The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent national mourning has been a strange period. For some young people, it might be their first experience of death, albeit indirectly. And the flowers in the park, queues in the streets of London, and ongoing television coverage might be a bit overwhelming. This provides a good opportunity to talk to children about death - a tricky and still taboo topic for many, but one that is very important.
But how do you broach the topic with students and pupils as a teacher? It’s not something that is part of the job description for teaching jobs in the UK, but is likely to be something that will come up during your teaching career. Teaching jobs are becoming more and more pastoral, and wellbeing a key part.
Here are a few things you need to think about when addressing such a challenging subject.
It is important to be compassionate. Young people experiencing grief are likely to be sad and confused, and be unable to rationalise or process emotions using the same tools and techniques that adults do. The death of a pet can be traumatic, and a grandparent can seem life changing. Be sensitive to this, and don’t dismiss it.
There is no timeline on grief, and feelings may come up many months or years later. Banish the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary. Everyone will process grief differently, and certain activities or thoughts might trigger emotions later down the line. Rather than tell students they should be ‘over it’ ask them questions about what has caused these feelings specifically right now, and help them identify any triggers.
Steer clear of your own beliefs
Remember that we live in a multicultural society where there are many different cultural, societal and religious belief systems around dying, death, and what happens to us after we die. Remember the background that the student or pupil you are speaking to has, and make sure you bring that into the discussion. Your own personal beliefs are irrelevant here.
Encourage them to connect
Talking really helps. Whether it’s specifically about the death, or just having regular social interaction, it’s important that young people engage with others and don’t isolate themselves. Keeping busy and active with hobbies is another way to help them not dwell or fixate, but remember the things in their life they enjoy. Monitor the pupil for any signs of isolation, and encourage them to connect with others.
Remember the good times
One of the things many find useful is reflecting back on the good times they had with the person who has died. That might be making a cake with grandma, walking to school with dad, or hanging out with a friend in the park. That can help them see the person in a positive light, although may make them realise how much they miss them, and provoke more calming feelings.
Science of death
Everyone dies, and it’s ok to be upfront about this. That doesn’t mean you’re dismissing the issue, but that you’re bringing a rationality into the discussion and helping the young person you’re supporting recognise that this is a process they will go through time and time again, and a normal part of life.
Write it down
Journalling is a great way of processing emotions and lots of people find that writing things down really helps them work through things. Even if it doesn’t, offloading can be hugely helpful. A safe diary is a tool they can use to just get things out.
Know when you need more help
Specialist grief counsellors are trained to support people after a death. If you think a pupil or student in your care needs more clinical or counselling support, refer them on through your school’s mental health team.