Nowadays there are organisations that train teachers and school boards on how they can support bereaved children. However, just in case your child’s teacher missed that in-service training day, here are some good things for you to know.
Your first hurdle might be your child not wanting anyone at school to know that their mum or dad has died. Maybe they saw how another bereaved child was treated differently or maybe, with all the changes happening in the home, they want those changes confined to the home so they can get away from it all with their friends.
On the principle that we’re all a bit better behaved in the presence of company, you could try talking through this – mostly listening through this – with your child and someone that they know is on their side. Your child might be skeptical about what you say, because that’s their job as they grow and define themselves as individuals. It’s not being a brat, it’s biology. But their favourite aunt or your pal that they find really funny, might be a good person to have around as a neutral party. Just ask: Would you like us to talk about school when aunt Sue comes round?
If things are tougher than that, check in with child bereavement charities and support groups. Most have a great deal of support for parents too.
When deciding to talk to a teacher, there might well be an official procedure. It could be the job of the head or deputy head to meet with parents and then convey requests and relevant information to the rest of the staff. There’s no harm in asking to meet with the teachers your child spends most time with, in addition to whoever the school says you should talk to.
Things to say and ask:
Where can my child go if they need a timeout during the day?
My child should not be punished for lateness, forgotten homework or not having their sports kit while I get to grips with running the household single-handedly.
What is the best way of staying in touch? Can I phone you each Wednesday at 4pm? Or email you once a week? Or talk for five minutes during Saturday football practice?
I want to be informed if my child starts behaving in a way that is out of character. I know they’re bound to behave a bit differently but if they start getting into trouble, engaging in risky behaviours or become very withdrawn, I want to know about it so that I can try to help or find appropriate help for them.
If your child is at primary school you might want to ask for special consideration on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. You don’t want your child to be excluded but can the lesson be broadened to, e.g. make a card for anyone deserving a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card. If your guinea pig has just had pups then maybe guinea pigs too.
A deputy head should have a good idea of the curriculum for the coming year so ask if there are going to be any school trips you need to plan for. Expect your child to be more absent-minded than usual so school notes about such things might well get lost. Find out the dates of big tests or exams. Also ask if, e.g. any classes will be exploring ideas of death or mortality. If your partner was killed in a cycling accident, is this the year that your child’s class gets cycling proficiency lessons?
Tell the teachers how they can make life easier for your child. For example, if your child loves drama but doesn’t feel they are very good at it, but their English homework reduces them to tears, a word of encouragement from both teachers of these subjects might help a lot.
Let the teachers know how your child deals with stress. Maybe they like being able to have someone to talk to or maybe they prefer to take off and swim lengths at the local pool. Find out if there’s a school club they could join or activity they could help with that lets them do more of what they enjoy and what they need to relax.
Your homework to take along with you
A list of important dates. You can expect your child to feel more sensitive, or feel the need to show zero concern, on dates such as their dead parent’s birthday, on their own birthday and in the run up to holidays. And also if their parent was planning anything big that they didn’t get to carry out, such as running a big race or graduating from Open University, the day of the planned celebration that now won’t be happening, might be forgotten or it might loom large for your child. Give the relevant teachers your list of dates.
If it is important to you that the school respects your belief system then write down the terms and ideas that you’d like to have used or included. For example, if you’ve raised your child as an atheist and teachers keep saying their parent is in heaven, older kids can accept that different people have different ideas but little ones might get confused and wonder why either you or their teacher is lying to them.
Look on the websites of child bereavement charities and take along printouts of anything you feel is relevant. Send the links in an email, as back-up. Teachers are regular people with busy jobs so help them to help you.
There will be a million reasons why some days your child storms through the front door, straight into their room and doesn’t want to talk about it. Many of these reasons will be old news by the next day. But some days it will be about something more important. And some days your child will act as if all is well when it’s really not.
You can’t foresee and mitigate every upset but you can encourage a more open and supportive environment. And by taking active steps to stand up for your child, you show them that they deserve to be stood up for and you demonstrate to them how to ask for help. Those lessons will serve them well in the future.
Child Bereavement UK’s schools section
Winston’s Wish’s schools section
Childhood Bereavement Network’s teachers’ section
Grief Encounter’s training section
Have a look and you will find more. Locally you might well find initiatives with your nearest hospice, carers’ charity or cancer support charity.
Image by ImageegamI
First published in Issue 15 of Widows and Widowers magazine