By Dr. Gloria Horsley, an internationally known grief expert and author. Gloria is the founder of the Open to Hope foundation.
Going back to school comes with mixed emotions for many — there’s excitement, apprehension, and maybe a little dread thinking about homework. However, these feelings become more complex when a high schooler is also dealing with the loss of a loved one. While there is no one prescription that you can use for your child to help them return to high school, there are some strategies that can alleviate some of the emotional challenges that come with grief.
Talk to the School Counselor
Let the high school know what your child has experienced in terms of loss before school starts, if possible, or as soon as can be scheduled after it begins. Sharing this information with the counselor helps teachers and administrators better understand what might be going on with your child so that they are sensitive to the situation. This is also important if your child exhibits different behaviors like anger, withdrawal, or a lack of interest in their studies.
A counselor can also serve as a support system for your child if they are at school and suddenly become upset. When upset in front of their peers, they may not know where to turn, so an informed counselor can step in, providing assistance, comfort, and a listening ear.
The counselor can also deliver insights to you, as the parent, about your child’s behavior at school to see if there is anything that warrants additional professional help. They can check in with your child’s teachers as well to determine the best approach for offering coping strategies and support for the student as they continue to grieve throughout the year.
When and if you do talk to the school counselor or anyone else at the school, make sure you tell your child that you have done so. The last thing you want is to upset them further when a teacher or counselor unexpectedly addresses the loss with them.
Consider Home Schooling
Talk to your child and the school to see if studying from home for awhile might be a way to get through this difficult time. While some kids may be okay with going back to school to hang out with their friends, others are just not ready to face this environment.
A home school program can ensure your child stays on schedule with their studies while giving them more private time to face their grief. Maybe they feel the need to stay close to you during this time for extra comfort. You can let them know that you will be okay while they attend school but are also okay if they would like to keep up with their school work from home. Try it for a quarter or semester, based on what their school allows, which gives them more time to reconcile their feelings.
Expect Some Learning Breaks
A brain that is grieving is often forgetful and not as sharp as one that is not experiencing that degree of emotional trauma. In younger kids, there is some developmental regression. In older kids this grieving brain may exhibit itself as forgetfulness and lack of focus that could impact grades. Be patient and see how you can help them get back on track with their studying and tests. It may even help to work with them on homework and studying until they start to return to their same sharp level. All you can do is encourage them and praise them when they do a good job.
It may even help to work with them on homework and studying until they start to return to their same sharp level. All you can do is encourage them and praise them when they do a good job.
Communicate, Validate, and Listen
Encourage your kids to talk to you about their feelings about the loss, concerns over returning to school, and how it is going after school has begun. Validate their anxiety and let them know it’s perfectly normal to have those sensations.
Find a place that is comfortable for your child to have these chats. It might be their room or elsewhere — even while doing a hobby together or while driving. Let them know they can reach out to you anytime rather than continually asking them about it.
Listen to what they have to say rather than just telling them what they can do. Sometimes, kids just want to tell you things but aren’t looking for advice. If they ask about what they can do, especially if they don’t know what to say to other kids that are asking them about the loss or, even worse, mocking them about it.
Attend Counseling Together and Individually
If you and your child agree, you can include counseling or support groups in your plan to make going back to high school tolerable. At these sessions, you may be able to both get better ideas about how to approach what others will do at school in relation to the grief. Having this support network of counselors and others that have experienced situations can help both you, as the parent, and your child better prepare for the school year