Back to School with Grief

The beginning of a new school year can be an abrupt transition for people of all ages. It often blends both hope and loss: Parents and caregivers may feel ready to return to a more structured and consistent daily routine, but sad to say goodbye to the family time and special outings summer often brings. Kiddos may feel equally ambivalent, both eager to see their friends and teachers, as well as worried about increased school work as they enter a higher grade or meeting new classmates.


For children and adolescents who have experienced the death of a loved one, this transition can be especially tough. The Dougy Center, a grief support program based in Portland, Oregon, explores what it means to return to school with grief in its recent article, Back to School with Grief :

“No matter our age, we engage with grief on many levels: emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioral. Whether it’s the emotional ups and downs of relating with peers, focusing on schoolwork, or having to talk about family culture and beliefs for a project, school can be a place that connects with multiple facets of grief. If a death or other loss occurred over the summer, returning to school can be extremely charged. Even for those who are familiar with being in school while grieving, each year brings new challenges and milestones to face without the person who died.”

The article includes many helpful suggestions for parents, caregivers and teachers as they support children who have experienced a recent loss or big change in the family system.

Some of the key ingredients are:

  • Creating new drop-off/pick-up rituals
  • Formulating a “hard day safety plan”
  • Addressing challenges to memory that can surface when in grief and affect school work
  • Leaving time for recreation, play and friends, important parts of the healing

Above all, it is important to remember that no two people grieve in the same way. A multitude of factors such as developmental stage, relationship to the person who died, type of death, etc. affects the way children experience their unique grief process. Paying attention to the differences in grief, even between family members, can assist adults in responding appropriately to their children’s needs as they chart their grief journeys.

If you or someone you know is experiencing grief, I recommend you check out The Dougy Center’s podcast, Grief Out Loud. Through discussions with folks experiencing grief and experts in the field, this podcast covers specific topics that you can choose from depending on your unique experience — from grieving teens to changing seasons & significant milestones to suicide. An incredible resource!

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