Grief and Loss in the School Classroom


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Grief and Loss in the School Classroom:

Helpful Things to Know

What to Say

Some Do’s and Don’ts

Practical Activities to Assist Kids


Pat Lavercombe



Pat Lavercombe is an Education Officer in the Religious Education Support Team, Brisbane Catholic Education Centre. He has a Master of Arts (Theology) from

Australian Catholic University and a Masters in Social Science (Counselling) Degree from Queensland University of Technology.

This book is copyright, 2003 to Brisbane Catholic Education and the author.

Permission is granted copy it in part or in full for school-related purposes.

Brisbane Catholic Education Centre

243 Gladstone Rd

Dutton Park Q

August 2003

Starting at the Beginning: My Issues of Grief and Loss

Far too often, especially in Western society where we daily experience a culture of “denial of death”, we tend to impose on others our own issues about loss and death, rather than allowing people to mourn and grieve in their own way, at their own pace.

It is helpful, therefore, to name and acknowledge our own loss and bereavement before looking at ways we can be of help to others. Then at least, we can be alert to when our own issues begin to intrude on what we say and do when helping others to grieve, adjust to and memorialise the loss into their lives.

Exercise 1: Whirlpools and Waterfalls on My Life Journey

Journey down the river of your life so far, starting at its source, marking in the waterfalls of loss and whirlpools of grief you have endured (and from which you may not have yet recovered).



Some examples of “losses” in life that people can grieve: leaving the womb; starting school; new brother or sister; moving home; change of school; grandparent dies; pet dies; parents separate; friendship ends; changing teacher; changing friends; parent loses job; failed exams; lost assignment; leaving school; lower than expected OP score; missing out on a first choice university place; choosing a career path; broken limb; infectious disease; debilitating illness; loss of bodily function- hearing, sight, separation, divorce, family feuding, disabled child.

Exercise 2: Issues Around My Loss and Grief Responses

Experiences During, After
Unanswered Questions

What Changed

Unanswered Questions

What Changed

Why Interventions with Children are Important

(Even when relatives object) (From Ward,1996)

  • C

    hildren need details, simple, but truthful, about death- e.g. about funerals, coffins, burial, cremation, the difference between death and sleep.

    The evidence suggests strongly that the mourning of children- no less than adults- is commonly characterised by persisting memories and images of the dead person and by repeated recurrences of yearning and sadness, especially at family reunions and anniversaries, or when a current relationship seems to be going wrong.

  • Children can make ready scapegoats for distraught parents or relatives or siblings to lay blame for a death or loss. Such cases are the majority cause of a morbid sense of guilt in a child.

  • There are situations where a child can easily reach the conclusion that they are to blame for a death – e.g. cross infection- and only discussion with an appropriate adult will enable them to see this in its proper perspective.

  • A child is in no position, as adults are, to institute inquiries to clarify facts or obtained more detailed information. They are often at the mercy of what relatives decide to tell them.

  • A

    child is at a great disadvantage if adults or relatives are unsympathetic to his/her yearning, sorrow or anxiety. A child is rarely in a position, unlike an adult, to seek further for understanding and comfort if initial attempts are not successful.

  • Children have less knowledge and understandings of life and death issues. Children can make false inferences from information they receive, especially if it is cloaked in euphemism and figures of speech.

  • In the great majority of cases where children are described as having failed totally to respond to news of a death, both the information given and the opportunity to discuss its significance were so inadequate the child failed to grasp the nature of what had happened.

  • Just when a child needs most the patience and understanding of the adults around him, these adults are likely to be least fit to give it.

  • Because of some family messages about how to grieve:

    • Just carry on as usual (back to school etc)

    • Don’t make a fuss (Granny wouldn’t want it)

    • Grief is a private matter

    • Children don’t need to grieve

    • Children don’t need their innocence spoiled by grisly facts

    • Adults don’t share their grief with children

    • Lets forget all about it

    • Its morbid to talk about the dead or death

(Gordon in Smith & Pennell p123)

  • In Koocher’s test, 40% of children in the pre-operational level thought that dead creatures could be brought back to life.

  • Pre schoolers view death as temporary and reversible.

  • Preschoolers’ thinking is still centered very much on self and loss can be viewed in terms of their own needs: “Who is going to take care of me?”

  • Broader support systems such as the school and community are important to the child’s recovery from the trauma of parental death. (Saravay, 1991)

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