Coping with bereavement | Education Support

Coronavirus update: Throughout this crisis we're here to provide mental health and wellbeing support to all education staff. Find out more.

Coping with bereavement - teachers and education staff

Coping with bereavement

Our CEO Sinéad Mc Brearty is joined by Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Loss Foundation, Dr Erin Hope Thompson to talk about dealing with bereavement in the context of the current lockdown, with a particular focus on how this impacts on teachers and education staff.

What does grief look like?

In broad terms, grief is the response we have to loss or bereavement. There are many symptoms including feelings of sadness and anxiety, feeling physically unwell and effects on our thoughts and behaviours. Grief will be experienced in different ways by different people, and whilst we will adapt to our symptoms over time, the main points to bear in mind are:

  • That grief is unpredictable and can come in waves, often described as a ‘rollercoaster’. 
  • Grief is a deeply intense and emotional experience

What impact do the current lockdown and social distancing rules have on our experience of bereavement?

The current situation means that people may not be able to engage with normal coping mechanisms, such as exercising, seeing friends, or even the structure of going to work. Grieving requires feeling connected to others and being well supported, and this now needs to be managed in a time of social disconnection.

It is still important to make connections, many sources of support can be found online, and whilst they may not appeal in the same way as face to face, they are valuable. Grieving can be an isolating experience at any time, during the current climate it can be even more so, but we need to find space to talk about feelings and be reminded that we are not alone.

We are hearing from teachers and education staff that they are feeling more affected that they might normally be by a bereavement within their community, how can we make sense of that?

Loss is at the forefront of our minds at the moment, and it is all around us. We may not be responding or reacting to situations in ‘normal’ ways, these are not normal times though. As individuals who are part of an education community, we may be feeling even closer to that community than usual, and therefore feel more deeply affected by a loss within it.

We tend to find it harder to cope with things in general when feeling under increased stress, and many of us are experiencing some anxiety during lockdown meaning our usual level of resilience might be a bit lower.  It is normal to experience heightened emotions at this time, and we should not question whether this is ok, but instead question what we need in response – a conversation with a friend or a colleague for example.

School leaders are often characterised as being very strong and have had to transform their educational settings in response to the pandemic, and will currently be planning how to respond to plans to reopen. What advice is there for people who may not have a lot of time to reflect and may be trying to ‘power through’ despite being affected by loss?

Dealing with feelings around bereavement and loss may be particularly difficult for people in leadership positions. It can be easier to carry on managing the current situation than reflecting on loss and grief; however this may not be a helpful strategy in the long-term. If we don’t allow ourselves to have outlets for our emotions this can lead to a variety of symptoms such as loss of concentration or problems sleeping. It can also be a beneficial tool for a leader to model to the staff team that it is ok to be upset, which will in turn make the team feel more supported.

Is there particular advice for staff in education who may be working with children or young people who have been bereaved?

It is important to get an understanding of the basics of what has happened, to establish what the child knows and to get a sense of how the child is doing. Moving forwards, creating a space for the child to talk if they need to but creating a balance between letting them know that support is there, but also maintaining a sense of normality. 

It should also be acknowledged that as a staff member, you may feel affected by what the young person is going through yourself, so you too need to have access to support should you need it.

What support is available for dealing with bereavement?

There are a variety of organisations offering support with bereavement, and it may be worth considering the type of support you need, it may be information, group or individual support:

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff, in schools, colleges and universities, who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

What can you do?

If you’re in a position to help others in these extraordinary times, please consider making a donation so that we can continue to answer the increasing number of desperate calls and grants applications we are receiving. Thank you so much.