Conversations in the Face of Grief

It can feel very awkward to approach a student who has experienced loss, but silence actually communicates a lot to young people. Reaching out to grieving students lets them know that you recognize their situation and want to be supportive.

It Is the Loss They Are Upset With, Not Your Question.

As uncomfortable as it might feel, as caregivers we must try to start the conversation. Silence can underscore feelings for the bereaved of being alone, abandoned, or that nobody cares.

Reluctance, fear, shame, and confusion are all possible reactions students might have to your outreach. Make it clear that you are available if and when they want to speak, and ask if you can reach out to their surviving caregiver(s).


Creating Space to Talk

Our goal is not to say the “right” thing to make a student “feel better” - you don’t necessarily have the power to do that.  The goal is to create space for the student to speak. You can create space by:

Expressing concern.

Let students know you’ve heard about their loss and are available to listen and offer support in private.

Inviting the conversation in private with direct, open-ended questions.

For example, you can simply ask, “How are you and your family doing?”

Offering practical advice.

For example, discuss ways to respond to questions from peers or adults about the loss, or offer ways to ask for help if the student is having academic difficulty. Try to avoid offering “feel better” techniques, as they might appear to trivialize the situation or be very personal.

Listening and observing.

Share observations about students’ behavior or responses in a nonjudgmental manner, such as, “I noticed you haven’t been sitting in your usual seat and I just wanted to touch base.” Listen more and talk less.

Limiting personal sharing.

You can draw on personal experiences to help better understand students, but do not share details with them. Keep the focus on the student.

Offering reassurance.

Without minimizing their concerns, let students know that over time they will be more able to cope with their distress, and that they are not alone- you will be there to help them along the way.

Maintaining contact.

At first, children may not accept your invitation to talk or offers of support. Their questions and willingness to talk will evolve over time. Remain accessible, curious, and connected.


Helpful Tips to Keep in Mind

Instead of saying this...

Which can seem minimizing or presumptuous,
  • “I know just what you’re going through.”
  • “You must be so… (angry/ sad/ etc.).”
  • “This is hard. But it’s important to remember the good things in life, too.”
  • “At least he’s no longer in pain.”(Any statement that begins with the words “at least” should probably be reconsidered.)
  • “Focus on the good things!”
  • “You’ll always have your memories…”
  • “You still have (other caregiver)...”

Try saying this...

So that the student maintains a sense of control over their story.
  • “Can you tell me more about what this has been like for you?”
  • “Most people have strong feelings when something like this happens to them. What has this been like for you?” OR, “I noticed you did/said ___. I was wondering how you might be feeling.”
  • “What kinds of memories do you have about (the person who died)?”
  • “What sorts of things have you been thinking about since your (grandma/father/friend) died?”
  • “Is there something you would like to always remember about your loved one?”
  • “What kinds of memories do you have about (the person who died)?”
  • “How has it been at home with your (other caregiver)?”