According to bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish, a parent dies in the UK every 22 minutes, leaving 41,000 dependent children a year. Many children will have experienced the death of a parent, grandparents, wider family member or friends as a result of the pandemic. And circumstances may have meant they have not been able to see them to say goodbye or attend a funeral – an occasion that, whilst sad, is also often a celebration of the life of the person where others share memories of them. Personally speaking, I have always found the period between death and a funeral to be a sort of limbo and I’m not able to start my grieving until I have said goodbye publicly with others who knew and loved the deceased.
Going back to school could be a trigger that brings out intense emotions for many pupils. They will have had six months of “unknown” and many will already be experiencing stress and anxiety; add to those feelings the trauma of a death and you can understand why supporting children through their bereavement is important. So how can school librarians help?
· Acknowledge what has happened. Schools should inform all staff of changes in circumstances that have occurred during lockdown. All members of a school community support pupils and you can’t do this if you’ve no idea of their needs. I am often perplexed why school librarians are left out of the loop of “need to know” when it is possible they could interact with every single student.
· Validate their experiences. These will all be different and there is no right or wrong way for them to respond or react to what has happened.
· Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say or that you’ll say the wrong thing.
· If a pupil wants to talk about what has happened then let them. But they may not want to. If that’s the case then it’s okay to sit in silence. Or cry.
· Recognise that their feelings will vary; some days they’ll be okay, on other days not so much. Their emotions will also impact on their behaviour. For some this may result in meltdowns, other pupils may withdraw. Know that there could be both physical and emotional responses including denial, numbness, exhaustion, feelings of anger, feeling overwhelmed or depressed.
Children have a different experience of time so may go through the stages of mourning quite quickly. However, there is no time limit on grief, no right or wrong way, it is a personal journey that you can only support them through. And remember, bereavement is a trauma which can take time to come out.
Feelings can occur at different times and, as anyone who has suffered from grief knows, these can appear unexpectedly, often triggered by something very small. For me, it is not birthdays or anniversaries that trigger my loss, it is small inconsequential things – a phrase, a random song, a long-forgotten memory.
If you have suffered bereavement yourself, this time may be hard for you too so ensure that you support your own wellbeing.
There are lots of resources available to help you support bereaved pupils. You may find the following websites and booklists useful. A picture book is often an ideal way to help young children talk about their feelings but older pupils may need more one-to-one support and the non-fiction books listed will help you to provide this. Collaborate with staff including tutors and the pastoral team – supporting students during these unusual times needs an holistic approach.
There are lots of middle grade (MG), teen and YA books that involve bereavement within the story. However, it may be that a pupil does not want to read a story that relates to their situation right now but if you feel a fiction book would help them, I’ve listed just a few suggestions below.
Each book has been given an age range but these are only recommendations based on the content rather than reading level and pupils vary in their emotional maturity. As this is an emotional topic, I would advise you to investigate the book and subject matter and use your professional judgement before recommending it. If in doubt, read the book yourself first.
Finally, a caveat. School librarians are not bereavement counsellors or mental health practitioners and should not be used in place of specialist services. But we play an important role within a school, providing a safe space with a trusted adult and curated resources for both students and staff. This role is often under-valued but that does not lessen our impact and the support we can offer.
Winston’s Wish - https://www.winstonswish.org/
Childhood bereavement charity providing emotional and practical support.
Young Minds – https://youngminds.org.uk/
Range of resources including posters, leaflets, activity sheets, videos, lesson plans for primary and secondary.
Childhood Bereavement Network - http://www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk/
Resources and information including local bereavement services.
Hope Again – www.hopeagain.org.uk
Cruse Bereavement Care’s website for young people.
Non-Fiction books about bereavement
When Parents Die: Learning to Live with the Loss of a Parent – Rebecca Abrams
What Happened to Daddy’s Body? – Elke Barber and Alex Barber (Under 8)
When Dinosaurs Die: A guide to understanding death – Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (Under 8)
Helping Children and Adolescents think about Death, Dying and Bereavement – Marian Carter
Letting Go! An activity book for children who need support through experiences of loss, change, disappointment and grief – Sharie Coombes and Ellie O’Shea
The Grieving Teen – Helen Fitzgerald
I have a Question about Death: a book for children with ASD or other Special Needs – Arlen Grad Gaines and Meredith Englander Polsky (Under 8; 8 – 11)
Independent Thinking on Loss: a little book about bereavement for schools (14+) – Ian Gilbert
What Does Dead Mean? A book for young children to help explain death and dying – Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas (Under 8)
Teen Grief: Caring for the Grieving Teenage Heart – Gary Roe
What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? – Trevor Romain and Elizabeth Verdick
A Child’s Grief: Supporting a Child When Someone in their Family has Died – Di Stubbs, Julie Stokes, Katrina Alilovic and Heidi Baker
Granpa – John Burningham
Missing Mummy – Rebecca Cobb
If All the World Were – Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
Grandad’s Island – Benji Davies
Always and Forever – Alan Durant and Debi Gliori
Rabbityness – Jo Empson
Duck, Death and the Tulip – Wolf Erlbruch
The Heart and the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Maia and What Matters – Tine Mortier and Kaatje Vermeire
Mum’s Jumper – Jayde Perkin
The Memory Tree – Brita Teckentrup
Badger’s Parting Gifts – Susan Varley
MG (8 – 12 years):
Slog’s Dad – David Almond and Dave McKean
Artichoke Hearts – Sita Brahmachari
A Pocketful of Stars – Aisha Bushby
A Library of Lemons – Jo Cotterill
The List of Real Things – Sara Moore Fitzgerald
Milly’s Bug Nut – Jill Janey and Peter Bailey
Love Aubrey – Suzanne LaFleur
Pie in the Sky – Remy Lai
Charlie and Me – Mark Lowry
The Star Outside my Window – Onjali Rauf
Ghost Boys – Jewell Parker Rhodes
Sad Book – Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
The Land of Neverendings – Kate Saunders
Milo and the Restart Button – Alan Silberberg
There May Be a Castle – Piers Torday
Charlotte’s Web – E B White
Cloud Boy – Marcia Williams
The Cat Mummy – Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt
Teen (12 – 14 years):
Lost – Eve Ainsworth
Car Wish Wash – Sita Bramacharia
Mind the Gap – Phil Earle
Haunt Me – Liz Kessler
A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece – Annabel Pitcher
Crongton Knights – Alex Wheatle
The Road to Ever After – Moira Young
Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo
Dear Evan Hansen – Val Emmich, Justin Paul, Steven Levenson and Benj Pasek
Next – Keith Gray (Editor)
Ostrich Boys – Keith Gray
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
When We Collided – Emery Lord
Optimists Die First – Susan Nielsen
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill – Emma Smith-Barton
Elsewhere – Gabrielle Zevin