A child’s version of ‘Grief in the Workplace’
I was sitting at my computer, sweltering in the humid heat of early January, preparing for another year of the work I love, when I wrote the words below. I knew even then that by the time you got to read these words, the year would be more advanced, but little did I know HOW advanced.
As I sit at my desk now, I can feel the chill of autumn heralding a welcome change of season, for me anyway, because I don’t do well in intense heat. But it’s not only the season that has changed since I wrote this Blog – it’s the whole world. Quite literally! Naively I guess, none of us really imagined being caught up in a pandemic. Most of us knew of the pandemic of 1918, but we possibly believed that advances in medical science and modern public health policies would cocoon us from a repeat of the tragedy of that time.
The advent of COVID-19 means that life as we knew it has changed dramatically. We struggle to adapt to the new social rules that have kept us physically distant from many of those we love; we might have grappled with boredom as our usual distractions are denied us, and many are struggling to stay afloat financially as their usual source of income dwindles or disappears. Many families have had to deal with on-line schooling, sometimes with the added difficulty of managing ADD, ADHD or children ‘on the spectrum’.
I could write at length about all of that, but the purpose of this Blog is to draw attention to care of bereaved children in their ‘workplace’ – school.
Social isolation is likely to have exaggerated the thoughts, feelings and behaviour that were part of children’s grief before COVID-19. And of course, the grief of adults.
I am mindful that as school resumes for a trial period, teachers who have also been affected by social isolation and the need to ‘perform’ on Zoom sessions, are likely to be confronted by restless, reluctant and perhaps rebellious children, children who really don’t want to go back to school. My heart goes out to them too.
I’ll ask you to bear with me and read the words below ‘as if’ we were living in normal times and simply factor in any exaggerated reactions that may apply in current circumstances. Hopefully, life will eventually return to a new kind of normal and there will be another school holiday just round the corner, and another round of post holiday blues to contend with.
Below, the January 2020 version.
From the very beginning of January, the sights, sounds, smells and advertisements that herald up-coming festive occasions – foreground from September to New Year’s Day – have been replaced in shopping centres and print publications by advertisements for post season sales, back to school purchases, and the premature appearance of hot cross buns. There seems to be no respite period for parents from the pressure to spend and to plan for the year ahead. For those lucky enough to have had a holiday free from worry about bush fires, floods or other disasters, the day after Australia Day festivities may herald the onset of post holiday ‘blues’.
Children often experience post holiday ‘blues’. I have a vivid memory of one of my daughters returning from an exciting overseas school excursion, her introduction to a different language and culture, and an exciting world beyond the boring sameness of her pretty average Australian suburban existence. We opened the front door when she returned, arms outstretched to welcome her home, longing to hear every detail of her experience. She rushed past us to her room, threw herself on the bed, and sobbed inconsolably. We rushed to her side, imagining she was ill or in pain, only to learn that she was simply devastated because her adventure had come to an end.
I do know the feeling of post holiday let down, but I can’t remember the end of holidays ever affecting me quite as intensely as my daughter’s reaction indicated she felt. But then, my experiences weren’t quite as exotic as hers had been.
As I think back to special childhood holidays, it’s probably easy for me to view the past through rose coloured lenses, but tinted or accurate, I love reliving memories of the long, lazy days of the Christmas holidays. For several years in a row my sisters and I were fortunate to spend the whole six weeks in a holiday unit close to the sand and sea on a beautiful north coast beach. Many of our school friends did the same, so we always had company as we filled the days and evenings with enjoyable activities. No TV or electronic devices to distract us from being outdoors, and lots of freedom to swim, explore, play beach cricket, picnic, fish, and tell endless hilarious stories round a fire lit to keep night time midges and mossies away. We never wanted those holidays to end, and thoughts of donning uniforms, inappropriately heavy in those days for the summer heat and humidity of the north coast of New South Wales, certainly added to our negativity.
As parents and grandparents, or simply as other concerned adults involved in the care of children, we may be wondering what we can do to help them deal with their anxiety. A motto from my Brownie and Guiding days instantly popped into my head – ‘be prepared’, or rather, help them prepare. It might be useful for us all to think about preparation as it affects different age groups and the challenges school might present when children and young people’s grief makes them feel regressed and vulnerable.
School, after all, is children’s work place and deserves at least as much attention and preparation as any work places for adults.
First things first
As I think about school as a ‘work place’, my concern focuses first on teachers.
Teachers may also have experienced the death of family members during the holidays, or perhaps have had memories of their own childhood bereavement re-stimulated by current events. If that’s the case, it’s likely to be difficult for them to provide the compassionate care needed by children in their care if their own needs haven’t been met. The airline instruction of ‘put your own oxygen mask on first before attending to the children’ is sound advice.
Being in the presence of grieving children has the potential to bring personal grief back into the foreground for any of us, making us vulnerable to identifying and being overly solicitous, or critical and impatient. We too are likely to regress and give grieving children in our care the attention we craved, or unconsciously resent them receiving what we were denied.
Teachers too may be grieving the same deaths as the children in their care, but be prevented by school protocols from talking about ‘the elephant in the room’. In these circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine the impact of stored tension on the learning environment and the unspoken message children might receive about how to deal with grief – ‘suck it up and soldier on’.
Let’s go back to the motto ‘be prepared’, and put the oxygen mask on important adults first.
Preparing Teachers and School Counsellors for the school year
In point form, my suggestions are:
- When preparing the school calendar SCHOOL PRINCIPALS ensure that in-service sessions for staff include at least one full day about bereavement and grief where it is safe enough for teachers to share their own experiences, feel understood and supported.
- That all SCHOOLS have copies of NCCG pamphlets visible and readily available for teachers – especially those about managing grief in the school setting, and understanding adult grief.
- That TEACHERS ensure that their own grief has received appropriate attention. If in doubt, make an appointment with a competent bereavement counsellor for a ‘grief check up’.
- That ALL PRINCIPALS, TEACHERS AND SCHOOL COUNSELLORS have information about the NCCG’s outreach support service and how to use it.
Once teachers feel understood and supported, we can address the needs of grieving children.
Preparation for Preschool and Kindergarten children
First and foremost, children need to know important details of their family’s story – who died, how and when. If they don’t have access to truth, we can be sure that local adults will know versions of the story, perhaps a distorted version, and their children are likely to deliver information to the grieving child, often gleaned from overheard conversations, in a way that hurts. No matter what the age of a child, ‘owning’ their story can be empowering.
Teachers also need to know details about major events that are likely to affect a child’s school experience and their behaviour in that setting. Children are likely to express their grief in regressed behaviour and for this reason, ‘A Friends’ Place’ has produced pamphlets that are designed to help teachers understand the needs of grieving children, and how to respond when they are concerned, or challenged by their behaviour. Anyone can contact the Centre and ask to have copies of the pamphlets sent to them ASAP, and teachers and parents can also phone or email for advice or support.
Truth and inclusion remain guiding principles for us all to remember as part of our care-giving. For example, we need not only to tell the child age related facts about their family story, but also tell them what information we have shared with their teacher. We might say ‘I’ve told Mrs. Brown that grandma died at Christmas time so she’ll understand if you are upset when you’re missing her.’
If a young child has experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or another close relative, it’s often helpful if they are able to take something to school that they can hold when they are sad or anxious, preferably a familiar, soothing object, or something that helps them feel connected to the person who died.
And finally, we need to give them things to look forward to at the end of each day – a simple, inexpensive reward for being brave. Fun activities are often best, especially those that are initially physically active to release tension, followed by something more settling and soothing before bed.
Preparation for Children in Infants and Primary School
A conversation about hopes and fears is usually a good starting point. If our own grief prevents us from conveying confidence, from giving an unspoken message that everything will be manageable, it may be a good idea to ask an adult less affected to initiate the conversation.
If grief is new, a new event has brought grief back into foreground, or the child we care about is starting a new school, we might say ‘Mrs. Smith will need to know what’s happened in our family over the holidays. What I was thinking of telling her is…How does that sound to you?’ We could then ask ‘do you want your friends to know, or would you rather Mrs. Smith keeps the story to herself until you’re ready?’
If the answer is ‘when I’m ready’, we could then ask ‘how will I know when it’s OK to tell your friends, and what would you like them to know?’
Children in infants and early primary school, similar to those in pre-school, school, are often comforted by being able to touch objects that connect them to the person who died, or are familiar reminders of safety and security. Objects small enough to keep in a pocket and touched when needed without making them the centre of unwanted attention are usually best. If the school allows jewellery to be worn, a photo locket can be helpful and easily touched or held when needed.
Children of all ages need something to look forward to at the end of the day, preferably an activity they would have enjoyed before grief became part of their experience. If energy is in short supply for family adults, relatives, friends and neighbours might be prepared to contribute on a roster basis so that no one person feels overcommitted.
Preparation for High School students
Many grieving children beginning their high school years enter an environment where few people, if any, are likely to know their story. Conversations with some reveal the relief this provides – being able to start over without the label of ‘grieving kid’. Others find the reverse is true for them – they seem to need others to know, and hopefully, provide compassionate support. It’s important therefore that we make sure what any child in our care would find most helpful, and how that might be achieved.
Children going back to school may find that familiar grief resurfaces for a while until they find their feet in a new class, perhaps with increasing academic expectations. Those bereaved during the holidays may fear being absent from the security of family and folk who know and understand their experience, or conversely, school might feel like respite from the intensity of family grief. All of these thoughts give emphasis to the importance of a caring adult initiating a conversation about the young person’s fears and hopes, and their ideas about what might help ease them back into the school environment. No matter what their age, all children and young people need soothing at the end of a stressful day ‘at the coal face’. For some that may mean space to be alone in their room; for others, comfort food around the family table and perhaps a chat; for others, an energetic game, time out in front of TV, or phone or text conversations with friends.
Some will not want to be asked how the day was, while others long to be asked. We need to be careful not to force conversation, or to overwhelm with questions.
Like us, they may need to ‘just be’ at the end of another day of learning how to live with grief in the workplace. We need to remind ourselves that whatever the child’s behaviour or personal style of relating was before their grief experience, what we are likely to see now is a regressed, exaggerated version.
Many parents and teachers have difficulty differentiating between typical adolescent behaviour and grief, which is not surprising. Normal adolescent behaviour is likely to be exaggerated at times when young people are grieving, emphasising the need for clear rules and boundaries. Behaviour that was unacceptable at home or in the classroom before the death occurred, remains unacceptable in the present.
Two key rules remain important at home and at school: SAFETY and RESPECT. Everyone deserves to feel safe at home and at work, physically and emotionally, and we all deserve to be treated with respect – our bodies, feelings and possessions. Grief doesn’t give any of us the right to remain totally self focussed so that we miss cues that others may also be hurting, or that we may in fact be the cause of their hurt.
To refresh our memories, a ‘to do list’:
- School principals ensure that all teachers and school counsellors understandgrief in the classroom, including their own. Teachers, like the rest of us, can only give what they have received.
- Make sure that an adequate supply of pamphlets from the NCCG (‘A Friend’s Place’ is visible and easily accessed.
- Inform teachers and school counsellors that help is readily available via the NCCG outreach service.
- Parents inform teachers of the grief status of very young children.
- Parents or other concerned adults have important conversations with older children about their fears, hopes, needs, and what of their story is to be shared – how, when and with whom.
Our new ‘Normal’ – Living with global unpredictability
Just when we imagined we had things almost under control again – no floods or fires for a heartbeat or two – we find ourselves in the midst of global chaos – a pandemic of COVID -19.
Panic buying of illogical proportions (toilet rolls for example) has been reported on at length, along with encouragement to focus on hand washing, checking ourselves and everyone else for contagious symptoms that might lead to hospitalisation or self isolation, is accompanied by the inevitable anxiety we tend to feel when life is even more unpredictable than usual.
Families already grieving the death of people they love, or caring for those with terminal illnesses, are likely to find this added burden of worry overwhelming. What advice can we give ourselves in these circumstances? Perhaps the well known slogan ‘stay calm and carry on’ is about as profound a self lecture as we’re capable of at the moment.
Many of us will experience recurring wonderings of ‘what if…’. What if my family catches the virus and we have to self isolate? What if we can’t attend our usual places of work, and our children can’t go to school? What might happen to us financially? Emotionally? Practically? How do we manage our pre existing grief, and help our children manage theirs?
Self isolation could have some positive aspects, as long as no one is dangerously ill. We could all make time out spots, however small, where individual family members could shut the world out by using head phones to listen to mood changing music. We could all plan activities that provide distractions from intrusive worries; we could stay in touch with important people in our lives via email, phone calls and texts. Medical practitioners, counsellors and teachers could be accessed in the same way, if the situation warrants a profound change in the way we currently function as a society.
We can limit the amount of information we are bombarded with, restricting it to what is simple, factual, and necessary. We can protect our children from being overladed with fear inducing rumours, and from the contagious aspects of our own fears. We can keep living a life to the best of our ability, and use help when it’s available. Let’s prepare for the worst, and hope for the best, much like politicians appear to be doing at the moment.
Life is complex and keeps delivering unexpected twists and turns, from very simple to traumatic. We can deal with most things if we share the load and establish good team work – family, friends, relatives, teachers, school counsellors, medical practitioners and bereavement counsellors. Children, and their teachers, do best when we are all ‘on the same page’.
And remember – understanding, support, information and suggestions are always available from The National Centre for Childhood Grief – ‘A Friends’ Place’.
Help is always available – at ‘A Friend’s Place’ or by contacting our outreach service.
Dianne McKissock OAM
NCCG Outreach Support Service
Email support for dying and bereaved people and anyone involved in their care