- The Coalition to Support Grieving Students and NEA have partnered to offer educators tools to help students and one another get through grief.
- The grief caused by the pandemic is unique from other losses have people have experienced.
- Recognizing and accepting grief and loss are both part of the healing process.
A Clarke County, Georgia, school bus driver contracted COVID-19 from one of his passengers and thinks he passed the virus to his grandson, who was hospitalized because he has the lung disease Cystic Fibrosis. A fourth grader who made a strong bond with his teacher through their shared sense of humor lost that beloved educator and friend to COVID-19 over the holiday break. The school community worked tirelessly to help that class cope with their grief. Many other educators have similar stories of loss, grief and trauma from the past year, but the usual process of grieving – and helping others grieve – has been hampered by the strong emotions, fears and social limitations the current pandemic has brought with it.
The National Education Association is one of the 12 organizations that founded the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, which is now 29 organizations strong with more than 100 who promote the program. The Coalition has partnered with NEA to create resources and tools for teachers and school support staff, like paraeducators, custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, who are unable to adequately offer help for grieving students, families and colleagues if they don’t know how -- especially in a pandemic where social distance prevents the human connection and healing power of a hug or a reassuring hand on a shoulder or even a shared cup of coffee.
“There are a lot of people who have been touched by death during the pandemic, and people working in schools have often been faced with it – all of it in an atmosphere where there is so much else that we have lost,” says David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis & Bereavement (NCSCB) at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
Pandemic Grief Poses Unique Challenges
Schonfeld notes several people in each school community likely have suffered a loss during the pandemic. In one area where he offered guidance, students and staff reported over 100 school community members had died from COVID 19.
And while Schonfeld and NCSCB have worked in communities with losses from other devastating tragedies, such as the Parkland High School shootings, the 9-11 attack and major natural disasters, bereavement during the pandemic has been different, he says.
“I don’t think you can compare events that cause the loss of life and say that one is worse than another. If a child loses a parent, it is just as difficult no matter what the circumstances,” he says. “But the pandemic has been different in many ways because it didn’t end at a specific date, it doesn’t allow for the support we can normally provide, it’s global with everyone affected and there is so much loss of all types.”
The pandemic has put unusual stress on the human resources and finances of schools which limits their ability to respond and creates difficult work situations or layoffs – adding to the unique stress that grieving causes and often complicating it, he says.
He believes the toll on educators also has grown because of ongoing “secondary losses” with the isolation and concerns about health, finances or the inability to get support because of social distancing or because they are overwhelmed by work or their own emotional concerns.
“There is a gap in supporting adults in a school system anyway, and that gap has been even more evident during the pandemic,” Schonfeld says, noting that it heightens the anxiety of educators already facing unusual personal and job-related challenges. Counseling departments and other resources providing support to students and staff that often are already undervalued may be seen as areas where staff and budget cuts can be made.
Strategies to Help Students, Families, and Colleagues
To help address the issue, the NEA Education Support Professional Learning Network held a webinar for nearly 700 attendees which focused on supporting educators through grief and loss. During the session, educators asked about issues ranging from concern about a student who is not verbalizing their emotions, supporting a colleague who is grieving, or reaching out to a struggling parent, all while juggling heavy school workload and individual stress levels.
Thomas Demaria, a psychologist specializing in grief who led the seminar, says grief in the past year has reached deeply into most school communities. Support professionals often come face to face with the issue in their key positions in clerical services, custodial and maintenance services, food services, health and student services, paraeducators, security services, skilled trades, technical services and transportation services.
He recommends educators help others in the school community by being patient and attentive to others’ needs, but also by taking care of themselves.
The fundamental concepts about bereavement still apply, Demaria says. Grief is a normal, healthy emotion but a very individualized process that follows no particular pattern nor schedule and can be triggered in a variety of ways. He said people should understand that it may not end at a specific time but that we “just carry it differently” over time, and that we should neither gloss over the grief in ourselves or others or let it be consuming.
Some strategies for handling grief include acceptance and allowing grief to “come and go like waves in the ocean.” It also helps to share memories and emotions and avoid “thought traps” such as regretting a conversation or blaming oneself or others.
"We have all gone through a lot during the pandemic," Demaria says. "We all went through a lot of losses at a lot of different levels, and the most important one is when we lose someone we love or someone who is close to us. We have to recognize how hard that is, give it time and give ourselves a chance to heal -- and with others we have to make sure people get the support they need."