For Schools

Within a school community, it is inevitable that teaching staff and school professionals will come across children and young persons affected by death in one way or another.

Most grieving children and young persons do not need a “bereavement expert”. They need people who care enough to ask, and listen.

You can go a long way to positively affect your student’s life by being aware of the bereavement, and learning about how you can offer support.

To contact us to conduct trainings in the area of grief and bereavement, or to provide consultations or support to staff or students, please call Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg

Supporting children and young persons

Returning to school fairly soon after the death can be normal for most children and young people in the Singapore community. It is therefore paramount for teaching staff and school professionals to recognise the impact of bereavement on a child or young person, and be equipped to support them.

Keeping to the bereaved child or young person’s pre-bereavement routine in school is important as it offers normality and routine and can help promote security. The familiarity of school surroundings, existing rapports with teachers and fellow classmates can be useful in encouraging communication. Allowing children or young person the space to talk about and share their feelings relating to the death if they wish to can enable the child or young person to gradually accept the reality of life continuing and the potential for future achievements.

Learn more about how children and young persons understand death according to their ages. The following information sheet made available from Child Bereavement UK talks about Children’s understanding of death at different ages and can help you to better relate to them during their bereavement, or pick out signs that they may require referral to professional services to help them cope with their grief.

Recognising changes in behaviour

The responses to death and bereavement can vary depending on the age, level of comprehension, relationship with the person who has died and the emotional resilience of the child or young person.

We have listed a few common behaviours of bereaved children or young persons, which can help you in supporting bereaved children and young persons in the school context.

  • Alternating between play and sadness
  • Falling asleep during lessons
  • Regression and loss of skills
  • High-risk behaviours
  • Lack of response or reaction

(Adaptation from Cruse Bereavement Care)

  • Alternating between play and sadness

It is common for young children to appear sad and withdrawn one moment and then begin to play with their toys the next moment. Unlike adults, bereaved children do not possess the emotional reserves to grieve continuously and will need respite from their grief. Play allows the bereaved child to shift their focus away from their grief, until they are mentally restored to recommence grieving.

It is important not to view such play breaks as the child “getting over the death” because this is not only inaccurate but can lead to the child being criticised for being attention seeking when they resume grieving. Play breaks offers momentary breaks from perpetual grief which the bereaved child does not yet have the capacity to sustain.

  • Falling asleep during lessons

Grieving is an exhausting process for adults and young people alike. Bereavement can dramatically affect the sleeping patterns of a child or young person, and for some children they may experience nightmares. Exhaustion have a direct effect on the bereaved child or young person’s ability to concentrate and it is not uncommon to find them falling asleep during lessons.

Do be patient, and invite them to tell you about their sleeping patterns at home if you notice them being lethargic or sleeping during class. This may open up a conversation for the bereaved child to share more about how they have been doing.

  • Regression and loss of skills

Regression is where a child displays behaviours that are developmentally younger than their age. You may also notice a bereaved child or young person’s academic skills deteriorate during the period of bereavement.

The loss that the bereaved child has suffered has thrown them into a place populated by doubt, fear and insecurity. It is not uncommon to hear of children wetting their beds, or revert to a behaviour they had grown out of. Doing so enables the child to try and emanate a time prior to the death when they felt safer and their world was intact.

If you observe this, you could:

-Offer extra care and attention to help the child or young person feel important

-Appreciate and praise any age appropriate behaviours to encourage and motivate the child or young person to act in accordance to their age

As the bereaved child or young person moves towards acceptance of the death, form safe and trusting relationships with other surrounding adults, such behaviour can be expected to disappear within days or weeks.

  • High-risk behaviours

In some circumstances, a bereaved young person may demonstrate high-risk behaviours in response to their grief. Such types of high-risk behaviours can include excessive alcohol consumption, substance misuse and self-harm behaviours. Some bereaved young people may use such means as a way to cope and to numb the emotional pain they are experiencing.

If you are concerned that a bereaved student is using any of these means as a coping mechanism, it should be brought up to school authorities and professionals, to be addressed as soon as possible.

  • Lack of response or reaction

It is not uncommon for some newly bereaved children and young people to not present any behaviours associated with grieving, acting and behaving as if the death has not occurred.

Teaching and school professionals might observe a bereaved child or young person exhibiting compensatory behaviours such as all-consuming academic pursuits or an overly keen engagement in sporting activities. This is not because the bereaved child or young person does not intellectually comprehend the death of their loved one but rather that they are trying to throw themselves into tasks that will serve to facilitate their denial of the death. Denial in such instances can serve as a protective mechanism allowing the bereaved child or young person time to process the death and its consequences.

Some bereaved children and young people may delay their grief for months or sometimes years. Other life changing incidents such as moving home, acquiring a step-parent or experiencing another bereavement can serve to release the bereaved child or young person’s delayed or unresolved grief. Unfortunately, there is no way to divert grief and ultimately, regardless of how long the child or young person has managed to deny their grief, they will have to go through the grieving process eventually.

Developing a policy for supporting bereavement in schools

School is a key context for young people who are grieving the death of someone significant in their life. The death of a parent or sibling is often followed by many other changes at home, and school can provide support and continuity through these major upheavals and challenges. If bereavement goes unacknowledged or unsupported, bereaved pupils’ feelings of isolation and unhappiness can worsen.

Creating a clear and robust policy can provide a framework for staff members to address death and the consequences of death. This will also enable and empower staff members to work with bereaved students and support them more efficiently.

The creation of such a policy will require inputs from all members of the school staff team. You may wish to consider the following during the staff consultation stage:

  1. Designated, named members of the school staff who will provide support to bereaved children and young people in the event of a death
  2. How to inform students / colleagues about a death and what to do when you are required to tell a student that someone close to them has died
  3. What support will be offered to staff / students if they have been bereaved
  4. What do in the case of a crisis or disaster situation on school premises or on a school trip
  5. How to recognise common symptoms and behaviours associated with grief
  6. The contact details of local and national support agencies specialising in bereavement such as Grief Matters
  7. How to deal with media interest surrounding a death and designating two / three members of staff to act as media coordinators

(Adapted from Cruse Bereavement Care)

It is important that the staff members appointed to provide support to bereaved children and young people have received the appropriate training beforehand and are supported by senior colleagues when offering such support. Grief Matters provides training and consultancy for school staff to enable them to support bereaved children and young people and safeguard the physical, emotional and mental well being of their students.

If you would like to get in touch with us for advice on what such a policy could include in order to best support bereaved children and young people in your school, contact Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg

Death of a student in school

The death of a student can be traumatic for both staff and students. It is likely that many of the students will have questions and will want to know details relating to the death. School staff should endeavour to answer all questions in an open and honest manner, using language that is appropriate to the students’ age and level of understanding.

If any of the children or young people witnessed the death, irrespective of whether the student died on school premises or not, they may need to be referred for additional support. The school counsellor, if available, could provide preliminary assessment and support. It would be also important to speak to the family of these students to obtain consent for referral to appropriate professional services subsequently.

You may find the following Guidelines to Responding to the Death of a Student of School Staff  helpful as a reference to guide your response.

If you would like us to provide consultations or support to staff or students, please call Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg

For Bereaved Persons

After the death of your loved one, you may find that there are areas of your life that has changed and now require adjustments. These can include the practical affairs related to day-to-day living, and roles within the family, on top of the possible emotions that come with the loss.

Is what I am experiencing “normal"?

Grief can sometimes be so painful that it seems overwhelming. This can be a frightening experience for some of us, especially if we are experiencing it for the first time. Many people worry about whether they are grieving the “right” way, if there is a timeline to “move on”, or if their reactions are “normal”.

Grief is a unique experience for every individual. There is no one, or right way to grieve.

Grief responses come and go. We do not actually “move on” from grief – rather, we learn how to live our lives differently, without the physical presence of our loved one. However, time can help us to better adjust to the changes in our lives. Years down the road, anniversaries, things and places may still remind us of our loved one, and trigger different thoughts and feelings. These emotions are likely to take on a different intensity as compared to the earlier days of the loss.

Common grief reactions

Grief may be experienced as emotional, physical, cognitive or behavioural reactions. The following table lists possible grief reactions that one may experience from the different domains.

Different grief reactions

Emotional

Shock
Anguish
Yearning
Disbelief
Sadness
Numbness
Anger
Guilt
Blame
Fear
Emptiness
Helplessness
Worry
Irritation
Anxiety
Loneliness
Relief
At peace
Acceptance

Physical

Headaches
Muscle tensions
Stomach discomfort
Heart palpitations
Tightness in chest
Fatigue
Difficulty sleeping
Sleeping too much
Loss of appetite
Restlessness
Numbness

Cognitive

Confusion
Thinking deeply on certain perspectives
Thoughts of self-blame
Recollection of memories
Problems concentrating
Thoughts of injustice

Behavioural

Crying
Preoccupation with personal belongings of loved one
Difficulty organising daily tasks
Withdrawal from others
Poor self-care
Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Credit: Singapore Hospice Council

Tips for coping with grief

It is important to set realistic expectations for yourself. If a task seems large and difficult, break it down into smaller, achievable steps. If simultaneously coping with your loss and managing school/work feels overwhelming, you can consider reducing your responsibilities at school/work until a time when you feel better able to manage these responsibilities.

Losing a loved one is a big change in your life. Try not to make any major or irreversible decisions too soon. Instead, try to establish a routine so that you have a sense of rhythm and predictability.

Start from the simple things and try to take care of your health by eating, sleeping, and exercising regularly.

In general, there are two main ways of coping with grief: expressing emotions or focusing on tasks. Persons who are grieving can be more inclined to use one of these two ways or a blend of them.

Persons who grieve by expressing emotions could be more comfortable with tears and talking about their emotions.

  • Reminiscing by going through photos or belongings that remind you of your deceased loved one or going to the places where you and your loved one have frequented.
  • Expressing feelings through creative avenues such as writing poetry, journaling, scrapbooking, playing a musical instrument, painting, and so on.
  • Having a trusted group to talk to when needed. Choosing the appropriate support persons will go a long way in helping you manage and process your grief.

People who grieve by focusing on tasks could be more focused on identifying the issues after the loss and looking for ways to solve them.

  • Compile a to-do list to manage tasks. There are possibly many practical arrangements to make and errands to run after the death of a loved one. Making a to-do list could be a good way to keep track of what needs to be done and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Gather information and resources to manage your grief and loss. You can look for services or resources that can help you adapt to the loss, such as domestic helpers, childcare arrangements, financial assistance, or grief support.
  • Enlist the help of trusted persons for different tasks. Help and support can come in many forms. If you do not feel comfortable with talking about your grief, you can ask for support from your family and friends in the practical aspects instead, such as researching for resources, running errands, or simply accompanying you in doing these tasks.

When should I seek professional help?

If you notice that you or others are exhibiting the following signs after losing a significant person, having the opportunity to speak to a professional about your grief experience can be helpful, even if it is just for someone to provide that reassurance that you are on the right track.

  • Prolonged difficulty in managing daily activities
  • Neglect of personal care and grooming
  • Extreme preoccupation on the loss of the person
  • Extreme anger or bitterness
  • Increased use of intoxicants
  • Hallucinations related to the loss
  • Prolonged withdrawal from social activities
  • Inability to enjoy hobbies or interests
  • Persistent thought of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Worsening of existing mental health conditions

To contact us for an appointment, please call Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg