“There is so much grief in schools right now, from the loss of staff and family members,” a wellness expert at a California County Office of Education recently told me. “We can’t touch wellness until we address the grief.” I understood this only too well, having lost my classroom aide to suicide almost 20 years ago—a loss that led me to the work I do today.
To better understand how the adults in schools can help students—and themselves—who are experiencing grief, I reached out to Dr. David Schonfeld, the founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.
The Center’s phenomenal collection of free online guides provide step-by-step instructions on how to respond to students about a school shooting, the war in Ukraine, suicide, death, and natural disasters. The Coalition expands on this work, offering information on what to say and what not to say to children who are grieving, developmental and cultural considerations, the impact on learning, and many other topics to help school communities during these tragic times. They also offer free online training and in-person services.
“We aim to empower local schools and professionals to be able to respond to grieving because most teachers are not trained on how to support a student who is upset,” Dr. Schonfeld told me, “and it should be a basic skill that they know how to do.”
Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Vicki Zakrzewski: What advice would you give to education professionals who are not sure how to respond to grief and loss?
David Schonfeld: I think we need to acknowledge that it’s OK to be uncomfortable with grief, but that sometimes you have to do things you’re uncomfortable with when they’re important. A lot of times people will share with me this “secret” that it’s hard for them. I tell them that that’s a given.
Throughout the pandemic, I was talking with schools that had experienced large numbers of deaths of members of the school community, as well as sudden deaths of school leaders. They often would comment on how morale was poor—though it seemed obvious to me this would be expected given their situation. We just have to acknowledge that this is really tough and it’s all right to feel some discomfort. It’s all right to recognize that you don’t know exactly what to say or how to do it—but it’s not all right to not do anything.
A lot of people think that because they don’t know what to say to a grieving student, it’s better to say nothing. Nothing is exactly the wrong thing to say. It communicates to kids and adults that you’re clueless, you don’t care, you don’t think they can handle it, you can’t handle it, or you don’t want to waste your time. Those are all really horrible messages for people in crisis. So we try to give school professionals basic skills to support students and staff after crisis and loss—but acknowledge that it’s still hard. We let them know that we’re going to help them do it.
A lot of what our center does is to support people. If someone wants to say something to the family, I’ll write a draft for them. People will turn to me right before they have these big public meetings and say, “I don’t even know how to start.” So I ask them, “What is it you want to convey? What are you feeling right now? Let me suggest some language for you.” We offer whatever might be needed. Do you need food? Do you know what you’re going to say next? How are you feeling right now? Have you been able to take a break and use the restroom? If you’re going to do this work, you have to be able to support people, whatever those needs might be.
I tell superintendents and others that it’s uncomfortable. You’re not going to know exactly what to do—and no matter what you do, people will still be upset because of the crisis. But part of what we have to do is to do our best—which is better than nothing—and it’s not going to be perfect. I think that requires some comfort with discomfort.
I also say to people that helping people after crisis and loss affects you personally. It changes who you are as a person, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
VZ: School leaders and teachers have to be the ones who hold it together because they’re leading other adults and students, but they may not even realize that they themselves are experiencing grief. What advice would you offer to them?
DS: People generally see the expression of genuine human emotion after a crisis as a sign of strength. I tell people that if they’re very overwhelmed emotionally and feel unable to cope, you can’t really lead effectively at that time, and you shouldn’t. You also risk hurting yourself. So have someone else do the work for a time period. But if you get a little choked up, if you have to pause and collect your thoughts, people respect that. People want their school administrator to care, and if you don’t show you care, people see that as uncaring—not a sign of strength.
I don’t think people should worry about being human. It’s a good thing. Nobody wants a robot running a school in a crisis event. So, it’s OK to be upset. These are upsetting things and they should bother you. If they don’t, then that can be problematic.
VZ: What kind of support do teachers and students say helps them the most?
DS: For the education professionals, the common advice given is about self-care. But organizational approaches can be more effective than personal self-care alone. However, you really need both. If we imply that if you are upset when you have an upsetting job it’s because you’re not professional enough and didn’t do enough to take care of yourself, we risk blaming the professional for stress that is inherent in the work. We have to disavow that from the beginning, and instead do our best to establish organizational support structures and minimize the stress associated with the positions and create an organizational culture that values staff support.
So, it might be making sure that you attend to the basic needs of your staff so that they can deal with their clients. For example, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles during the pandemic, they made sure we were vaccinated as quickly as possible. Food, child care, and pet care were provided. They invested in professionals for counseling and support. The communication was sensitive. It was more than “we’re giving you a gift card to go shopping or get a massage.” Instead, it was, “We value what you do. We understand what’s important to you now. And we’re doing what we can to provide you that support.”
We need to do the same thing with schools. You can’t ask people to choose between the safety and well-being of their family and the safety and well-being of the children they serve. They have to be able to do both to the extent possible. We have to take care of them, provide them with support and training. If they don’t think they can handle it, then make sure you have the resources in place to be able to refer students to if they need more help—otherwise, all they’re going to be able to say is, “I’m so sorry, but I really can’t help you with that.” And that’s very unsatisfying.
With students, one of the most common needs is to be heard and validated. A teenage patient of mine whose mother had died was upset and told me, “The school has done nothing.” I asked him, “What would you like them to do?”
He said, “I don’t know what they should do, but they need to do something.”
“Do you want your teachers to talk to you about how you’re feeling?”
“Yes, but not all of them. I mean, maybe a couple. That would be OK, but not the others—it would just be awkward.”
I asked, “Do you want to speak to a school mental health professional?”
“Oh no, I don’t want to do that.”
“Do you want accommodations, to be excused from some tests and homework decreased?”
He said, “No, I should be held to the same standard.”
“OK, well, what do you want them to do?”
“I don’t know what they should do, but they should do something. I lost the person I love most in the world, and they act like nothing’s happened.”
All he really wanted was some validation.
In my book The Grieving Student: A Guide for Schools, I included an essay written by a student whose best friend had died by suicide over the summer. Her mother wrote a letter to the teachers explaining what had happened and asking them to be supportive. The student went from class to class on the first day that fall and showed it to each teacher; they each read the letter and said nothing. They just handed back the note and didn’t even establish eye contact. They did nothing. How painful that was to provide such a disclosure of something so difficult and get nothing in return. One of the teachers instead held onto the note as she reached to take it back and caught her glance and said, “I am truly sorry.” And that made all the difference. Someone to connect with her to help her realize that she has people who care and that she’s going to be OK.
I think for a lot of kids, that’s what they need. Figure out what type of academic and, to some degree, social support to offer, and then be there to listen to them. Be present and empathic, and that’s probably a large part of what an educator has to do.
VZ: How do you suggest schools respond to the range of cultural approaches to grief within their respective communities?
DS: Death is a universal experience, and we should focus more on how it’s the same and less on how it can be manifested in different ways. There’s a tendency for us to feel uncomfortable supporting people of other backgrounds. Start with one culture, maybe your own. If you know how to support a grieving student in that culture, you can do it with students of any culture—you just have to realize that there are differences.
It’s not important that you learn everything about different cultures. Instead, ask them, “Could you help me understand what’s important to you and your family, so I can better understand how to help you?” I’ve never had a family say, “I’m not going to tell you.” They want to share their beliefs and their culture so you can better help them.
After a presentation, people will often come up to me and say, “I said the wrong things.” And I reassure them that even though the advice I gave sounds easy, I’ve made the same mistakes. As long as people know you care and are trying to help them, they’re pretty open to forgiving you. They’re less likely to do so if you appear disinterested or insensitive.
VZ: Can practices that support wellness also support healing?
DS: One of the first steps is to meet people’s basic needs. I was doing some disaster training at the federal level, and I noticed everyone spoke in acronyms—so I decided to come up with my own acronym. They presented a scenario that was a mass decontamination for a chemical terrorist attack. The others went through all the steps that they did, and then they looked at me and said, “Oh right. There are emotional needs. How would you screen for mental health needs?”
So I responded, “You’ve got 500 people at an athletic event who have been exposed to a nerve agent. They’re been stripped and decontaminated with water. Everything on their person is taken away. They’re afraid they’re going to die. They don’t have their clothes, phone, ID, credit cards, cash, car keys, or keys to their home. They have no way of getting anywhere or getting help or calling anyone. I know what they need and we don’t have to give a screening instrument.”
That’s when I came up with UWF for “Underwear First”—which could also be called “Brief Therapy.” That’s what they need. They need to have their basic needs met before they can even start to attend to their other emotional needs. It’s not that their basic needs come before emotional needs, but that is the first emotional need. That’s how you start to help them with their recovery.
So for wellness, recognize basic needs and attend to them. Kids can’t learn if they haven’t eaten or don’t have a place to sleep. What’s happening now is so many basic needs are not being met for students, so they aren’t able to learn and grow and feel safe.
VZ: What is the difference between trauma and grief?
DS: We’ve tried so hard to be trauma-informed that we often forget to also be grief-sensitive. When you’re dealing with trauma, you’re helping people deal with something that happened. When you’re dealing with grief, you’re trying to support them as they face the loss of someone or something important to them. The interventions are very different. And trauma is not intrinsically more important than grief.
“We’ve tried so hard to be trauma-informed that we often forget to also be grief-sensitive”
Some assume that trauma is more important or serious than grief because it’s been talked about more among mental health professionals. Reactions that are due to trauma are labeled symptoms and may lead to the diagnosis of trauma disorders, and then we recognize the need for mental health treatment from licensed and credentialed professionals.
But since bereavement is considered a normative life experience and not a mental illness, even the same reactions aren’t viewed as an illness, and we don’t provide treatment for grief. Instead we offer support delivered by lay people or faith-based professionals. It’s generally free since most health insurances won’t pay for grief support.
VZ: Is the need for trauma treatment and bereavement support ever confused?
DS: I’ll give you an example. I had one teen who was involved in a shooting where the person on each side of him was shot and killed, but he wasn’t injured. He declined counseling, but only went to school for about an hour once in three weeks. When I asked him, “Why aren’t you getting counseling?” he said, “They just want me to keep talking about the shooting. I had trauma symptoms for about a week. I couldn’t sleep. I was jittery. I worked through them.”
So I asked, “Well then, why aren’t you in school?”
And he said that it didn’t feel right being at school without his girlfriend that he planned on marrying, and who was killed in the shooting. Being in school without her didn’t feel right.
So I said, “Well, maybe you’re grieving the death of your girlfriend.” And he paused and thought about it and said, “That’s it. If someone’s willing to talk to me about that, I’ll go for counseling today. I don’t want to keep talking about the shooting.” There was this presumption that since he went through a traumatic event, he needed trauma treatment. But at that point what he needed most was grief support.
So I think we need to recognize that people often need both to differing amounts. We need to meet them where their needs are and not just deliver what we think they ought to need based on our assumptions.