Whether it is the result of an individual, localized event or a national tragedy, students may find themselves in need of school counseling in unexpected and critical ways. Further, the needs of students receiving grief counseling in school can be as varied as the reasons they require it. Students are not immune to tragedy and it can strike without warning, therefore a school must be constantly prepared to provide counseling services if and when tragedy strikes, be it the tragic and unexpected passing of a peer or staff member, or was a wider-reaching tragedy at another school.

Grief Triggering Events and Circumstances

Many students will experience grief and need counseling due to the loss of a family member or friend. Further, while 95% of high school students avoid the loss of a parent while in high school, that remaining 5% are in desperate need of grief counseling provided by their school to help then process and cope with that loss. While the student hopefully is receiving counseling out of school, the stresses of school sometimes necessitate counseling on a more constant or immediate basis.

Not only are students affected by events that happen to them, they are also affected by the events that happen around them. Events like school shootings, terrorist attacks, and gang violence can lead students to need grief counseling. School counselors must be prepared for the most unexpected of events and be poised to offer support as immediate circumstances demand.

Expressions of Grief in Children

The ways children respond to grief are as varied as the ways adults respond, and each child’s experience must be treated as a unique circumstance. However, there are common ways in which children express grief. For example, many children express emotional shock that may manifest in an apparent lack of emotion. Students may also exhibit immature behaviors, commonly called “acting out.” If the students are particularly young, these regressive behaviors can make the child seem as though they are trying to go back to infancy, complete with asking to be rocked to sleep or being unable to be alone.

Helping Children Cope

School counselors will always do their best to help children, parents, and teachers in order to do what is best for the student. Much like the expressions of grief in children, the ways in which they can be helped by counselors are varied and unique. One common practice is to allow children to be the leaders of their own grief counseling. This means that they are allowed to talk about their grief in a way that best fits them. Also, continuing to provide counseling for extended periods of time, not per session but overall, is a great method of helping children cope and allows the counseling professionals to more thoroughly guide the student, tracking their growth and progress through the grieving process. This also helps to acknowledge the long-term impact a loss may have and allow for continued and tailored support for each student.

Developmental Phases in Understanding Death

While children will process and understand death in their own ways, there are ways in which students who fall within certain developmental phases will typically process it. For instance, infants and toddlers will, if they process death at all, simply acknowledge the absence without any understanding of the permanence or loss. Later in life, around the time of elementary school, students will start to see death as permanent. Death is something that happens to other people, but it is nevertheless permanent. Once students reach high school, they understand death and will often seek out others to help them cope. They may also react in the extreme, so they often require the greatest amount of care, often for the longest amount of time.

Children and Teens Grieving Friends and Classmates

The death of a friend or classmate presents unique challenges. This loss may feel and be dealt with differently than the death of any other person in a students life because it forces them to acknowledge their own mortality in a very real way. Closeness in age to the deceased alone can be jarring and the circumstances surrounding a sudden death often leaves the student feeling abandoned and unable to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. In these times, it is important that school administrations provide the resources students need to process their loss. Facilitating open and constructive discussion in both group and individual sessions can help engage students in a dialog regarding loss and reinforce the availability of grief counseling and other valuable resources provided by the school and supporting organizations. Creating a healthy, accepting, and safe place to express their emotions and grieve is incredibly valuable to students seeking support as they process the events.

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