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Why grief matters

A death in the school community

All schools will be affected by loss and death at some point. Whether it is a parent, student or staff member who has died or is expected to die soon, shock and worry can ripple across the school community. With the benefit of hindsight, many staff who have faced a death in the community wish they had been better prepared. Being able to rely on a planned response, rather than having to improvise in the heat of the moment, can reduce some of the inevitable stress and anxiety. While it can be tempting to avoid thinking about these risks, some simple planning can help.

Grief at school

Around one child in every classroom will have been bereaved of a parent or sibling at some point in their childhood. Over 70% of primary schools have a recently bereaved pupil on roll, and the majority of young people will have faced the death of someone close to them by the time they leave school. Bereavement can threaten children’s wellbeing, health, relationships and learning.

School is a key context for grieving children, providing continuity and structure when everything else is changing. It can be a place where students are listened to and supported by staff and peers, where their experiences are acknowledged and their needs are met. But it can also be a place of misunderstanding or bullying, leaving them isolated and under pressure.

Good support involves clear procedures – set out before they are needed - and flexible pastoral support. This gives some choice back to students and parents when life feels out of control. It also means that early help is in place to keep students on track and avoid difficulties emerging or escalate. While some students’ grief might emerge in changes or behaviour that attract attention, others may be struggling in silence. Children and young people often revisit their grief as they develop their understanding and face further changes over the years. It is important that support is available over time to all those that might need it.

Loss and bereavement in the curriculum

Learning about change, loss and bereavement equips pupils to support themselves now or in the future, and to respond kindly and supportively to bereaved peers. The majority of young people will have experienced the death of someone close to them by the time they leave school – and almost everyone will face this at some point. There are lots of opportunities in the curriculum to help build students’ skills and knowledge in areas such as changes and differences in families; lifecycles and understanding death; and managing feelings and seeking help.

Having partnerships in place with local and national bereavement organisations can help school staff teach these topics with confidence and know where to get extra help for those students who need it.