Child drawing sad face on the paper. Close up hands and picture.

3 Things we get wrong in responding to child grief — and how to do better


Attempting to fix grief often can come in the form of well-meaning platitudes. When Nelson asks bereaved students what things people have said that bothered them, the most common responses include sentiments like, “It’s going to be okay,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “They’re in a better place now.” These messages are invalidating, Nelson said, because “the implied second half of the sentence is, ‘So stop feeling so bad.’” When she asks kids what did feel helpful, the responses are straightforward: Someone who was present. Someone who let them cry. Someone who saw their pain and made space for it.

In addition to listening, teachers can make space for grief by allowing flexibility in how those students complete assignments, Nelson said. And they can encourage students to reach out when they’re having tough days and need more grace or care.

3. Avoiding discussions about loss

Even with other grown-ups, adults in the U.S. tend to be uncomfortable or clumsy when acknowledging someone else’s grief. “It’s very difficult for us to sit and be truly empathetic with someone in grief,” Nelson said. “That’s what’s needed, but it’s very difficult because it makes it feel too close to us.”

So how to talk about it? Ask questions about the person who died. Say their name. Be cognizant of major life events, including holidays, birthdays and death anniversaries. Check in with students at those times. “For someone who is grieving, it is a gift to hear their loved one’s name and memories aloud,” Nelson said. Remember that loss still hurts after the first anniversary, and healing isn’t linear. Teachers should avoid assignments and events focused specifically around a mother or father role, as that can “trigger a fresh wave of grief for students,” Nelson said.

Make space for grief and the sharing of memories, but also recognize — and teach students — that there’s no right way to grieve or to feel. Some kids may be angry. Some may be sad. Some kids may have had a complicated relationship with the person who died. “Grief doesn’t mean that you’re just glamorizing the person that died and everything’s wonderful and they were just the best person ever. Maybe they weren’t. And that’s okay. We have to honor that,” Nelson said.

Nelson told MindShift that teachers and school counselors can work together to support bereaved students by keeping an open line of communication. Teachers can have eyes and ears in places counselors can’t be, she said. Counselors, in turn, “can help teachers know when certain triggering dates or events happen so teachers can treat the student with the extra level of care they may need.”



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