Responding to Children’s Bereavement During the COVID-19 Pandemic
More than two and a half years in, the coronavirus pandemic has affected us in multiple ways, from job losses and remote learning to mask mandates and constant risk assessment whenever we venture out in public. But the most devastating effect is the staggering loss of life. Worldwide, 15 million people are estimated to have died from COVID-19, and the United States surpassed the grim milestone of one million deaths in May 2022. The impact of COVID-19—and deaths in particular—has been heaviest in communities that have historically faced barriers and oppression due to poverty, systemic racism and marginalization.
“We had several students with very close family members passing away,” explains Monica Bryson-McCoy, a school counselor in India Hook Elementary School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, “and the adults were starting to be very concerned.”
When Bryson-McCoy saw an increase in parent deaths among students, she took the initiative and reached out to the entire school body to offer group grief counseling. “What about the parents who are not reaching out?” she wondered. One-tenth of the school’s families responded to the invitation, indicating a widespread need. During the 2021-2022 school year, Bryson-McCoy ran three grief groups, with about eight students in each, and she is planning additional groups for the fall.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. children are grieving lost loved ones. In December 2021, the COVID Collaborative released a study, Hidden Pain, estimating the number of children who lost a parent or other primary caregiver to COVID-19 at 167,000; by the end of May 2022, that number had risen to 214,000, and it continues to grow. Add to that figure the deaths of other family members, like grandparents who weren’t primary caregivers, and it’s clear that a large number of American children are dealing with substantial grief and loss.
“Everyone says, ‘What do I say? What’s OK? What’s not OK?’” says Chelsea Prax, who, as programs director for children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers, oversees the union’s support for educators dealing with students’ bereavement issues.
“There’s almost no response to the death of a loved one that isn’t a fairly normal response,” Prax says. Not talking about the loss at all, for instance, or talking about it all the time are both normal, as are expressions of anger and aggression. It’s important for teachers to understand that for a student going through a loss, “grief is very distracting,” Prax explains. “Memorizing capitals or processing geometry is not what the brain is focused on,” which of course affects learning. “It takes longer for information to get through, and things might need to be repeated.”
Prax advises that the way to respond to the information that a student has lost a family member (or friend) depends in part on how the educator becomes aware of the death. If it’s a private communication, it is important to respect confidentiality. Communicating to the student that “I’m here if you need me” is great, but it’s also helpful to offer concrete supports. Prax suggests talking to the family and offering things like changes in deadlines for assignments, and planning to avoid and address grief triggers that may come up in the school year—like Mother’s Day for a student who has lost their mother.
If a student shares a loss with the entire class, teachers should make space and time in that setting. Prax gives an example of a fourth grader telling his Zoom class, “My cousin is dying of COVID, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to see him again.” In this case, Prax explains, “It’s good to open the floor to questions, make some personal space and time for the young person who feels they have a lot to say or share.” And because the whole class has been included, best practices in such a case include some coaching for peers, stressing the need to be kind and let it be OK for their classmate to be sad or angry, to express what they’re feeling.
Different cultural and spiritual traditions address death in a variety of ways, shaping the expectation of what grieving “should” look like, but in general, U.S. society tends to be reticent about death. Given the politicization of COVID-19, with opposition to public-health measures and denial of the seriousness, COVID-19 deaths can be especially hard for educators in conservative areas to acknowledge. This challenge is compounded by the fact that those areas are also affected by higher death rates even as local politicians often downplay the death toll.
But Prax warns that “This need for euphemism that a lot of adults have that is inculcated in us is not helpful for communicating with children.” This is especially true for young children, and Prax encourages educators to be straightforward, even blunt—avoiding terms like “passed away” and explaining that death means an end to all bodily functions and happens to all living things.
Bryson-McCoy says that part of what is most valuable about her grief groups is that they give students a place to talk about their feelings. “They might have a feeling in their body, but they don’t have the words for it,” she says. “A lot of it is helping them identify ‘when my body feels this way, this is what that means and these are the words I’m going to use to describe that.’”
Bereavement is a normal part of life, and if a grieving child is supported, the process is unlikely to have a lasting traumatic effect. However, COVID-19 bereavement has additional dimensions that can make it extra challenging. For some children (and adults), COVID-19 deaths have been uniquely difficult because they were unable to be physically present to say goodbye. And along with the politicization and media coverage of the pandemic, the scale of death from this one cause is radically different than other types of death.
School psychologist Stephanie Murray told EdSource, “Kids want to know, will they lose someone else? Who’s next? You want to reassure them, but the reality is, you can’t. It’s a real possibility that someone else might get COVID. That’s what’s so hard about this pandemic.”
In addition, COVID-19 deaths, like the pandemic’s hardships overall, have disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. The Hidden Pain report found that Black and Latine children lost caregivers at twice the rate of white children, and among Native American communities, it was four times the rate. These populations have the least access to the resources needed to support children in their bereavement process, while dealing with other challenges and barriers like police violence and poverty.
Students with disabilities have also been excessively impacted and needlessly put at risk. The politically driven refusal by some officials to implement and enforce recommended safety protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 recklessly endangers children who are entitled to safe accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to concerns for children with disabilities, students with family members with disabilities also have fears about COVID-19 that create barriers to education.
The scale of the need for resources, support and safer learning environments led 89 child health experts to send a letter to President Biden in January 2022, calling for a “comprehensive response” at all levels of government. In the absence of a uniform effort, educators, schools and communities have stepped up and done their best to create support systems for students in the face of often overwhelming need.
Monica Bryson-McCoy’s school district has been proactive in making licensed counselors from the community available to students in addition to school counselors and licensed counselors directly employed by the school district. “The most important step,” says Bryson-McCoy, “is being in communication with the parents or caregivers so they know what their options are.” And “in helping a student, you are also helping the whole family system,” she adds.
In Texas, the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas has partnered with local school programs to provide counseling and peer support groups for students, but the need outstrips the available providers. Meanwhile, families in the hardest hit areas, especially rural areas, have far fewer resources available to them—once again compounding the systemic inequities of race and class in the U.S.
The pandemic is not over, despite relaxed restrictions, and young people are still at increased risk of losing family members. For the foreseeable future, it is likely that COVID-19 grief will continue to touch classrooms all over the country. And while educators don’t have significant new resources to call on to deal with this reality, they have a range of online resources to turn to, they have local initiatives like Monica Bryson-McCoy’s grief groups, and they have one another to share ideas and swap experiences.
[Dorothee Benz, Ph.D. is a writer, organizer and strategist who has spent decades on the frontlines of social justice struggles in the United States.]
A number of valuable online resources can help guide educators and communities in this critical work. Here are a few.
Learning for Justice developed these resources to support student well-being and learning during the pandemic.
Downloadable materials specifically designed for educators, divided into practical topics.
Available on demand to AFT members; 1.5 hours of PD credit.
Links to local resources state by state as well as downloadable resources.
While not all bereavement has traumatic effects, certainly COVID-19 deaths (and the upheavals surrounding the pandemic) are traumatic events; this NCTSN section is devoted specifically to resources relevant to the COVID-19 context.
Includes a curated library of resources from a wide range of sources, with a section specifically for educators.