Supporting student grief: Remembrance & bereavement on Memorial Day and everyday

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by Libby Nealis, NEA Healthy Futures and
Dr. Tom Demaria, Coalition to Support Grieving Students

Memorial Day honors and remembers those who have served in our military. We bring special attention to those who have died in the line of duty, and the families who remember and miss them.

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Find out more about how you can support grieving students at NEAHealthyFutures.org. Click here ›

Now is an opportune time for school professionals to think about providing support to children who have lost a parent, sibling or other close family member serving in the military. These children will be thinking of their loved one, even if the death occurred some time ago. So will children with a parent going through a long or repeat deployment, or families watching a loved one recovering from a serious emotional and/or physical combat injury.

In most ways, the process of grief and remembrance will be similar to that of children who have lost loved ones in other ways. NEA Healthy Futures has collaborated within the Coalition to Support Grieving Students to provide a website full of guidance and resources geared specifically to school personnel with the information, insights, and practical advice they need to better understand and meet the needs of the millions of grieving kids in America’s classrooms.

Ready to Protect

Military-children
Photo by Susan Huseman, USAG Stuttgart

It is understood that service members stand ready to protect our nation, whatever the risk. Combat deaths are often seen as heroic and noble. Children and families believe they are expected to respond to a loved one’s combat death with strength, courage and grace.

Often, however, children feel confusion, anger, resentment and other difficult emotions. “Why did my dad have to die serving his country? I want him here with me!” “Why couldn’t someone else have died? I want my mom back.”

Children may feel guilt or shame about these reactions. They may be unable to express the painful and complex emotions they’re having. They may believe they should curtail their emotions. This interferes with their ability to fully experience their grief and, over time, move forward in their lives.

Addressing the Emotion of Grief

Grief is an emotion that all of us will experience at some point in our lives. Research shows that seven out of 10 teachers have a student affected by loss in their classroom. The challenges associated with grief can lead to missed school days, a loss of concentration, and falling behind in school work. Despite this, schools often fail to properly assist grieving students. NEA Healthy Futures seeks to support NEA members and the education community with the resources to address these difficult yet common classroom situations.

A compassionate response and a supportive environment for students to express and work through their grief can go a long way in preventing long-term damage to the student’s educational progress and enhancing their social and emotional well-being. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, students who receive social-emotional support and prevention services achieve better academically in school. This is particularly important when a child is experiencing grief or the anniversary of a traumatic event or loved one’s death. NEA encourages schools to support students’ social and emotional development as part of a comprehensive approach to a positive school climate.

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Photo courtesy of army.mil

“A growing body of research shows that when schools attend to students’ psychological, social, and emotional development alongside academic learning, student engagement and academic achievement improve,” states Stanford Researcher, MarYam G.Hamedani. According to her study of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, successful schools integrate SEL into all aspects of school life to educate the “whole student,” creating climates, norms, and expectations that place students’ psychological needs on par with their academic needs. Furthermore, these schools also prioritize the social and emotional needs of school staff to equip them with the skills and resources necessary to support their students’ social and emotional growth.

Every adult in the school building can play a role in this supportive environment. The coalition’s resources bring greater awareness to the unique needs of the grieving student and all affected by loss. School personnel will be empowered to support students if they are given the proper tools and training to respond appropriately in times of grief and crisis. This includes alleviating their own stress of feeling helpless, unsure of what to say or how to help. NEA Healthy Futures is proud to share these resources to help educators and parents support students as they go through the bereavement process.

Support Grieving Children

School professionals can take steps to support children who have lost a family member in combat or are experiencing grief for other reasons.

  • Touch base. Let children in military families, those who have lost a loved one in combat, or others experiencing grief know you’re thinking of them. Ask how they’re doing. (See modules at the Coalition’s website on Talking With Children and What Not to Say.)
  • Create a supportive culture among peers. Take steps proactively to help students understand and talk about death. Offer guidance on how to support a peer who has experienced a loss. (See the module on Peer Support.)
  • Support children in their process of bereavement. Ask them to share memories of their loved one or talk about the deceased’s positive traits and behaviors. Ask about positive traits they share. Have them describe friends and family who have been supportive. (See the module on Providing Support Over Time.)

Providing support for children and families in these ways is one of the most meaningful ways for school professionals to support children and remember those who served our country, on Memorial Day and every day.

Dr. Tom Demaria received his Ph.D. in Clinical/School Psychology from Hofstra University in 1986 and has been a New York State licensed Psychologist since 1987.  He currently serves on the Professional Advisory Board for the National Center for School Crisis & Bereavement and is involved in web-based training initiatives for the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.  Dr. Demaria has earned numerous awards for leading hundreds of community disaster counseling responses during the past 28 years.

Reader Comments

  1. Maybe students and especially teachers ought to start ‘remembering’ every day with the pledge of alligance(sp??). Many teachers with who I work are very proud to exercise their rights by not even standing while its recited every day. Great role models. But proud socialists who have no clue about the sacrifices military people make to support their misguided rights

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