When Kids are Grieving: Addressing Grief and Loss in School


Donna M. Burns

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  • Dedication

    It is because of your interest and concern for seeking to understand the many ways in which children and adolescents grieve and your desire to provide them with comfort, guidance, and support that this book is dedicated to you, the school professional.

    Thank you.


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    Donna Burns's new book, When Kids Are Grieving: Addressing Grief and Loss in School, is most welcome. There are a number of reasons to hail this new addition to the literature. Most importantly, children are often disenfranchised grievers—their grief is unrecognized and unacknowledged by those around them. There are many reasons for this. Their grief may not be recognized since it often appears in indirect ways—sleep disturbances, physical complaints, acting out behaviors, and regressive behaviors. Children and adolescents may be inarticulate in identifying the loss that underlies their reactions. Overwhelmed and frightened by their parents’ grief, they may seek to spare their families, grieving alone. Their parents, also likely mourning the loss, may be unable to see beyond their own grief. They may have neither the energy nor the skills to succor their children.

    Schools can and must play a critical role. We often forget the significant role that schools play in the life of students. Beyond the critical academic role, schools are a social and developmental arena offering critical contact and interaction with peers and adults outside the family. Schools offer opportunities for children and adolescents to explore and to develop their talents and to test their skills.

    Schools also offer “an early warning system”—a place where objective observers can begin to notice changes in behaviors or grades that might indicate difficulties heretofore unrecognized. Most importantly, they offer the possibility of informal and formal support to a child struggling with grief and loss.

    When Kids Are Grieving: Addressing Grief and Loss in School is designed to help. As Dr. Burns likes to say, it is a “hybrid” book: part text, part resource, and part workbook. It is, most importantly, an accessible and valued resource—designed first and foremost for the school professional. This is not to say that clinicians will not find the book useful. However, the fact that it is designed for the school professional means it is both focused and practical—offering teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors critical information as they approach students who are grieving.

    The book has great sensitivity. That sensitivity begins by acknowledging that children grieve many losses—not just death, but losses such as divorce, separation, or the other many losses children and adolescents experience on the way to adulthood. There is sensitivity to the developmental process, recognizing that different methods and approaches must be used with children and adolescents and acknowledging that even these approaches must be constantly modified as the child continues to develop. It is sensitive to the ways that children and adolescents grieve, acknowledging both similarities and differences in the ways that adults might experience grief. It is sensitive to the constraints that school personnel may face, acknowledging the limits to the support they can offer and urging effective partnerships with other community organizations.

    Robert Kastenbaum once wrote an article titled “The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” (1972). His point in that piece is that adults often like to think of childhood as a kingdom where nobody dies. Adults attempt then to protect children from death. In fact, adults are only protecting themselves from exposure to the child's evident pain and loss. Try as they may, schools cannot try to close the castle moat—pretending that loss, death, and grief have no role beside reading, writing, and arithmetic. With this resource, they no longer have to—they now have the tools for a sustained siege.

    KennethJ.Doka, PhDProfessor of Gerontology, The College of New Rochelle Senior Consultant, The Hospice Foundation of America


    School is often the stage upon which both the triumphs and tragedies of children's lives are played out. Within this microcosm, much more than teaching and learning is taking place because at any given time in any given school, kids are grieving. Perhaps a pet has died or parents are divorcing; a student may be bullied or a classmate may have committed suicide. Whatever life event a child is experiencing will more than likely unfold on this stage.

    As a professor of educational psychology, I have the privilege of teaching current and future educators and counseling and school psychologists who routinely request information about a variety of grief and loss issues. Their genuine interest in and concern for the well-being of children and teens prompted me to write this book.

    The scope of information on grief and loss is extensive, and to the uninitiated, the vast body of literature available can be both confusing and overwhelming. This book serves as a primer of sorts, introducing relevant concepts in a concise, user-friendly format. Classic theories are linked with current perspectives to provide a rich source of information that captures the dynamic nature of children and teens and their grief and loss experiences.

    This “hybrid” book—part text, part resource, part workbook—designed for you, the reader, addresses the grief and loss experiences of children and adolescents and provides you with readily available information, materials, and tools specific to your needs. For example, chapter titles are posed as questions because, typically, when someone reaches for a textbook, it's to find an answer to a question. This format will enable you to go directly to the chapter that addresses your concern. Each chapter opens with a relevant and thought-provoking quote that segues to the chapter content. Every chapter contains a variety of tools such as charts, checklists, tables, and activities and includes an invitation to share experiences. Terminology specific to grief and loss is introduced in boldface type and included in a glossary. Chapters conclude with a reflection and list of key terms.

    Counseling and school psychologists are typically the first ones educators and staff consult when any type of crisis arises at school. As such, they often assume a leadership role in the training of other school personnel. This book serves as

    • an introduction to grief and loss concepts and terminology,
    • a primer for those who have had limited training in grief and loss issues,
    • a refresher for more experienced school professionals, and
    • a convenient resource and reference tool.

    This book will also benefit any school professional wishing to assist grieving children and teens and to gain a better understanding of the many dimensions of grief and loss.

    It's important to note that this book is designed to inform and guide the school professional and is not intended to replace professional counseling, should it be needed.


    Writing a book is like running a marathon—although you are running your own race, you are surrounded by others who are running ahead of you, alongside of you, and cheering you on from the sidelines. My gratitude to those who have led the way, run alongside, and cheered.

    Leading the way were professionals from various disciplines who have contributed richly to the field of thanatology. Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Among those giants, the seminal works of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Earl Grollman, Colin Murray Parkes, Therese Rando, Alan Wolfelt, J. William Worden, and my mentor and friend, Dr. Kenneth Doka, along with others, have influenced my desire to specialize in issues of grief and loss.

    From the psychology department at The College of Saint Rose, teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend Dr. Donna Reittinger and I found that we shared a mutual and long-held interest in thanatology. This ultimately culminated in the development of an undergraduate team-taught course on grief and loss that combined principles of education and psychology.

    Running alongside, my dear colleagues from the School of Education at The College of Saint Rose provided encouragement along this journey. Special thanks to my amazing colleagues and friends in the Department of Educational and School Psychology, all of whom have been supportive. In particular I'd like to acknowledge Doctors Marguerite Lodico, Kathy Voegtle, Heta Miller, Maggie Kirwin, Dean Spaulding, Steve Birchak, and Steve Hoff for their steadfast support and friendship. Friend, colleague, and real-life running coach Dan Doherty helped keep me on track literally and figuratively.

    Family members cheered along the sidelines, and the ofttimes-expressed sentiments, “Are you still working on that book?” and “When's it going to be done?” propelled me to the finish line. So, to my dear mother, Josie; children, Shayne, Kori, and Kegan; grandchildren, Jaida, Kylie, Matthew, and Kiara; sister, Sandra, and brothers, Patrick, Danny, Michael, and Kevin: Thank you.

    Finally, thanks go to the marvelous editorial team from Corwin. Senior acquisitions editor Jessica Allan and editorial assistant Joanna Coelho were ever-optimistic and provided helpful feedback and suggestions. The baton was then passed to production editor Jane Haenel and copy editor Claire Larson, who oversaw the process, ensuring that When Kids Are Grieving: Addressing Grief and Loss in School would make it to the finish line.

    With heartfelt thanks to all,

    Publisher's Acknowledgments
    • Mary Ann Canter, MA
    • Maryland Certified School Psychologist
    • Prince George's County Public Schools
    • Dept. of Psychological Services
    • Judy Hoyer Family Learning
    • Adelphi, MD
    • Tami Morrison
    • Second-Grade Teacher
    • Linderman Elementary School
    • Polson, MT
    • Ernie Rambo
    • Middle School Electives Educator
    • Clark County School District
    • Las Vegas, NV
    • Cheryl Sawyer, PhD
    • Coordinator of Counseling Program
    • University of Houston–Clear Lake
    • Houston, TX

    About the Author

    Donna M. Burns, PhD, is an educational psychologist who teaches at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, and specializes in developmental psychology with an emphasis on child and adolescent development, diversity, and issues in grief and loss. She has designed and taught undergraduate and graduate level courses on death and dying and conducts seminars and workshops for school districts and nonprofit organizations. She has presented papers on various aspects of grief and loss at local, regional, and national conferences and has created a conceptual framework for understanding grief reactions. She coordinates and oversees the children's program for the annual New York State Police Survivor's Tribute weekend, has provided support to bereaved military family members, and has conducted training on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) for firefighters. Dr. Burns is a member of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), and the American Academy of Bereavement (AAB), where she completed an advanced bereavement facilitator training program.

  • Postscript

    Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

    —Dr. Seuss

    Navigating grief can be a confusing and frightening experience for children and adolescents, especially without the guidance and support of caring adults. By reading this book, you have taken the time to learn about how young people grieve and ways to help them cope; this speaks volumes for you as a caring adult. How, then, do you care for yourself? This final segment is devoted solely to helping you cultivate ways to maintain a healthy balance as you juggle the many responsibilities in your life.

    To begin with, it's important that you recognize your own grief reactions as you help others in their grief. Remember: Loss affects you. Acknowledge that you, too, may be grieving, so take time to allow yourself to grieve. Following a grievable event, find ways to relax and de-stress. Such things as meditation, music, a long walk, or a cup of tea can be very soothing and therapeutic. Do whatever works best for you.

    When was the last time you paused to take delight in a seemingly insignificant moment? These moments happen all the time; I call them lifebeats. Like the rhythmic, persistent, life-sustaining beat of a heart, lifebeats are ever-present, yet are often unnoticed, disregarded, or taken for granted. Lifebeats are simple yet enduring events or moments in life that leave indelible impressions and give us pause to be joyful and thankful. Lifebeats surround us daily. Be aware of what's around you and take the time to find the beauty and joy in the simplest of things. Open your eyes …

    Finally, where would we be without humor? Smiling and laughing is a sign of healthy adjustment. Laughter is healing, cathartic, and provides much needed respite following a stressful event. To illustrate:

    Mr. Ripley had to go away on business trip for a month and reluctantly decided to leave his beloved cat, Taffy, with his brother while he was away. Every day, Mr. Ripley would call his brother to check on the cat and was told that the cat was fine. Several days later, when Mr. Ripley asked about Taffy, his brother abruptly replied, “She's dead.” Well, Mr. Ripley was beside himself with grief and was so shocked he couldn't even talk to his brother.

    After a few days, Mr. Ripley called his brother to find out what happened and to let his brother know how upset he was at how insensitively he broke the news about Taffy's death.

    “She died. What would you have liked me to say?” asked his brother.

    “Well, you could have broken it to me gently,” said Mr. Ripley. “When I called the first time, you could have said that she was on the roof playing, and the next time I called, you could have said that she fell off the roof and broke her leg.”

    Mr. Ripley continued: “The third time I called, you could have said that the leg wasn't healing and things didn't look good, and the fourth time I called, you could have told me she died.” His brother sighed and said, “Yeah, I get it.”

    Mr. Ripley then asked, “Oh, by the way, how's Mom?” His brother paused for a moment and replied, “Well … she's on the roof playing …”

    Whether you laughed or simply smiled at this bit of humor, the point is that, as someone who cares for others, you take time to nurture yourself and nourish your spirits in ways that bring light and meaning to you.

    People are like stained-glass windows.

    They sparkle and shine when the sun is out,

    but when the darkness sets in,

    their true beauty is revealed only if there

    is a light from within.

    —Elisabeth Kübler-Ross


    Adolescent egocentrism: Belief held during the teen years that other people's views are the same as one's own.

    Anticipatory grief: Grief reactions experienced in advance of an expected loss.

    Assumptive world: One's belief in a benevolent world; the world viewed as imagined it is or should be.

    Attachment: Enduring emotional connections to one or more persons.

    Bereavement: The state of having suffered a loss.

    Big man–big woman syndrome: When a child feels the need to assume the adult responsibilities of the absent or deceased loved one.

    Bullycide: Child or teen suicide caused by bullying.

    Childhood traumatic grief (CTG): A condition occurring when a child or teen experiences a loss so traumatic that it disrupts the normal grieving process.

    Cognitive development: The mental processes involved in obtaining and understanding information.

    Complicated grief: Complex or unresolved grief reactions that may occur following a sudden, unexpected loss.

    Crisis humor: A distancing humor that facilitates the release of tension resulting from tragic circumstances.

    Crisis intervention: A process that focuses on immediate response, which involves mobilization of a crisis response team and initiation of a crisis response plan.

    Crisis postvention: Involves short and long-term protocols to assist individuals in the aftermath of a crisis.

    Crisis prevention: The development of programs, strategies, and resources to avert or reduce the emotional distress triggered by a crisis.

    Cyberbullying: The use of information technologies to embarrass, humiliate, threaten, or intimidate someone.

    Disenfranchised grief: The grief experienced when relationships, losses, grievers, or circumstances are not recognized or socially supported.

    Ecological systems theory: Interacting social systems that influence development.

    Euphemism: When a pleasant expression is substituted for one perceived to be unpleasant or offensive.

    Gallows humor: A dark form of humor that provides relief from traumatic and stressful situations and events.

    Grief: The behavioral, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual responses to loss.

    Identity: One's overall perceptions of self in terms of personal characteristics, beliefs, and values.

    Identity versus role confusion: Developmental period during which the task for adolescents is to resolve the crises in their identity quests and successfully navigate the paths of personal, social, and occupational identity.

    Imaginary audience: A component of adolescent egocentrism reflecting the belief of teens that they are the center of attention.

    Lifebeats: Simple, enduring events in life that are ever-present, yet are often unnoticed, disregarded, or taken for granted. Lifebeats leave indelible impressions and give us pause to be joyful and thankful.

    Loss: The end of a relationship with someone or something to whom or to which strong attachment has been formed.

    Magical thinking: The belief children have that their thoughts and wishes can make things happen. Children create their own understanding of circumstances and events in an attempt to make sense of what is happening around them.

    Mourning: The process of coping with loss, including both private and public expressions of grief.

    Nonfinite grief and loss: Persistent and enduring grief reactions to losses that are not death related.

    Personal fable: An aspect of adolescent egocentrism reflective of teens’ belief and sense of uniqueness and invincibility.

    Personal loss script: The grievable experiences unique to each individual.

    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): An anxiety disorder that develops following exposure to a traumatic event resulting in severe and ongoing emotional reactions.

    PRECEDENT: A conceptual framework for responses to grief that considers multiple developmental and social contexts.

    Protective factors: Network of familial and social supports that guide and protect children and adolescents.

    Regrief: The reemergence of grief reactions to a loss throughout different stages of development.

    Resonating trauma: When an initial traumatic event creates fears and anxieties that similar events will happen again.

    Rituals: Symbolic activities or ceremonies that hold special meaning for the person or group engaging in them.

    Rituals of affirmation: Activities that honor the life and contributions of the deceased through expressions of acknowledgement and gratitude.

    Rituals of continuity: Activities that commemorate the bond or continuing connection between the survivor(s) and the deceased.

    Rituals of reconciliation: Activities that allow the survivor(s) to finish unfinished business.

    Rituals of transition: Activities that mark the passage from one phase of life to another.

    School-based crisis response: A range of responses schools can plan and implement in response to crisis events and reactions.

    Secondary losses: Additional losses experienced as a consequence of a primary loss.

    STUG reactions: Subsequent temporary upsurges of grief that are resurgences of grief reactions triggered by any number of circumstances or events such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and so on.

    Survivor guilt: Guilt experienced by survivors who believe they may have been in a position to have prevented the death or that they too could have died but for whatever reasons did not.

    Thanatology: The studies of issues in death and dying.

    Traumatic loss: Losses associated with trauma.

    Unanticipated grief: Grief experienced when a loss is sudden and unexpected and may result in complex grief reactions.

    Zeitgeist: Spirit of the times. Zeitgeist reflects the prevailing climate or outlook of a given time period.


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