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How Schools and Communities Can Support Grieving Families

Grief comes as a unique and intricate web of emotions and challenges—and it casts a shadow over families dealing with loss. According to the UK Commission on Bereavement, 39% of bereaved people reported difficulties in getting support from friends or family. What’s more, 51% of those with high-level needs experienced high or severe vulnerability. During these difficult times, a supportive environment is imperative, and schools and communities have a role to play. 

Schools are a central part of any community and their assistance to grieving families is paramount. The wider community also serves as an important care network that can offer empathy and practical assistance when families are feeling at their most vulnerable. 

Families dealing with grief have unique needs and distinct requirements and it is with the support of schools and communities that they can begin to heal and work their way through the journey of loss.

Creating a Supportive School Environment

Schools aren’t just centres for learning; they’re crucial spaces for emotional growth and support too. When facing grief, schools can play a huge part in emotional growth and support. They can recognise and respond to the needs of their grieving students and offer a compassionate and inclusive environment from day one. 

Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a pet, or another significant change, grief manifests differently in each individual. Schools must train their staff to identify signs of grief and provide appropriate support and resources. This might involve establishing protocols for communicating with bereaved students, offering flexibility with deadlines and assignments, or providing support through signposting, counselling services or other referrals. 

For healing to begin, a school needs to have a compassionate and inclusive culture. It should acknowledge and support the grieving families beyond a simple offering of condolences. Schools need to be proactive in their approach to integrating grief awareness into the fabric of school life. 

Grief education programmes, awareness campaigns and open discussions about loss and coping strategies help. When conversations about grief and loss are normalised within a school environment, they can destigmatise the experience of loss and create a safe space where students feel understood and supported. 

Counselling services, support groups and memorial events are powerful ways schools can support grieving families. Specialist grief counselling provides students with a confidential outlet to express their emotions and receive guidance from a trained professional. Support groups offer peer support for those who are or have gone through similar experiences, which creates a sense of belonging and reduces feelings of isolation. Memorial events like remembrance ceremonies and commemorations also provide opportunities for students to honour their loved ones and find closure. 

Supporting grieving family

Educating teachers and staff

In the midst of grief and loss, and depending on the circumstances, schools may not be aware of grief. Many children who’ve lost a loved one still attend school and have very little time off. As such, it’s important for teachers and staff to recognise signs of grief and to provide appropriate support. The environment should be a nurturing one for both the grieving students and their families. 

Here are several ways in which teachers and school staff can support:

  • Recognise signs of grief: Teachers and other school staff are frontline observers of student behaviour. They, more than anyone else outside of the family, are primed to recognise signs of grief. Training for this is necessary as everyone’s grief manifests itself differently. However, common signs of grief include changes in academic performance, withdrawal, mood swings and physical symptoms. Staff should be equipped with strategies to offer immediate support. Whether this is through listening, offering reassurance or connecting students with other services like counselling.
  • Effective communication: Open and empathetic communication is key when discussing grief and loss with students and parents. Teachers and school staff should be trained in compassionate listening techniques that validate students’ feelings and provide age-appropriate explanations about death and bereavement. There should also be clear communication channels established with parents so that they can be informed of their child’s needs and receive information about resources available should additional support be necessary.
  • Resources and guidelines for bereavement support: Schools can help their students and families by setting up bereavement support policies and procedures that outline steps for supporting those grieving. This should include guidelines for notifying staff about a student’s loss, providing immediate support, offering long-term counselling services and accommodating academic needs during the grieving process. In the case of the loss of a student, there should also be protocols so that parents don’t receive unnecessary communications that could be insensitive, such as automatic absence notifications.

Schools can also establish partnerships with local organisations, grief counsellors and support groups to expand their resources and provide comprehensive support.

Involving the Community

Schools clearly play a central role in supporting grieving families. However, the wider community also provides crucial help and comfort during times of loss. Here’s how schools, local organisations and mental health professionals can work together as a community:

Partnerships of support:

Collaborations between schools, local organisations and mental health professionals can enhance the support available to grieving families. Schools can partner with community-based organisations, counselling centres and grief support groups to expand their resources and provide more specialised support to students and families. This means they can offer comprehensive support that addresses the emotional and practical needs of those experiencing loss.

Community-based initiatives

Community-based initiatives help to extend the support received beyond the school environment. Bereavement support groups can be a safe space for individuals to share their experiences, learn coping strategies and find solace in peer support from others who have navigated or who are still navigating similar losses. 

Memorial services organised by local communities provide opportunities for collective mourning and remembrance and they also foster a sense of solidarity and healing. Volunteer programmes are also useful as they allow members of the community to contribute their time and knowledge to support grieving families. This may be in the form of meals, offering transportation or simply listening. As time goes on, these supported families may also consider offering their time in such programmes. 

Promoting awareness and accessibility

Schools can promote awareness of community-based resources and initiatives. They’re ideal locations for disseminating information about local support groups, counselling services and memorial events. They help connect families with the support they need. They can also help ensure resources are accessible to all members of the community, regardless of cultural background or socio-economic status. 

School supporting grieving family

Tailoring Support to Individual Needs

Grief is individual to us all. The process is also shaped by our individual cultural, religious and personal beliefs as well as the unique dynamics of our families and communities. Recognising the diversity of grief is essential as it provides effective support that respects and addresses the individual needs of bereaved children, parents and caregivers. 

This is why it is important to have individual support plans. In this way, schools and communities can adapt their approach and services accordingly.

Recognising diversity in grief

Families and communities have different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences. All of these influence how individuals navigate grief. Some may openly express their emotions, while others prefer to grieve privately. Cultural and religious beliefs also shape mourning rituals and coping mechanisms. Understanding and respecting these diverse experiences is fundamental and allows people to provide meaningful support.

Individual support plans are important 

If a school adopts a one-size-fits-all approach to grief support it will be inadequate. This wouldn’t allow for the support of bereaved individuals and their complex needs. Schools and communities should develop individualised support plans that consider the specific circumstances and preferences of each grieving individual. This may require assessments of needs, preferences and coping strategies and it should involve an element of collaboration so that the support plan is tailored to them and respects their autonomy and cultural values.

Adapting support

Support services for grieving students and their families can be adapted to accommodate diverse cultural, religious and personal preferences. This might include offering flexible scheduling for counselling sessions to accommodate religious observances, providing materials in multiple languages or organising culturally sensitive memorial events that honour diverse traditions. Additionally, schools and communities should actively seek input from bereaved individuals and their families. This will ensure that support services are responsive to their needs and preferences.

Support tips:

  • Cultural competency training: Provide training for educators, staff and volunteers on cultural competency and sensitivity. This allows for better understanding and supports diverse grieving experiences.
  • Engage community leaders: Collaborate with community leaders, religious figures and cultural organisations to gain insights into cultural and religious practices related to grief and mourning.
  • Flexible and inclusive programming: Offer a range of support services that cater to diverse preferences. This includes support groups, counselling services and memorial events that respect various cultural and religious traditions.
  • Individualised communication: Communicate with bereaved individuals and families in a manner that respects their cultural norms and preferences. For example, this might mean addressing them by their preferred titles and using appropriate language and symbols of comfort.

By recognising and respecting the diversity of experiences and responses to grief within families and communities, schools and communities can develop individualised support plans that honour the autonomy and cultural values of bereaved individuals. Through flexible and inclusive programming, as well as culturally sensitive communication strategies, schools and communities can ensure that their support services effectively meet the diverse needs of those navigating grief.

Promoting Resilience and Healing

Grieving comes with profound challenges, but the presence of supportive environments within schools and communities can significantly influence the long-term healing and resilience of grieving families. Here’s why fostering such environments is essential and how ongoing support networks, coping strategies and therapeutic interventions contribute to promoting resilience:

The long-term impact of supportive environments

Supportive environments provide a foundation for grieving families. They help them navigate the complexities of grief and find things that work for them. Research has shown that support is an important factor in influencing bereavement outcomes. It can help mitigate the negative effects of grief like feelings of isolation. The presence of empathetic and understanding individuals also helps create a feeling of acceptance, which is essential when it comes to rebuilding a sense of normalcy and security amidst loss.

The role of ongoing support

When a loss is first experienced, the support and rallying around is plentiful. However, it’s after the initial shock, in the weeks that follow, that support dwindles—and it’s needed more than ever. Ongoing support, whether through formal support groups, informal peer support, or counselling, can provide a source of comfort, validation and guidance throughout the grieving process.

Coping strategies and therapeutic interventions

These are essential tools that schools can offer either in person or by signposting to resources. Ideas include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation exercise
  • Journaling
  • Creative expression

Therapeutic interventions empower those affected by grief to manage their emotions and navigate the challenges they face more effectively.

Communities supporting grieving family

Conclusion

Supporting grieving families calls for a multifaceted approach. There’s a need for collaboration, empathy and ongoing support from both schools and communities. 

Key strategies for schools and communities to support grieving families include:

  • Collaboration: Schools and communities must work together to provide comprehensive support that addresses the diverse needs of grieving families. This collaboration involves partnerships with local organisations (including churches and other places of worship), mental health professionals and community leaders to expand resources and offer specialised services.
  • Empathy: Recognising the unique experiences and responses to grief within families and communities is crucial. A culture of empathy and understanding means schools and communities can create environments where bereaved individuals feel supported and validated in their grief whatever their background and experience.
  • Ongoing support: Providing ongoing support networks, coping strategies and therapeutic interventions is essential for promoting healing and resilience among grieving families. This support should be tailored to the individual needs of each bereaved person and sustained over time to ensure continued progress.

By taking proactive steps to foster collaborative, empathetic and supportive communities, we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of those experiencing grief and loss. Together, communities and schools can help those affected by grief to heal, thrive and find hope again.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.



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