Resource to help young pupils cope with death

Using straightforward language when talking about death is important when supporting bereaved children in class, teachers have been told.

With schools often the only place where routines are unbroken for a child who has lost a relative or friend, the message of listening with eyes, ear and heart is central to an online resource for schools from the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN).

Recent findings from the Economic and Social Research Institute’s ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study show just how common bereavement experiences are for children, as 28% will have lost a grandparent by the age of nine.

By the same age, 7% will have an aunt or uncle who has died, 6% have lost a close friend, the mother or father of 2% of pupils will have died and 1% will have lost a brother or sister.

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A four-minute animation video for teachers tells them the importance of maintaining routines, creating a supportive environment, and to acknowledge what happened. But in doing so, it is crucial not to skirt around the gravity of death, despite how hard this might be for a teacher.

“You must tell the truth, and be clear and careful with your language, rather than using phrases or euphemisms like ‘gone for a big sleep’ or even ‘gone to heaven’. The child needs to understand that you don’t come back from death,” said Ann Ryan, principal of St Mark’s Junior School in Springfield, Tallaght in Dublin.

As a teacher and principal for over 30 years, she also spent three years as a school counsellor. She said the context of a death is also important in how a teacher deals with a situation, whether for example, it was a direct family member or someone less close.

“Each child will deal with death differently, but their teacher will often be the one he or she will speak to, or their reaction may present, physically, emotionally or behaviourally. A lot of it will come down to instinct or experience, but a resource like this is fantastic,” Ms Ryan said.

“One teacher could have five pupils who are bereaved in their class in the year, and another might have none, it’s very erratic.”

Ms Ryan also features in a video with other teachers discussing their real life experience, another feature of the material launched last night by Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell. It has been developed by ICBN members from Rainbows Ireland, Maynooth University, and the Irish Hospice Foundation, which funded the project along with the All-Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care.

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Therese Hegarty, a social, personal and health education (SPHE) lecturer at Maynooth University’s Froebel primary education department, said teachers sometimes panic and imagine an expert counsellor is needed.

“While a small minority of children will need counselling, most children come through bereavement with the support of family, friends and community but it takes time,” said Ms Hegarty.

The ICBN was founded in 2012 as a hub for those working with bereaved children, young people and their families, funded by the Irish Hospital Foundation and child and family agency Tusla.

The resources are available at www.childhoodbereavement.ie  

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