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How to support grieving children back to school

Going back to kura / school after a bereavement can actually offer some normality and security for tamariki / children – here are 10 ways to support your child back to school after a death.

The death of a loved one is difficult at any age, but for tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people, it can be really tough as they don’t usually have access to the resources needed to help them navigate, understand and cope with their loss and grief.

Especially because grief isn’t static. It’s an ongoing process that tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people carry with them throughout their lives as grief moves on its own terms.

How to support grieving children back to school

Going back to kura / school after a bereavement can actually offer some normality and security for tamariki / children. The intensity of living within a grieving household, without normal routines like friendships, kura / school, sports and clubs, can be difficult.

Having the support of a close whānau member or friend, including teachers, is really important as your taitamaiti / child prepares to return to kura / school. Grieving tamariki / children need someone they trust who can answer the tough questions about life and death in an open, honest, age-appropriate way that acknowledges and respects their feelings.

10 ways to support a young person’s return to kura / school after a death

1. Let them know there’s no ‘right way’ to do grief

Mātātahi / young people need to know that grieving is the natural response to the death of a loved one, and that everyone grieves in their own way. Reassure them that however they’re feeling is ok and that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by feelings or to feel nothing at all. What’s most important is that they feel supported with whatever they’re feeling and thinking, both at home and at kura / school.

2. Tell the kura / school

It’s important that the principal, teacher, dean and/or counsellor knows about the death. This allows them to put a plan in place to best support your taitamaiti / child.  Before you reach out to the kura / school, talk to your taitamaiti / child about it, so they’re comfortable with the plan and understand the reason why you’re speaking to their teachers.

If this is too hard for you, you could ask a trusted whānau member to do this for you or with you.

3. Give the kura / school some background

If your taitamaiti / child is starting a new kura / school or class, staff won’t know them, which means they might not notice any out-of-ordinary behaviour or mood changes. Providing them with some background on your child’s personality and typical behaviour will help them recognise any signs that your taitamaiti / child may be struggling.

4. Check in with staff

Checking in regularly with staff will help you pick up on any changes in behaviour or grief symptoms that might be concerning. Like some bereaved mātātahi / young people might find it hard to concentrate or may:

  • Be more tired (and irritable).
  • Be more sensitive to comments.
  • Be more wrapped up in their own feelings and fail to take others’ feelings into account.
  • Show anger or frustration about their loss.

As grief is a long, ongoing process, some of these things might not appear for a while after the death.

5. Dealing with other children’s reactions

Other tamariki / children may have different reactions when they find out your taitamaiti / child has experienced the death of a loved one. Some can be unknowingly insensitive, hurtful or inappropriate.  

Have a chat to your taitamaiti / child about others’ reactions, how they might respond and what information they’re happy to share with others.

6. Have a return-to-kura / school plan

Every taitamaiti / child will have different thoughts and feelings about how they want their return to kura / school to be managed. Some might want a low-key, quiet one. Others might want some special time with classmates and teachers to talk about what they’ve been through. Where you can, involve them in their return-to-kura / school plan and get their input.

7. Practise and prepare

Some tamariki / children don’t want to, or don’t feel ready, to talk about their loss with others. It might be helpful to practise conversations with them and prepare them for difficult questions. Tamariki / children often don’t want to feel different from their friends, but grief can make them feel that way. Help your taitamaiti / child learn ways to respond to comments that may make them feel uncomfortable.

8. Make teachers aware of significant dates

Let your child’s teacher know when the bereavement anniversary is and if certain days of the year may be upsetting for them, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Kirihimete / Christmas. It can be really difficult if their class is busy making cards for their loved ones and talking about their plans to celebrate. Offering your taitamaiti / child a choice as to what they would like to do could help, like making a card to remember their loved one.

9. Look after yourself

When helping mātātahi / young people with grief and loss it’s important to be aware of your own feelings. Children’s grief experiences may be emotionally demanding and may trigger feelings and memories about your own grief experiences.

10. Get support

You’re not alone - there are people, agencies and services that can help, including us. We offer 1-on-1 therapy to tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people affected by grief in the whānau, as well as extensive online resources.