation is reminiscent of the staff member’s own current or prior life experience. It is for this reason you might notice some staff members upset who you didn’t expect to be. I encourage you to reach out to your trusted colleagues, your EAP service, or a counsellor.


A final note…


Grief and bereavement are normal parts of life and love, but please know you do not need to be alone when experiencing it for yourself or supporting someone else. Grief doesn’t move through neat stages, it is messy and is experienced differently for everyone but living a good life is still possible.


Take care,


Like to organise a time to chat more?

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0468 853 749

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