“5 Things I wish my teachers knew when I lost my dad”
Categories: Memorialization & Commemoration, School Mental Health, Trauma, Bereavement & Grief
This is a picture of me and my dad, known to family as Zuzu and friends as Joe, shortly before he was murdered. I was five years old.
Losing a parent or caregiver is something most people don’t experience until adulthood. Most of the adults in my life, but especially my teachers, were unsure how to act, what to say, or how to support me.
In honor of Children’s Bereavement Month, and in honor of all the educatorYL s who want to support their grieving students – here are 5 things I wish my teachers knew about what it was like to lose a parent and go to school, written to educators in my life past and present.
- It’s ok to ask questions if I share about my loss: It’s okay to ask his name. It’s okay to ask if certain times of the year are hard for me. It’s okay to ask me if I want to share any memories or stories about my dad.
Now as a school mental health professional, I know that it’s not the death of a parent alone that translates to trauma or unresolved grief; it’s the absence of supportive, meaning making adults (in this case, educators in my life) to notice something major happened and hold space for me as I grappled with a new identity, a new family, and new routines. At times, it felt like my dad had never existed outside a box of photographs and conversations with my mom. Instead, I believed the discomfort and avoidance by my teachers was my fault and I made other people feel sad when I talked about it. I did not understand that many adults are uncomfortable with death and grief. As a child, it felt like my fault that no one wanted to talk about my dad anymore. My experience isn’t only mine: children will interpret our adult discomfort with death as their responsibility. We as educators can be traumatic grief buffers.
- Acknowledge me and my loss: It’s okay to acknowledge my loss and ask me, or my caregiver, what types of support I might need at school. Please resist the temptation to ask a young child how their parent died or “what happened?”.
I lost a parent tragically and unexpectedly due to homicide; when pressed to share at school, adults and peers would be so shocked by what happened that I would end up comforting them and they would often apologize for asking and never talk about my dad again.
- Grief stays with me always, even if you weren’t my teacher when my dad died:
Time passed and my new teachers did not know about my loss. In my new blended family, I did not look like my siblings or my ‘bonus’ dad. I found myself constantly explaining: why I looked different than the rest of my family, am I in touch with my “real” dad, and eventually I would be forced to disclose the most painful moments of my life to a complete stranger. Everyone else in the world was allowed to forget and move forward, but I was required to remember and relieve my experience for educators trying to navigate routine school activities like field trip permission slips, parent teacher conferences, or who to call if I was sick.
- Please be grief aware when you assign projects or use language in class that may be activating: like me, not every one of your students will be able to trace lineage. Please say “caregiver” instead of “mom” or “dad.”
Some class assignments, like family ancestry projects, led to frustration – and tears. I wanted to be a good student but lacked information, language to connect with my relatives overseas, and could not participate the same way as my peers. I called the people in my life what they were to me; as a student, what I called my people is what I needed my teachers to call my people.
- Loss at a young age changes but does not end: It’s always with me. Sometimes it’s more painful than other moments. Milestones (e.g., graduation, dance or music performances) will bring up a lot for me.
As I grew and changed, so did my experience with his death and my loss. My five year old mind and my fifteen year old mind were able to process and think about death in a different way.
At milestones and major life events there is a sense of longing for what might have been, but I was not able to talk to my teachers because I did not have the language to talk about what I was feeling. I’m still not sure how to put it into words, I think it looks a little bit like this image of mine to the left: sometimes smooth, sometimes prickly, sometimes just a dot or a blip, but will always be a part of me because my dad and his love are part of me.
It took me a long time to find a feeling of safety and support to process my grief. Like many young people, I did not experience support from educators or school based therapists until I was in college. My university health center was also unable to assist and was so challenging to navigate that so I found a private therapist with my health insurance. I’m aware of the privilege that allowed that to happen in a time where it was common to be denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions. Unlike when I was a teen and young adult there are many more resources, online communities, and spaces to find informal communities of support like Inner Harbor (18+) and the Dinner Party (20+.
So, what can you do for students in your class like me? Tips from me as an adult to you as an adult thinking about the child-griever inside me:
- Remind students that you are there to listen if they DO want to talk. Knowing that my teachers were there to listen was comforting, even if I rarely wanted to talk. It feels humanizing to be witnessed by another.
- If you invite a young person to talk, be prepared to listen. Kids and young adults are innocent to the cultural taboos around death and grief. You might hear information that feels shocking or that most adults in Western culture don’t talk about. Just like learning to speak or read, it takes time to develop language around loss as a child. I have spent my entire life learning how to talk about what it was like to lose my dad. Even today, multiple supportive colleagues in my life helped to organize my thoughts for this letter.
- Be honest. It’s ok to not know what to say or do. When comforting grieving students, I used to say something like this, you can borrow it for your classroom: “I am learning how to support you and your grief. I might not always get it right because your grief is unique to you, just like my grief is unique to me. But I hope you will let me know if I get it wrong, so that I can adjust. I might not know exactly what you are feeling right now, but I’m here if you need someone to listen or just someplace to be in silence.”
- Communicate proactively as a school community: Use your student information systems to flag that a student has lost a caregiver; find ways to coordinate the transfer of this information to new teachers in ways that are trauma-informed and appropriate.
- Communicate with caregivers: If you notice changes in academic performance or behavior that are otherwise unexplained see if an anniversary or other important event is approaching.
- Create teachable moments in your pedagogy: Identify developmentally appropriate moments to talk about grief and loss in already existing lesson plans, reading assignments, and classroom dialogue. Offer opportunities to ritualize or commemorate loved ones that have died and provide space for sharing with peers.
- Connect to resources and support: The most obvious type of support a grieving child might need is mental health care. But, did you know there are scholarships available for survivors of gun violence and victims of crime? I wish my school counselor was equipped with my complete history and was able to talk to me about different financial aid options as I explored what to do after high school.
Dear educators, thank you for walking with me and my family during the hardest years of our lives, for being open to listening and learning from the child I was and the in-progress healing educator I am today, recovering and renewing, still.