A Teacher’s Perspective: How to Comfort a Grieving Child

In recognition of October marking Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, A Corner of Heaven author Laura Dewire shares her experience as a teacher helping young children grieve a loss in their family. 

In caring for children, there are things you learn by studying. There are pedagogies and theories all about child development and practices that are appropriate for young minds.

There are also things that can be learned only by doing. I’ve been a first- and second-grade teacher for three years now, and one of the biggest things I’ve learned is how to care for a child who is hurting.

There are certain kinds of hurt that can be fixed with a Lion King Band-Aid and a big hug. There are other kinds of hurt that require a snuggle session with a good book. And then there is the inexplicable kind of hurt you can’t take away or make better no matter how hard you try.

When there is loss in a child’s life, the way in which he or she processes pain looks a lot different from the way an adult or even a teenager might handle grief. It’s important not to underestimate or overestimate what exactly a child is feeling.

The best practices I’ve found for helping a child who is grieving are:

  1. Be an active listener. Allow the child to feel a full range of emotions—sometimes all at the same time. Be the listener you would need if you were hurting or upset.
  2. Be a safe place. A child in school spends more waking time with a teacher than with his or her family during the school year. This means the classroom environment you create has the potential to be a respite for a child who is hurting. Structure and routines are so important in a child’s life! Providing that stability is a major component to aiding a child who is grieving.
  3. Be flexible. When a child’s life is interrupted by pain, the child will react in a way that represents that sudden change. There will be days when everything goes according to plan, and there will be days when you feel lucky to have made it out with all your hair still attached. Remaining flexible and staying positive are imperative.

There is no greater pain for me than to see one of my students automaten hurting. Whether it’s because he fell off the monkey bars or because she’s lost a sibling or parent, when my children hurt, I hurt. Sometimes there are perfect words to say, and sometimes words fail. In times when words fall short, simply be there.

Love them.