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Lessons In Loss – What I’ve Learnt About Helping Students Deal With Grief

Supporting a student through bereavement has taught Gordon Cairns many things – not least, that there is always more for a teacher to learn...

  • Lessons In Loss – What I’ve Learnt About Helping Students Deal With Grief

Teaching has taken me to many places – but none quite as sombre as a crematorium on the outskirts of Glasgow, where a still too young woman was laid to rest.

Standing outside the chapel on a drizzling grey winter morning waiting to offer my condolences to the grieving family felt like the end of something; but as the guidance teacher of the family’s oldest son, I had to look at it as the beginning of the crucial next stage of his life. This, for me, has been an ongoing process of finding out how best to support a child during the aftermath of the loss of a parent, which I confess I have undergone with much trial and error.

Martin (not his real name) had found his mum’s long fight against cancer very difficult. I must admit that initially, I naively thought things might become just a little easier for him – after all, the painful uncertainty had turned into a devastating inevitability. Unfortunately, after she had gone, his anguish was replaced by guilt; quite a common emotion for children who have lost a parent.

For Martin, this feeling of remorse was caused by going through the normal teenage rebellion phase of testing the boundaries; dyeing his hair, smoking, staying out late and so forth. However, Martin will not now have the reconciliation available to most of us in our 20s, when we can rebuild the bonds between parent and child.

Carrying on

When Martin eventually returned to school, he initially used the death of his mother to motivate himself to do well in his exams at the end of the school year. Inevitably, however, after missing a month of important school work, he struggled in class. Staying focused was difficult for any sustained period, as he carried his heavy burden and would often break down in class or leave the room.

His teachers would meanwhile tiptoe around him by not putting any pressure to work on him, as he had endured something unimaginable to the majority of us. As he spent less and less time in class, his performance got worse until he was withdrawn from all of his exams. This not only gave him a sense of failure, but added to his sense of his guilt, since he was now letting down the memory of his dead mother.

In hindsight, I think I should have stressed that achieving qualifications were important for his own future, rather than for the memory of his dead mother, which was almost inevitably going to increase his sense of guilt.

What we did more successfully was remind him of all of the positive things he had done for his mum to make her feel proud when he was choked with remorse – shaving his head in solidarity with her when she lost her hair to chemotherapy and then organising a coffee morning to raise over £1000 for Macmillan Cancer Support.

I think many of us have a romantic notion of the bereaved living their lives in a noble and dignified manner. The reality is that the death of a loved one can’t change us from being who we are. Before he lost his mum, Martin had been a person who couldn’t concentrate and would attempt to avoid work by elaborate means. Afterwards, he had a bullet-proof reason to do so.

Positive support

The end result was that Martin lost a year of his education through a mixture of non-attendance and leaving the classroom to get space, if things were getting on top of him. My fear is that if he doesn’t get his education back on track, he will go through life defined as someone who lost his mother as a teenager and couldn’t get over it.

It would have been far better, I think, for him to have been re-focused on his work as a distraction from grief, as well as for us to spend time trying to help build some resilience within him, rather than backing away and treating him as having some rare condition called ‘grieving’. To come away from a terrible year with a couple of qualifications is admirable, creating a positive self-image. To have your education break down is understandable, but it gives the grieving child something else that can be both comforting and damaging – a sense of victimhood.

What we did get right was allowing Martin to talk it through. I think our natural tendency when talking to young people is to cheer them up in an attempt to get them out of their low mood. When dealing with a grieving child, this just doesn’t work. You can’t say, ‘What’s the worse that can happen?’ It already has.

Just listen. Don’t search for the positives, but give the child your time, without thinking about the next class or stealing surreptitious glances at your watch.

This is not something I had been trained for, and indeed I’m not sure how much training or online lists of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts ’ would have helped. Everyone grieves in their own way – just as everyone with the job of supporting them has a different approach to death.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. He also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.

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