Learn why bereavement training would be hugely impactful for schools in best supporting those experiencing grief, from educator and Twinkl content writer, Shuaib Khan.

The ending of life is inevitable. We will all experience loss at some point. And, if the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how fragile life is. So, when such conversations arrive in our classrooms, do teachers have the necessary training to support their pupils and colleagues?

In recent years, schools have become the panacea for all of society’s problems. Even with budgets being stretched, teachers up and down the country work tirelessly to ensure their pupils can have a first-class education that prepares them for life. 

Cover of the book 'Small Circle, Big Heart' by Shuaib S. Khan

So many questions, so few answers

Let’s go back to the summer of 2016. As a fresh-faced, doe-eyed, NQT, I spent my summer holidays getting my classroom ready and preparing for September. On INSET day, it was announced that a pupil had died. As staff looked at each other in shock, SLT’s parting line was, “Do not talk about it,” which is symbolic of how our society addresses – or should I say, fails to address – grief.

So, what happens when grief arrives in our lives and our classrooms? Do we have the skills to cope with it personally, as well as support others? What happens when a colleague returns after compassionate leave, do we know how to approach them? The short answer is ‘no.’ As COVID-19 hit, it appeared that we have been ill-prepared for quite some time now when it comes to facilitating conversations about loss.

What is grief?

The Good Grief Trust reminds us that although grief can include the passing of a loved one, it is an enormously complex emotion.

Any form of loss can create a sense of grief. We can grieve the loss of:

  • identity
  • a relationship
  • a job
  • good health
  • emotional or psychological safety
  • trust
  • shared memories
  • the future
  • dreams

Grief itself has an infinite number of meanings to each of us. As schools are miniature versions of society and we are all likely to experience grief in our lifetimes, silence on the topic of loss becomes unfathomable. We brush shoulders with grieving people all the time, often without even realising it.

What does the data tell us?

In 2018, Child Bereavement UK’s report, Improving bereavement support in schools, revealed the extent of the issue. It found that many teachers had received no bereavement training whatsoever.

Other findings were equally as alarming:

• 90% of respondents had experienced a death in their school community but only one-third believed they were equipped to deal with loss.
• Many teachers called for more training and believed it would be helpful for their role.
• It was acknowledged that both time and resource constraints are the leading reasons for schools being unable to to provide bereavement training for their staff. 1

In 2020, 1 in 6 calls to the Child Bereavement helpline were from teachers. 1 Teachers are actively looking for strategies to support their pupils and colleagues. It is clear there is a demand for more bereavement training and CPD.

Promoting healthy dialogue about issues that affect our pupils has been highlighted by Ofsted in its safeguarding guidelines and such conversations fit somewhat neatly into the Keeping Children Safe in Education documentation.

How can we support our staff and pupils?

One-off training is not the answer. Having a guest speaker, adding to the school CPD library and downloading a swanky PowerPoint can only go so far. Bereavement training must also focus on the culture and values of your school and creating safe spaces to support and signpost those who have lost loved ones.

Here are four ways you can support your staff and pupils.

1. Review existing bereavement policies
As no two people grieve the same way, bereavement policies need to be flexible and continuous works in progress.

For school leaders, think about the following:

  • How often do you review staff wellbeing policies?
  • Who conducts the return-to-work meetings?
  • How do you measure the success of a return to work?
  • Is there scope for a phased return to work?
  • What external support is available for bereaved staff and pupils and is it signposted?

The passing of a loved one often provides us with a sense of perspective. Having policies in place to ensure that we are better supported in schools and workplaces can go a long way in accommodating our ever-changing life circumstances.

2. Improving our grief literacy
Megan Devine’s brilliant book ‘It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand’ reminds us that language is the gateway to a broken heart. Devine believes that most of us avoid these conversations altogether in a society that doesn’t hold conversations about loss very well.

Improving our grief literacy is not an overnight process. It takes deep reflection and a willingness to ask questions when silence is the more comfortable option. It is not about simply finding the right words to say as there are no words that can truly help us comprehend the depth of someone else’s loss. Grief literacy is about empowering grievers by starting the dialogue and creating options. Simply saying “I’m here if you need me,” doesn’t work because when grief turns our lives upside down, we don’t know what we need anymore.

However, with a simple change in tone and by carefully selecting your words, you can convey compassion in a way that will create long lasting benefits. Please consider the following:

Statements to avoidStatements to consider
I am here if you need me.I will schedule a catch-up later this week for us.                   
Let me know if you need anything.I’m open to suggestions on how I can help. Next time I see you, let’s discuss how we can help you.
I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.What has happened to you is awful and I won’t pretend I know how you feel but I will continue checking in.
I’m always a message away.I will message you later. There’s no pressure to reply.         
I’m not sure what to say.I’m not going to say I know how you feel but here are a few organisations that may be able to help.

 

Although this is only a handful of ideas, they are more bespoke and personalised than generic advice. Many organisations help others to develop their grief vocabulary and this fits in nicely with our final point.

3. CPD

Research shows that teachers are desperately looking for more bereavement CPD. The following organisations are an excellent starting point:

  • Winston’s Wish offers a range of incredible free and paid CPD and training resources and materials. These vary from online sessions to more one-to one support. They also have resources available specifically for SEND pupils.
  • Child Bereavement UK is a charity that aims to support young people who have suffered a loss. They have many outstanding classroom resources as well as assembly packs to help teachers lead and facilitate these incredibly difficult conversations.
  • Cruse is another charity with many bespoke resources to support young people who have lost loved ones. They also have resources available on how to develop school-wide bereavement policies.
  • Anna Freud Trust (in association with the UK Trauma council) offers a paid training programme for SENCOs, school leaders and mental health leaders. It is designed to help staff develop a deeper understanding of bereavement and how to support pupils.

Finding funding for bereavement CPD may be difficult to justify but free options are available. Schools could also ask bereaved staff to share their experiences if they feel comfortable doing so.

4. Make school a sanctuary

A combination of reviewing existing bereavement policies, improving grief literacy and more rigorous CPD can make schools safe spaces for those who have been through the most unimaginable pain.

Schools should be like second homes for staff and pupils. Schools can become sanctuaries for staff and pupils alike if there is a culture that accommodates their grief and trauma.

The role of a school in bereavement support cannot go understated. The Bereavement Commission put forward several recommendations for schools. It identified schools as spaces where conversations about bereavement should take place without fear of sanction or judgement, “All schools and other education settings must be required to provide age-appropriate opportunities for children and young people to learn about coping with death and bereavement as part of life.” 2

Summary

Questions of life and death can unexpectedly turn up in our classrooms at any time. Whilst acknowledging someone’s loss is important, what we do to support them is crucial. Finally, as Megan Devine reminds us, “Your job as a support person isn’t to make your person feel happy; it’s to make them feel heard.” 3 Be that person.

References and further reading

  1. Child Bereavement UK (2018) Improvement Bereavement Support in Schools. Available at: www.childbereavementuk.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=fa7a443b-636d-4238-af12-accedec84419 (Accessed: 10 December 2022)
  2. The UK Commission on Bereavement (2022) Bereavement is everyone’s business. Available at: https://bereavementcommission. org.uk/media/xube5elb/ukbc_summary_report_low-res.pdf (Accessed: 10 January 2023)
  3. Devine, M. (2017)It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Louisville Colorado: Sounds True

Author

  • Shuaib Khan

    Shuaib is a Twinkl Leader’s team content writer, a poet, and educator. He is the host of the Anti-Small Talk Podcast and a presenter for Teacher Hug Radio. He has published the anthology collection, ‘Small Circle, Big Heart’ to the commemorate the life and legacy of his late brother Kasim, who sadly passed after a short battle with leukaemia.
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