Educators are largely ill-prepared to assist grieving children. Although this lack of experience undoubtedly impacts all children, it may have particular ramifications for Black youth. Due to the high frequency of homicide among Black males (1), an increasing number of Black youth must cope with the loss of important figures in their lives, including brothers, uncles, fathers, and neighbors. Many well-meaning adults neglect or avoid discussions of death with children. Caregivers are often preoccupied with grief themselves, don’t know what to say, or hold misconceptions about children’s understanding of death, grief, and coping. Consequently, many children experience disenfranchised grief (2, 3) or grief that is largely unrecognized or unacknowledged in our culture, both within family systems and educational settings.
Whether unintended or not, neglecting to acknowledge children’s grief experiences means that they lack the support necessary to cope with the hardest transitional experiences of their lives.
How can teachers be better prepared to assist children grieving violent deaths, such as homicide, within the context of the classroom? How can teachers be supportive in ways that are culturally sensitive to children’s grief and coping following homicidal deaths?
How Parents Can Help
Parents can serve as an important resource to teachers during their children’s grief process.
Inform the teacher of the death.
Never assume that the teacher will know of the death. Inform the teacher of the death in a format that is comfortable for you, like a phone call, email, letter, or in a parent-teacher conference.
Talk to the teacher about your observations of your child’s reactions to the death.
Inform the teacher of changes in behavior, mood, eating or sleep habits that you have noticed in your child.
Culturally Sensitive Ways for Educators to Support Grieving Children in the Classroom
Work to understand your personal feelings and experiences with death, loss, and grief. Despite your best intentions, personal fears and anxieties about death may prevent you from functioning as a support to students.
Death Education & Training
Seek out opportunities to expand your knowledge and that of your colleagues on issues related to death and grief. The Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) has a directory of Death Education Specialists across different regions that conduct workshops and trainings and provide information on supporting grieving youth. For a listing of Death Education Specialists in your area, visit ADEC.org.
Gather information on children’s family and friend history that includes a section on death experiences and coping strategies within their family.
Avoid Stigmatizing or Stereotyping
Because homicidal deaths are considered non-natural deaths or normative deaths (deaths due to old age or deteriorating health), they are often stigmatized within the larger culture. Many families won’t disclose the homicidal nature of deaths of their loved ones due to fear of being stereotyped or stigmatized.
Ongoing Communication and Collaboration with Parents
Consistent communication with parents may increase their comfort in sharing personal information, such as their family’s death experiences, with you.
Awareness and Acknowledgement of Cultural Symbols Related To The Death And Grief Experience
The acknowledgement of cultural death symbols may go a long way in supporting children’s grief. In my own research with Black youth following the violent deaths of their loved ones in New Orleans, I found that they used creative ways to cope with their grief and remain close to their loved ones (3). One such way was through the use of T-Shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the picture and facts about the deceased, to symbolize the life and death of their loved ones. If a child comes to school wearing a memorial t-shirt, acknowledge their loss by acknowledging their t-shirt. You can say, “Tell me about your t-shirt” or “I can see that your loved one really means a lot to you”
Outlets for self-expression
Like adults, children respond to violent death experiences in a variety of ways. You can facilitate their grief process through activities such as art and movement, which allow for creative expression.
Make your classroom a safe-haven for students. The suddenness of violent death may increase children’s sense of vulnerability to death. In many cases, families of homicide victims know the perpetrators, often leaving children fearful for their personal and family’s safety.
Positive Images of African Americans
Be sure that students are exposed to positive images of African Americans, not only during specials holidays or observances like Black History Month, but also throughout the year. This is particularly important in combating the effects of negative media portrayal of Blacks as well as the high violent death rate among Black males.
Take advantage of the numerous resources available to facilitate conversations related to death and grief with children, like books and videos.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000). Homicide trends in the U.S.: Trends by gender.Accessed online at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/homicide/gender.htm.
- Doka, K.J. (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
- Doka, K.J. (1995). Friends, teachers, movie stars: The disenfranchised grief of children. In E.A. Grollman (Ed.), Bereaved children and teens: A support guide for parents and professionals. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Bordere, T. C. (2009). ‘To look at death another way’: Black teenage males’ perspectives on second-lines and regular funerals in New Orleans. Omega, 58 (3), 213-232.