Grief Over the Holidays: Educators Can Help Students Cope

All across the nation, the December holidays are a special time for families, schools, and communities. Everywhere we look, we see signs of celebration. In schools, there may be pageants, food drives, decorations, and parties. In stores, we hear familiar music. On the streets, people wish each other happy holidays.

During these times, most of us also think about people we miss, including loved ones who have died. These memories can be especially acute for children and teens who have lost a loved one. They may experience periods of deep sadness, a renewal of their grief, or sudden and unexpected reactions of anger, despair, or fear.

These responses may happen during the first or second year after a death, or many years later. Educators spend a lot of time with students and are uniquely poised to observe grief responses over time. They can take steps to anticipate challenges. The support and understanding that educators offer grieving students over the holidays can be especially helpful.

Grief triggers can be strong. Grief triggers are sudden reminders of the person who died that cause powerful emotional responses. These can include smells or sounds, hearing a song, participating in a family tradition, or even imagining a lost opportunity such as a holiday dinner with the loved one. The holidays are filled with these kinds of reminders, so grief triggers can be frequent and quite strong during these times.

iStock_000023763428_Double_smEmotions can be powerful. Grieving children may feel particularly vulnerable when they have grief responses to holiday events. They may isolate themselves from peers or celebrations in an effort to avoid triggers. They may be frustrated or disappointed that they can’t manage these responses. It’s common for children to think, “I should be past this and able to stay in control now.”

Goals for educators. By reaching out to grieving students, educators have an opportunity to promote several important goals, including:

  1. Decreasing students’ sense of isolation. It’s common for grieving children to feel that others do not understand their experience.
  1. Offering students an opportunity to talk. Students will be thinking about their loved one, and they will need someone to talk to about their memories, experiences, and feelings.
  1. Encouraging students to talk with others. In most cases, it is helpful for students to talk honestly with peers and family about their thoughts, feelings, and memories.

Here are some things that you and your staff can do to support grieving students during the holidays:

  • Ask open-ended questions. Listen more than you talk. For example, ask, “How are the holidays going for you? I wonder what thoughts you’ve been having about your dad lately.”
  • Accept expressions of emotion. Students may express sadness, pain, frustration, anger, or other powerful emotions. Avoid minimizing students’ feelings or trying to put a “positive” spin on their expressions. For example, saying, “It’s important to focus on the good times you had with your dad,” is likely to communicate that you don’t want to hear a student talk about painful things.
  • Reach out to grieving students at school events. The absence of a loved one may be especially noticeable during the classroom party or holiday band concert. Make a point to touch base in some way. Let a student know you’re happy to see him or her at the party, or are looking forward to hearing them play in the concert.
  • Introduce class activities in a way that acknowledges absences and offers alternatives. For example, if students are making cards for members of their family, invite them, if they wish, to also include cards for someone who is no longer living or who does not live with the family.
  • Lead class discussions about holiday stories and experiences with sensitivity. Poems, stories, and discussions may present triggers for grieving students. Open up the possibility during discussions (“Sometimes people have sad reactions to the holidays because they miss people. Have any of you ever had an experience like this?”). Consider reaching out after class to see how a grieving student is doing, or learn what he or she thought of the discussion.

Children experience grief differently over time. What is true this year for the holidays may not be the same next year. This is why one of the most important things educators can do is ask questions and then listen, with presence and patience.

Learn more about ways to offer support to grieving students on the Coalition to Support Grieving Students website. NASSP is a founding member of the Coalition.

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