- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
Wellbeing and connectedness
Coping with loss: challenging myths
Unresolved grief can lead to anxiety, depression, even suicide. AnneMarie Maizey asks us to consider how we manage grief and how we can support young people and teach them to cope with their losses.
We sail through some losses but others challenge us. Life presents us with numerous—at times multiple—challenges, some of which are life defining or character building. These challenges come as a result of change and take a multitude of forms—death, chronic disability, family separation and/or divorce, migration, natural disasters, losses associated with ageing or our career employment and many other significant life milestones.
Many of these losses are seen as an inevitable part of living and very often not considered serious enough to be classified as a grief experience. But every change, no matter how big or small, will result in some loss.
Often, both young people and adults are denied the opportunity to tend to their losses, which in most cases relate to the death of a family member or friend, family separation or divorce. For educators to be effective in their attempts to break the silence around loss and grief, we need to understand some of the common myths that exist.
Myth 1: Crying is a sign of weakness.
Crying is one way to show that you are emotionally moved by an experience. It is commonly believed that it is better to be strong, to tough it out, but this belief limits our preparedness to seek help.
Myth 2: Children don’t grieve—they are too vulnerable to experience grief.
Children do grieve. If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve. Sheltering children from loss limits or denies them the ability to process their experience and their feelings. They frequently misunderstand the circumstances of the loss and may also feel isolated and unloved. They may feel that they are somehow to blame.
Myth 3: Grieving is the same for everyone.
Grieving is unique to each person. Everyone grieves differently: some need to talk while others may retreat.
Myth 4: There is something wrong with you if you can’t cope.
Grief is about emotions and feelings; feelings ebb and flow.
Myth 5: Grieving is personal, so don’t interfere.
Grief and grieving is personal, but connections can help someone in grief to cope better.
Myth 6: Grief has an ending.
Grief doesn’t just go away, it is a lifelong process. Comments such as, ‘Just get over it!’ and ‘Time heals all,’ are neither accurate nor useful. Once you experience grief, it is always with you.
Myth 7: Ignore grief and it will go away.
In the short term, ignoring grief may be a coping strategy to help in making some necessary changes. However, the more grief is ignored the more likely it is to surface in other ways such as illness, aggression/anger, anxiety, phobias or depression.
Help is at hand
Research shows that the children of separated and divorced parents are more likely to experience social, physical and psychological problems in childhood and adulthood. At ‘Good Grief’, experts have developed a range of programs (based on J W Worden’s ‘Tasks of Grieving’) with a continuum of care approach to dealing with young people.
The philosophy of Good Grief is that change is inevitable, grief is a natural response to a loss, grieving is unique to each individual, and individuals can be taught and learn strategies for coping.
Good Grief encourages individuals and communities to explore the constancy of change and challenges common myths about loss. This is done by challenging the concept of the individual as a victim, fostering a positive self concept, normalising the experience, providing activities that support learning and understanding, and encouraging and assisting in identifying or developing family and community networks.
Two programs have been developed both to support teachers and others with responsibility to those suffering loss and grief, and to enhance students’ emotional, ethical and social capacities. The first of these programs, ‘Seasons for Growth’, uses the motif of the seasons as a metaphor for change, providing a rich framework in which to explore issues of loss and grief.
Studies have found that support networks provide young people with some degree of stability during periods of significant loss. So, this is a selective, targetted program that uses a small peer group format.
A strong supporting element of the seasons metaphor is the linking of colours to each season. So, too, are the feelings of shock, anger, disbelief, denial, emptiness, joy and peace. While the intensity of these feelings may fluctuate, no season lasts forever—not even winter.
Storytelling is also a significant part of the program, using some of the aspects of narrative theory to assist participants in processing the reality of the experience, including the identification of productive and non-productive behaviours.
A 2005 national evaluation of secondary schools found that the ‘Seasons of Change’ program:
- creates a safe place, allowing the building of trust within the involved group
- provides participants with an opportunity to unburden themselves of thoughts and feelings
- shows grieving young people that they are not alone
- develops concern for other people
- gives hope
- teaches participants to express themselves.
The second program, ‘Literature for Life’, is a middle years English curriculum resource. This program has the additional aim of enhancing reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.
‘Literature for Life’ assists teachers to facilitate discussion of the effects that change, loss and grief have on individuals and communities within a school environment. It also addresses cultural change in relation to change, loss and grief within a social competence framework.
Themes of loss and change are common in texts used in the English classroom. It is important that these themes are approached in a way that improves student understanding and capacity to cope by providing important and effective coping models. Learning through fiction offers both a protective frame and a means by which to learn more about one’s self and one’s world through imagined and empathetic connection with others.
Reminders for dealing with grief and loss
- Grieving is different for everyone.
- Leaving people alone denies them the opportunity to relate their experience, the story of their loss.
- Storytelling is part of the grieving process and assists the individual in coming to terms with the loss and adjusting to the new situation.
- Some people need to talk about the loss immediately and frequently, while others will be more reflective and introspective, talking only briefly.
- Through experiencing the process of grieving, we learn to adjust to the loss and the grief experience. We develop a new relationship with, or understanding of, the lost person or situation.
Even the most resilient person may falter when faced with overwhelming life challenges. Teachers, parents and carers must encourage young people to develop resilience and must foster problem-solving and help-seeking behaviours.
- explain the circumstances of the loss in clear, simple terms
- provide support by listening and allowing time to talk, or draw, about the experience
- never offer platitudes—just being present helps
- be compassionate, allow time for grieving
- remember that peer support is beneficial in reducing the sense of isolation and in raising self-esteem.
For more information, visit www.goodgrief.org.au/nav.htm
Neimeyer, R (2000). Lessons of Loss: A guide to coping, Centre for Grief Education,Victoria.
Pryor, J & Rogers, B (2001). Children in Changing Families: Life after parental separation, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.
Raphael, B (1985). Anatomy of Bereavement: A handbook for the caring professions, Hutchison and Co., London.
Worden, JW (1991). Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, 2nd Edition, Springer, New York.
The author owns the copyright in this article. For information related to the reuse of this work in any form please contact the publisher firstname.lastname@example.org