It was a Friday afternoon. With lessons over for another week, Jill Evans, a deputy headteacher in Hertfordshire, set off for a weekend away, telling the school’s head, Julie Rees, her friend and colleague, that she would see her on Monday.
She didn’t. Over the weekend Evans, 58, was killed in a car accident. By Monday morning, Rees was not only having to process her own grief but also putting structures in place to help Ledbury primary’s 440 pupils, plus staff and parents, through the enormous emotional fallout the tragedy would bring.
Rees’s experience has become exceptionally relevant in these days of coronavirus, as heads and teachers begin to prepare for a return to the classroom. Whenever that time comes, one thing is already clear: many children will have experienced grief and trauma since they were last in school, and school will have a crucial role to play in helping them and their families process their emotions in the time ahead.
Looking back to the period around her deputy’s death, in January 2019, the biggest thing Rees says she learned was the resilience of human beings in the face of shocking and unthinkable circumstances. “I’d never imagined I’d have the resources to deal with what I had to deal with,” she says. “If you’d told me I was going to get that call, I’d have thought I’d be a wreck. So I’d say to teachers: believe in yourself in these difficult times, in your inner strength, and trust your intuition about what’s the right thing to do.”
The first thing Rees did, on the Monday morning after her colleague died, was to give staff the flexibility to run their classes any way that felt right. “I told the teachers it was up to them to decide how to use the time in class,” she says. “With grief you need time to respond to the children’s emotional needs. You have to make sure there’s plenty of flexibility in the timetable, and that’s how it will need to be when schools go back.”
As well as the trauma affecting almost all children, many may have lost a family member – a grandparent, or even a parent – and could be experiencing the death of someone close to them for the first time. “We all process grief in different ways, and that’s as true of children as it is of adults,” says Julie. “Some will be angry, some in denial, some just carrying on with their lives. What’s important is that they know there’s somewhere they can go and someone they can talk to.”
After Evans’ death, Rees set aside a room in school for time out, with a counsellor on hand. “If people were having wobbles they could go there and sit quietly or talk, and the staff needed that support as well as the children.”
As is so often the case, supporting children means supporting their families, too. Another of Rees’s initiatives at Ledbury primary was to establish a Monday morning parents’ drop-in group. “We invited parents for coffee in the staffroom, to talk to one another and to support one another,” she says.
That model of peer support was extended to pupils, as it will surely need to be when school resumes after the coronavirus shutdown. “We focused on encouraging two things: deep listening, and noticing,” says Rees. “Our message to the children was: don’t judge anyone who is crying or angry. Instead, ask them about it. And don’t give advice; just give them space to talk.”
Phoebe Gilbert, 21, knows all about being a grieving pupil – she was eight when her mother, Lesley, died suddenly. Along with her father, Ian, and siblings, William and Olivia, she has written a book on how schools and teachers can help, called Loss: a Little Book of Bereavement for Schools.
She agrees with Rees that it is vital to acknowledge what a bereaved child has gone through and is continuing to go through. “It meant so much to me, especially on a day like the anniversary of Mum’s death or her birthday, that someone would give me a supportive look or a cuddle – some signal that they knew this was a day when I’d have an especially heavy heart.”
Grieving can be lonely, including for children. If teachers are prepared to share their grief, and even their tears, that can be helpful, says Gilbert.
“You feel on your own when you’ve lost someone, and we all need to come together. So I’d say to teachers: cry with the children. If a child sees a teacher crying, that’s teaching the child that it’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to show it, and it’s OK to talk about it. We learn so much from how we see teachers behave – so much more than what they actually teach us in the classroom.”
Education was never the sole focus of schools. The coronavirus pandemic has proved it
Her father, Ian, founder of Independent Thinking, a platform for educational practitioners to share ideas, says it is vital teachers understand that grief can hit children in waves from nowhere, and they might need to talk or to cry at any time. “One thing that helps is to give them cards they can hand to a teacher when they need help, or to get out of the classroom for a while,” he says.
He thinks there will be a need after schools go back to honour those who have died by, for example, holding special assemblies, and says these could be particularly helpful where it was not possible to attend a funeral, or when there might not even have been one.
He feels strongly, too, about the need for teachers to be aware of “post-traumatic growth”.
“All three of my children value this sense of growth in their own lives,” he says. “With grief and loss come opportunities to grow and learn and to be a better person. It can help bring purpose to a life – a young person might think, how can I share my experiences? How can I use them to help others?
“So there are potential positives. And that’s why it’s important not to make death into a big taboo that we don’t talk about, because if we do, we’re likely to miss the opportunities.”
How schools can help even in lockdown
Staff should keep in close contact with one another, through social media, apps and phone calls. “We’ve had regular Zoom calls with the whole team – it’s essential for every member of staff to have a chance to share what they’re going through,” says Rees.
With children you are supporting remotely, and when you’re back, acknowledge how strange and difficult the situation is. Don’t try to “normalise” it or brush their concerns aside.
Make contact with families where someone has died, to acknowledge their loss and to express support.
Consider compiling condolences for bereaved children from their peers, collecting messages to send, or compiling an electronic book of condolence to email to a family who have lost someone.
When schools reopen, expect the adjustment period to take a long time. “In the same way we know it will take pupils a long time to adjust to being at school in the beginning, or to move from one school to another, the changes we’ve all been through will take a long time to process,” says Rees.
Winstonswish.org has information on how schools can support bereaved children and specific advice for the coronavirus pandemic
Loss: a Little Book of Bereavement for Schools is published by Independent Thinking Press
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