We are delighted to share this guest blog from Anne Marie Tymlin.
Confronting our own Grief
Each one of us will be faced with bereavement many times in our lifetime. If this bereavement is very personal to us, we will have to bear it with courage and if we are blessed with strong support this will help when the mists envelop you. Parties often grieve in different ways and even at different times to each other. In any partnership, one may be better able to organise the practical side of the rituals involved in the death of a family member. This may even allow that partner to manage the overwhelming emotions that arise in the immediacy of death. External mental health support may be needed during this time. What we know for definite is that there is no right or wrong way to behave and react.
When teachers are faced with the reality of death within their school, this can be both challenging and difficult to manage. Professional supports are available to schools to help you to adopt a policy and approach to respond to bereavements within the school community. It is very important to think about how you can alleviate the impact on the staff and the children involved.
When exploring bereavement in the school community from the perspective of a Bereavement Specialist, what must be considered is that the whole school community may have been affected by the grief in different measures. Some may have known the deceased more intimately than others. Some may have children from the family in their class. If a child has died, staff members may have their own children who are the same age as the deceased. All these considerations will change the level of awareness and confidence in handling the death situation now being faced.
Organising Supports for Children and Staff
Organising age-appropriate support for the children and support for staff may be helpful and can diffuse confusion for children directly affected by the death. Allowing the children to take part in small group activities where they can ask questions might be challenging for teachers. You may naturally feel nervous around discussing what has happened and what to say if awkward questions are asked by the children. Children will often be told by well-meaning family that the person who died is looking down on them all the time, that they can see everything they are doing. It is important to remember that children often feel afraid of this concept. It could be that it is more helpful to encourage the child to hold the person’s memory in their heart, for example.
It may be helpful if we use the above quote “When in doubt be still and wait”, and if the difficult questions come, often another child may offer an opinion. You could follow this up by asking “what do you think”? This question can help to elicit any misconceptions that may have arisen. Children can often become upset within these groups and our first reaction may be to contain the emotion. As adults, we may feel uncomfortable with tears. What we should be doing is allowing this expression of grief. It is a valid response. You might even encourage the children to acknowledge that their sadness is a reflection of the sadness felt by the bereaved family. You can then begin bringing their awareness to their own breathing and their sitting positions. A creative way to help them to let these feelings go might be to throw the sadness out through their hands into the ground with a “whoosh” sound. It can be helpful for the children to then experience some physical movement, yard time, games, even P.E. to ground them and not have them feeling stuck in the sadness. If the children see you being able to hold that safe space for them, they will respond positively. It can be difficult for all the reasons I mentioned earlier, and it is not easy to accompany children at these difficult times.
Involving Children in Rituals
Practical responses like involvement with funerals, rituals, choirs, etc. would usually occupy the schools in the immediate aftermath of a death. However, these types of rituals may not be accessible at the moment. Therefore it is critical to provide an outlet for the expression of grief within the school setting. We also need to be mindful that the days and months following can often be the time children need support.
Different types of deaths can also make a difference to children and young people in our care. If it is a sudden death or a suicide, for example, their response and behaviour may need extra monitoring for expressions of despair and lack of hope, suicidal thoughts, and comments. If it is a parent or close grandparent the despair and hopelessness may be accompanied by feelings of worthlessness, confusion, lack of control, and insecurity. Often children will be afraid to return to school in case someone else they love will die if they leave them.
Navigating Special Occasions
Throughout the year occasions arise such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day that teachers typically navigate very sensitively. However, there are hidden pitfalls that occur. In these instances a bereaved child’s coping mechanisms can break down, their need for support may be shown through challenging behaviour. Be mindful of birthdays, the first Easter, and Christmas. These can all be times when the child’s carer may be struggling. They may be emotionally unavailable to the child because of their own sadness. This may seem a lot of responsibility to expect a teacher to assimilate into their already busy schedule. Yet in the spirit of heading the breakdown off at the pass, a reminder on the confidential school calendar of significant dates that may impact the more vulnerable might be helpful. I finish with a gentle reminder that self-care should be your priority as your position is so important in your family and in your work.
Anne Marie Tymlin is a Bereavement Specialist and Creative Arts Therapist who holds an M.A. in both Drama and Dramatherapy and an M.Sc in Bereavement Studies. Over the years she has supported hundreds of children and families to resolve their feelings around issues such as family grief and loss. She has also worked as an eTutor facilitating teacher CPD at Anokha Learning. She regularly hosts workshops in person and online on topics such as bereavement, self-care, personal development, and mindful approaches to relaxation and stress management.