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Addressing Grief and Loss as a Teacher

Ways teachers can address grief and loss in the time of COVID‐19

December 5, 2020

The TFA Editorial Team

The TFA Editorial Team

As cases of COVID increase, so does the likelihood that educators and their students will experience some form of loss.

We spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Shadick, who is Teach For America’s national mental health consultant, about grief and loss and how school leaders and teachers can address it in and out of the classroom. 

When we hear words like “grief” and “loss,” we tend to think about death and dying when actually these two terms encompass a lot more. What are some losses that educators and students could be experiencing during COVID-19? 

Loss can arise in many different ways in educators' and students' lives, especially during COVID. For students, loss may occur on a near-daily basis. It may be a loss of connection with peers, access to ample food, hands-on learning, or structure in their day. For educators, loss may mean the absence of meaningful collegial support, daily structure, career attainment, or the rich interactions and satisfaction that comes with face-to-face teaching. On a broader scale, loss for students and educators may also mean the death of a loved one, loss of meaningful life events such as attending graduations, weddings, births, parties, or other situations that add substance and significance to our lives.

What are the common symptoms for those experiencing grief? 

Grief is an intense emotional and physiological reaction to the loss of someone or something. We all experience loss in our lives; perhaps a friend moves away, or a romantic relationship ends. Often we grieve that loss and experience emotions such as sadness, irritability, or anger. We may also experience physical symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, headaches, or stomach aches. In more severe cases, grief can lead to depression or other mental health problems and a prolonged inability to function. It’s important to recognize that grief is not a linear process or a box one can check. Ultimately the experience of grief, however long and intense the experience is, or when it may show up throughout our lives, is unique to each person.

What thoughts should educators keep top of mind when communicating with a student experiencing loss or grief? 

Educators should remember that loss and grief are common life experiences. They are opportunities to learn and grow, and teachers can see them as openings to develop social-emotional learning. Teachers should also keep in mind that most students do not experience debilitating symptoms due to loss. Resilient responses are the most likely outcome. Nonetheless, educators should teach students about expectable versus debilitating grief so they can be aware of problems if they surface. 

Finally, educators should make space for students to share their concerns. Whenever possible, teachers should find a quiet, private moment for students to talk to them about their feelings and listen in an open and non-judgmental manner. Spending a little time with a student going through a rough patch can lead not only to the student feeling heard and understood but may also help them to be more attentive and open to learning. 

“Educators should remember that loss and grief are common life experiences. They are opportunities to learn and grow, and teachers can see them as openings to develop social-emotional learning.”

Dr. Richard Shadick

The holidays are coming up; what are some ways teachers can help themselves or students during this time? 

Holidays are often seen as positive and joyful times. But for some, particularly those who are struggling with grief, they can be painful. If that is the case, then teachers or students should prepare for such reactions. For example, if someone has lost a loved one and knows they will be reminded of their absence during the holidays, they should do something that would honor the person. They might make a favorite dish of the lost person, bring out some pictures of them, or listen to their preferred music. These rituals allow for the expression of the loss and make it possible for other, more positive feelings to surface. Active self-care during the holidays is also crucial. Eating as healthy as possible, exercising, getting enough sleep, and limiting alcohol use is key. 

How can schools, teachers, and communities work together to strengthen bereavement support? What are some resources to help students with loss and grief? 

Schools and educators need training in managing loss and grief. A study by the American Federation of Teachers found that only 7 percent of teachers receive meaningful training in this area. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a variety of training for audiences on grief and traumatic stress. There are comprehensive resources from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students as well, which teachers may find helpful in planning lessons. The American Counseling Association also has many resources for specialized populations and includes a section on books of grief for students in different grade levels. 

It's important to add that teachers already have many general resources at their fingertips to help students with grief. They can refer to their social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence curricula to help students manage their feelings. As always, if a student is experiencing significant impairment from their loss, they should be referred to a mental health provider through the school’s guidance counselor or school psychologist.

Note: This article includes ideas to support teacher and student wellness. Users are responsible for researching resources and professionals to find the best supports to meet their needs. Teach For America does not endorse these particular services in any way. The resources linked within are not meant to replace or confuse any guidance teachers and corps members are receiving from their districts, administrators, or employers. Ultimately, corps members with Teach For America must adhere to the policies and guidance from their placement schools.