When Your Student is Grieving

My heart is heavy. This week has been particularly hard for the Marine Corps.

In case you missed it, a training accident in Hawaii resulted in the loss of 12 Marines from Squadron 463. 

This means that 12 families are grieving this weekend. It means that the children of these Marines, their younger brothers and sisters, their nieces and nephews, and any other children they impacted are also grieving.

When Your Student is GrievingThese kids might be in your class on Monday, or next week.

As a military spouse, I know that accidents happen. That tragedies happen. That sometimes our brave warriors go out, and don’t come back.

Even outside of military life, children might suffer the loss of an important person in their life.

But what do you say to a child? What can you do as that child’s teacher?

Well, you can do a few things.

1. Contact the family as soon as possible. Use whatever means is most comfortable for you. Phone and email are probably the most timely. Express your deepest sympathy for their loss sincerely. Ask the surviving parent or guardian what you can do, but don’t expect a response immediately or even a specific task that they need help with. After this initial contact, let it be.

Find out what your student's family needs2. Round up your resources. Get in touch with the school or district psychologist and social workers. Let them know what you know, or use released information from the media. Ask them to reach out to the family or families to offer counseling services. Contact your building and district administration immediately, too. Work together to figure out a way to work with your student’s family in this tough time. Allow additional absences, extend deadlines, or arrange for district provided tutoring, if possible.

3. Shower them with love. If this is a military related death, contact the unit’s Family Readiness Officer or other unit support staff. If this is not military related, contact the funeral home to get the best contact for the family. Find out what the family needs: meals, help finding area hotels for arriving family members, cleaning services, baby sitting, or yard work. Get together with your colleagues at school and work together to decide how to help. Send around a card, collect gift cards, or set up something else.

4. Attend any memorials, wakes, and funerals. Your student needs to know that you care, right now. This child needs to be wrapped in love, even if he doesn’t want to talk. Just be there; be physically present.

There is no5. Respect their grieving process. Not everyone feels loss or grieves in the same way. Some children will want to return to school immediately, some will want to remain home longer. Every response is valid and appropriate. Let your student know you are there, for whatever they need. Maybe they want to be in school, but not out at recess or lunch. Maybe they prefer to work at home for a while, with work you have sent home. Find a way to work with your student and her family.

6. Let your student lead your conversations about parents, and their parent specifically. Some children want to talk about and remember their parent right away. Some children might take a little more time. Be sensitive in your language, as well. Remember that, even before now, not all families look the same or are structured in the same way.

7. Know that the grieving process has no timeline and no end date. A child, or anybody for that matter, might seem to have moved on and be back to normal one day, and the very next day be unable to move for grief. Children keenly miss the loss of their parent, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, or friend at different points and milestones in their life, and often for no particular reason at all. Respect this, and let your student know that you are here to support her no matter what.

8. Know what to say, and what NOT to say. Remembering that their grief is unique to them, do not tell him you know how he feels or that she should be strong. Instead, tell your student that you care, that you are thinking of her, or that you are here for him if he needs to talk.

There is no one way to help a child who is grieving. And nothing you do or say can make this go away or magically become all better. But, maybe, just knowing that someone loves and supports their child unconditionally will help to ease the burden on a surviving parent or family.

Please keep the Marines, Sailors, families, and friends of USMC Squadron 463 in your thoughts and prayers. And please pray for all children who are grieving the loss of someone important to them.

~Meg

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