7 Strategies to Help Students and Families (and You) Cope with Grief

The pandemic has caused loss in everyone’s lives. We are all dealing with grief — whether it is the passing of a loved one, sadness from not being able to see family and friends, or the loss of a job or financial security.

Finding ways to cope with grief is especially important right now. Educators are in a unique position to engage with and support students (and each other) during these trying times. And social and emotional learning (SEL)-rooted strategies can help us learn to talk about and begin to work through grief.

Here are seven SEL tips to help you and your students cope with loss and grief.

1. Form a response team.

A fundamental part of SEL is that strong relationships can help us work through problems and empower us to achieve, even when faced with adversity. Think about who should be involved in helping students cope with grief and work together so you have consistent messaging. You may involve the school principal, counselors, or nurse, and any other appropriate staff or liaisons. Work together to collaborate on how to talk to students about grief and be sure to lean on each other as you work through your own feelings. 

2. Get support from the community.

There are many figures and organizations in the community that can provide support to you and your students. Mental health organizations, after school programs, and other community partners typically provide safe and developmentally rich settings for learning and development. Keeping connected to the local community can help students build important social-emotional skills such as self-management and social awareness.  

3. Talk with your students and other adults.

The simple act of acknowledging and talking through one’s fears can go a long way to helping a person cope with loss. It is important to talk about the emotions we are feeling and how they are manifesting. Help students understand their emotions and explain to them that it is normal to feel stress/anxiety, anger, sadness, etc.  Then help them find healthy ways to express and work through the emotions. Take care of your own needs by talking to friends, colleagues, mentors, and if needed, a professional counselor.

4. Focus on what you and your students can control.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we are dealing with loss. There is much uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and this can cause students to play out endless “what-if” scenarios in their minds. Help students focus on what they are able to control. “I can wash my hands.” “I can social distance.” “I can learn how to participate in virtual settings.” Focusing on things we can control will help us increase our self-management, an important skill needed for coping with grief.

5. Stay connected to peers and caring adults.

Grief can become overpowering if a person becomes too isolated. Encourage students to share in their grieving with their friends, mentors, educators, and family members. Be sure to keep your own feelings in check through strong connections. Reach out to your colleagues, family, friends, and mental health professionals.

6. Be mindful of cultural differences.

Try to be aware of cultural differences in expressions of grief. Ask your students and their families about any cultural or community rituals they would like to follow to support those who’ve experienced a loss and to honor life. This might include writing letters to the family of the deceased or making a special piece of art to remember the person.

7. Give special care to vulnerable students.

For the most vulnerable students, keep in mind that new loss and trauma can cause traumatic events of the past to resurface. Make sure these students receive additional and intensive supports as needed.  

More Helpful Resources:

Below are some resources to help you and your students cope with loss and grief:

Processing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators: The National Association of School Psychologists has provide tips and talking points for helping students work through grief. Younger students and students with special needs may not yet be able to describe or fully understand their emotions.

Talking with Children: Message for Parents, School Staff, and Others Working with Children: The Centers for Disease Control has provided recommendations to help adults talk to children about COVID-19.

Helping Students Grieve From a Distance: This EdWeek article explores the unique challenges of helping students and educators work through grief during the pandemic and social distancing.

Help for Grieving Students: This guide outlines steps and actions school counselors and other educators can take to address grieving students’ needs.

We all need to find healthy and effective ways to cope with grief. Creating a plan now will help you stay calm and less overwhelmed during difficult times. SEL can help you and your students begin to cope with grief and loss.

Please note: Teachers are not trained in helping students process and work through grief. Actions a teacher may take to help students cope with grief should not be replaced by formal and/or intensive counseling.

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