By Dr Bernice Gabriel and Nic Russell
The death of a loved one is difficult at any age, but for tamariki and young people, it can be really tough as they don’t usually have access to the resources needed to help them navigate, understand and cope with their loss and grief.
Especially because grief isn’t static. It’s an ongoing process that tamariki and young people carry with them throughout their lives as grief moves on its own terms.
Going back to kura after the holidays can be a time of transition and routine changes. It’s at these times that having the support of a close whānau member or friend, including teachers, is really important. Grieving tamariki need someone they trust who can answer the tough questions about life and death in an open, honest, age-appropriate way that acknowledges and respects their feelings.
Going back to kura after a bereavement can actually offer some normality and security for tamariki. The intensity of living within a grieving household, without normal routines like friendships, kura, sports and clubs, can be difficult.
Young people need to know that grieving is the natural response to the death of a loved one, and that everyone grieves in their own way. Reassure them that however they’re feeling is OK and that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by feelings or to feel nothing at all. What’s most important is that they feel supported with whatever they’re feeling and thinking, both at home and at kura.
It’s important that the principal, teacher, dean and/or school counsellor knows about the death. This allows them to put a plan in place to best support your child. Before you reach out to the kura, have a conversation with your child about it, so they’re comfortable with the plan and understand the reason why you’re speaking to their teachers.
If this is too hard for you, you could ask a trusted whānau member to do this for you or with you.
If your child is starting a new school or class, staff won’t know them, which means they might not notice any out-of-ordinary behaviour or mood changes. Providing them with some background on your child’s personality and typical behaviour will help them recognise any signs that your child may be struggling.
Checking in regularly with school staff will help you pick up on any changes in behaviour or grief symptoms that might be concerning. Like some bereaved young people might find it hard to concentrate or may:
• Be more tired (and irritable).
• Be more sensitive to comments.
• Be more wrapped up in their own feelings and fail to take others’ feelings into account.
• Show anger or frustration about their loss.
As grief is a long, ongoing process, some of these things might not appear for a while after the death.
Other tamariki may have different reactions when they find out your child has experienced the death of a loved one. Some can be unknowingly insensitive, hurtful or inappropriate.
Have a chat to your child about others’ reactions, how they might respond and what information they’re happy to share with others.
Every child will have different thoughts and feelings about how they want their return to kura to be managed. Some might want a low-key, quiet one. Others might want some special time with classmates and teachers to talk about what they’ve been through. Where you can, involve them in their return-to-kura plan and get their input.
Some tamariki don’t want to, or don’t feel ready, to talk about their loss with others. It might be helpful to practise conversations with them and prepare them for difficult questions. Tamariki often don’t want to feel different from their friends, but grief can make them feel that way. Help your child learn ways to respond to comments that may make them feel uncomfortable.
Let your child’s teacher know when the bereavement anniversary is and if certain days of the year may be upsetting for them, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Kirihimete (Christmas). It can be really difficult if their class is busy making cards for their loved ones and talking about their plans to celebrate. Offering your child a choice as to what they would like to do could help, like making a card to remember their loved one.
When helping young people with grief and loss it’s important to be aware of your own feelings. Children’s grief experiences may be emotionally demanding and may trigger feelings and memories about your own grief experiences.
You’re not alone - there are people, agencies and services that can help. These include:
• Kenzie’s Gift: Supports the mental health of children, young people and families affected by serious illness or bereavement through the provision of one-on-one therapy with registered mental health professionals, grief kits and an extensive online resource.
• Youthline: A free nationwide helpline service to ensure young people can access support when they need it. Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
• 1737: A free national call or text helpline staffed by trained counsellors. Call or text 1737 for free 24/7.
• Skylight: Support for people of all ages who are facing any kind of tough life situation, including grief, loss and trauma.